The Trustworthy Entrepreneur

Let’s give credit where credit is due. I recently listened to a podcast by Reid Hoffman– he was the co-founder of LinkedIn and an early board member at PayPal. Hoffman made a profound statement that goes like this. “Trust is consistency over time.” As entrepreneurs one of our biggest hurdles is creating trust – trust with our team, our investors, our bankers, our customers and our prospective customers. Without trust, we will flounder around and never gain traction. And trust is a very fragile thing. It takes a while to build trust, but it can be gone in an instant.

Consistency. We all know what it means. We also know how hard it is to achieve . . . consistently (pun intended). We trust McDonalds because every meal in every restaurant around the world maintains the same standard of quality. Forget whether or not we actually like the food – we know exactly what to expect. We trust products from Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Netflix, Adidas and Dove because we know exactly what to expect. Our enterprise struggles when our standard of quality is inconsistent, which in turn degrades the trust our customers have for our product or service.

I’d like to take Reid Hoffman’s mantra one step further. Commitment + Accountability leads to Consistency. Commitment is where every member of our team agrees to perform at a level that is necessary to always deliver our product or service at the highest quality possible. It’s critical that we clearly define what this level of quality means. It must be broken down in exquisite detail. Training must be directed to ensuring that each team member fully understands the detail and how to execute on it. And then the team must practice, practice and practice some more until delivery of the product or service is standardized. The bottom line – we can’t commit to something if we don’t understand it or haven’t been shown how to do it.

Next comes the Accountability part of the equation, and here it gets trickier. Once every member of the team has agreed to delivering the expected level of quality for a product or service, how do we make sure that each person lives up to his end of the bargain? Part of our responsibility as an entrepreneurial leader is to develop some quality control systems and processes. This serves as a backstop for the customer to make certain that something substandard doesn’t leak out into the marketplace. Should we have to spend time and money to create this redundancy? Maybe not, but if we really care about the customer we have no choice but to do so. This also becomes a method of accountability. We’re able to spot deficiencies before it’s too late, and we can identify the weak links in our system. This allows us to get to the root of the problem. Is it an issue of training? Is it a misunderstanding? Does someone not have the proper tools or adequate resources? Is it the fact that someone on the team simply doesn’t give a damn about what they are doing? We can take steps to correct all of these obstacles which help to further tighten our commitment.

Our Commitment to deliver a standard level quality of product or service, and the accompanying Accountability gives us a fighting chance to reach the holy grail of Consistency. And it’s this consistency that will build Trust with everyone in our orbit. Team members learn to trust each other. Customers trust our product or service. Our investors and bankers trust us because we are doing what we say we are going to do.

We let our consistency do the talking for us. We’ve all seen marketing that includes phrases like, “most trusted,” “your honest car dealer,” “honest and trustworthy,” and on and on. I’ve always been wary of any business that needs to beat its chest about how honest and trustworthy it is. It somehow feels like they “protesteth” a bit too much. Perhaps they think they need to advertise this way because they don’t actually deliver consistency with their products and services.

Trust truly is consistency over time. And consistency is the product of commitment and accountability.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 16 – A Punch in the Mouth.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

100% TPR

At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, all cadets learn many valuable lessons about life. One in particular seems extra important in this day and age. When something goes wrong – anything at all – a cadet is expected to state to a superior officer, “It was my mistake, Sir, and I take full and total responsibility. I made the mistake because . . .” It matters not that someone or something else may have caused things to go awry. Cadets are taught from the very beginning to own the results of whatever may be happening around them. I call this 100% Total Personal Responsibility – 100% TPR.

Think about how much finger pointing occurs in our daily lives. The excuse factory is operating 24/7 and works at full capacity to produce victim after victim. Few people are willing to stand up and proclaim 100% TPR. Thus, it’s refreshing to see that young men and women, who are choosing a career in the Army, are doing so with a mindset of personal responsibility. They truly own their lives. Entrepreneurs should take notice of this concept to understand how to become effective leaders.

Think about a variety of every day scenarios where we witness the blame game being played. A basketball team with a losing score believes that the officiating has been too one-sided. “It’s hard to win an “eight-on-five” game,” some of the players exclaim. There’s no doubt that blown calls are a fact of life in sports. Players that have 100% TPR aren’t going to point the finger at the referees though. Instead, they will stand up tall and say, “It’s my responsibility that we lost because I didn’t execute on offense like I should, and I allowed my opponent to get past me to the basket too many times.”

A small business is competing for a contract and loses. The vice president of sales is visibly angry and says, “The playing field wasn’t level. We should have won, but our competitor had an unfair advantage by making promises they won’t be able to keep!” Conversely, the entrepreneur with 100% TPR says, “We lost because we didn’t do a sufficient job of differentiating our product from the competition. I take full responsibility for that.”

The whole point is that as adults, we NEVER blame someone or something for our failures. We ALWAYS take 100% Total Personal Responsibility for everything that happens. You may be thinking that there must be circumstances that are out of our control where we shouldn’t be held responsible. For example, what about the guy who steps off the curb after checking for traffic and a crazy drunk driver mows him down at 90 miles per hour? How can that guy be at 100% TPR? Here’s the thing. That guy made the choice to be in that place at that time. That’s not to say that the choice was right or wrong – just that’s the choice he made. Perhaps he could have looked further down the street to see the drunk driver barreling toward the intersection and waited until the car passed. And don’t misunderstand – this isn’t to say that the drunk driver wasn’t responsible – he was absolutely the one at fault. But when we are at 100% TPR, we aren’t worrying about anyone else because we have 100% ownership of our lives.

Eliminating any and all thoughts of victimization is critical to living a life of 100% ownership. It liberates and empowers us, allowing for constant self-improvement and growth. When we blame others, we interrupt this improvement and growth process. In my business and in my life, I want to evaluate the risks and rewards and proceed based upon the information I have gathered. The choices that I make may be right or they may be wrong, but they are my choices and I own them, regardless of the outcome.

We can practice the concept of 100% TPR by stopping ourselves when we are in situations where blame might normally be the default thinking. Instead, we say, “I take 100% Total Personal Responsibility for what has happened. It happened because . . .” This affords critical analysis to determine the root cause for a failure and gives us the opportunity to learn how we can make different choices in the future. And remember, taking 100% TPR isn’t enough unless the second part of the idea is explored – “It happened because . . .” We must know what we could and should have done differently.

Success can come through failure if we are willing to take 100% Total Personal Responsibility. It can also allow us to model great leadership for the benefit of others.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 92 – Death, Taxes and . . .

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Exactly What is Accountability?

Here’s a term you’ll hear a lot in the entrepreneurial world – accountability. In our organization every team member has written Roles and Accountabilities. There is a lot of talk in the business world about holding people accountable. So, exactly what does all of this mean?

There are some leaders who are confused and think that accountability is a binary choice. They boil it down to believing that either someone keeps their job or they don’t. In other words, if someone doesn’t perform in satisfactory fashion the only option is to fire him/her. Otherwise there’s no way to hold that person accountable. Fortunately this is a misconception – there are many different aspects to accountability.

In some cases performance issues may be the result of a team member not fully understanding what is expected of him or her. The solution is simple. That person obviously needs further clarification of his/her role. This can be accomplished by making certain that the position description is comprehensive enough followed by a meeting to clarify the expectations and gain an acknowledgement by the team member as to his/her understanding.

Perhaps a team member is struggling to perform in a satisfactory manner because he or she isn’t adequately trained or properly equipped. The leader must make this determination fairly and then prescribe the antidote. In this situation it’s important to understand exactly which elements of the position the team member need re-training. After the re-training takes place, it might be wise for the team member to take a test of some sort to make certain that the training has been effective. Part of the analysis needs to be ensuring that the team member has the proper tools and/or resources to do the job. It’s unfair to hold someone accountable if the company hasn’t done its part in this regard.

I remember in my earlier days as a property manager, encountering difficulties getting a certain maintenance person to perform. He should have been able to close out many more job tickets than he was. I made sure that he understood his role, was properly trained and had the right equipment. After doing so, I began to suspect that he didn’t have good organizational skills. Rather than hand him multiple job tickets, I began doling them out one at a time. When he finished one, he would come back to me for another. This worked quite well and I was gradually able to help him learn how to prioritize. This type of accountability was a combination of additional training and closer supervision.

We’ve all experienced situations where a particular team member continues to miss the mark in terms of meeting expectations. Role clarification, re-training and closer supervision didn’t do the trick. Naturally this can be incredibly frustrating and our initial instinct may be to terminate this team member. But there are other steps in the accountability process to consider. One is more frequent performance reviews. The team member meets with his/her supervisor at the end of each week and is apprised of the progress (or lack thereof) made for the week. The conversations may become sterner over the course of time if there’s no evidence that the team member is trying to improve.

Suppose this team member isn’t making progress and doesn’t appear to care. Eventually more severe consequences must be taken. This could include a demerit type of action involving a write-up for the team member’s file. A second write-up might result in a probationary status for the team member. At the end of the probationary period – two weeks, 30-days, etc. – the team member could be terminated if the issue hasn’t been resolved.

Other techniques for holding team members accountable might include re-assignment, suspension, demotion, or a reduction in compensation. In the case where a person just isn’t cutting it, a re-assignment to a different role might be a relief and save a valuable member of the team. I’ve seen cases where the individual is really trying but just isn’t meant for the job. A re-assignment needs to be mutually agreeable – if not, a termination would be a better avenue.

We had a situation where a senior member of our firm was abusive to the administrative staff. She was repeatedly counseled and advised that this behavior was unacceptable. We then threatened to suspend her for two weeks for the next infraction. After another incident of abuse we followed through on the suspension. I was sure she would quit but she didn’t. When she returned there was never another instance of her abusing the staff.

Accountability takes many forms. The most important thing for an organization is to identify the different methods for accountability and have a process for their use.  

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 77 – Anatomy of an Entrepreneur.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Bears in Trash Bins

Here are several scenarios. Tell me what’s missing. A manufacturing operation is experiencing an alarming increase in the number of product rejections. A child chronically fails to turn in his homework assignments. Monthly financial reports for a company seem to always be delivered at least two weeks late and sometimes more. Customer service ratings for a particular business are abysmally low. Bears are constantly getting into trash bins in a neighborhood and making an incredible mess.

So what is it? What’s missing? It’s a concept that can sometimes be elusive in entrepreneurial environments and often in our personal lives as well. It’s called . . . accountability. Accountability has four basic components – understanding, commitment, responsibility and consequences.

A failure to understand what is expected can obviously lead to an overall failure in whatever operation is being performed. The manufacturing rejects could very well have been caused by a machine operator not understanding a critical step in his or her process. It’s pretty hard to hold this person accountable if there was a lack of training to ensure a full understanding of the process.

Without commitment full accountability is impossible. The child must not only understand how important it is to submit his homework but he must also be committed to the notion as well. If he refuses to commit to turn in his work, then he will refrain doing so. While it’s true we can hold him accountable for his actions, it’s unlikely that we’ll achieve the desired result.

The path to accountability involves a willingness to take responsibility. “It’s mine (or ours) to do” becomes the mantra. In unhealthy organizations there may be a great deal of finger pointing. “It’s the fault of Marketing.” “No, Sales screwed up!” No one seems willing to step up and claim whatever “it” is. Taking responsibility is a sign of integrity and sacrifice, especially if things go wrong.

Finally there are consequences. We may think of consequences in a negative sense but of course consequences can also be positive. The accountant who finally figures out how to deliver the financial reports on time may benefit from positive consequences in the form of a bonus. On the other hand, the customer service department that gets consistently poor ratings might suffer the consequences of being terminated. It’s important to note that for negative consequences to be administered fairly, the individual(s) in question must have a clear understanding of what they are supposed to do. One of the most common mistakes that is made in the accountability process is firing someone for their failures that are really the result of their not clearly understanding how to perform their role.

So let’s put it all together in a positive scenario. Mike and Susan are a two-person team employed by Newco, a tech start-up. For the first week after they are hired they undergo intensive training that provides them with the knowledge and understanding they need to undertake the functions assigned to them. The second week they work with “buddies” that scrutinize their work and ensure the finished product meets quality standards.

At the beginning of the third week the company founder sits down with Mike and Susan and asks them a number of questions about the work they are doing. He inquires as to whether or not they are clear on what they are supposed to do and how to do it. When they answer affirmatively, the founder asks if they are fully committed to do their part as a team in delivering a flawless product to the customer. Mike and Susan now have understanding and commitment.

One day a customer complained that two of the units she had purchased were defective. Upon further investigation Mike realized that he had missed a step in the production process. He wrote a note to the customer offering his apology and made sure the founder knew that the error was totally his and not Susan’s fault. Thus, he took responsibility.

Over the course of a year, Mike and Susan performed in exemplary fashion. They were accountable to each other, to their company and to their customers. As a result they were both promoted to supervisory positions and received generous raises. All in all the consequences were positive.

When we have understanding, commitment, responsibility and consequences we have full accountability. And that’s how we keep the bears out of the trash bins.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 35 – Tick Tock.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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The Bermuda Triangulation Effect

Allow me to set the stage. Don, Shirley, Frank and Jessie all work for the same company. They are peers and interact on a daily basis. Let’s pull back the curtain momentarily and observe what is happening.

Shirley has stopped Frank in the hall. They have an exchange that goes like this.

Shirley: “Frank, you won’t believe what Don did. I’m so frustrated with him! He was supposed to prepare graphs for the PowerPoint slides to insert into the Magruder presentation and he totally blew it off. How are we going to get these graphs?”

Frank: “Wow, Shirley! It’s incredible that he didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. You know, he’s done that before. What a bozo!”

Later, Frank runs into Jessie and their conversation went like this.

Frank: “Jessie – Shirley told me that Don completely booted the graphs for the Magruder presentation. She’s about to blow a gasket. I wonder if Don should even be on our team.”

Jessie: “That’s awful! Don seems to have a history of doing things like this. He’s being extremely selfish and doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

What is happening here? I call it The Bermuda Triangulation Effect. The Bermuda Triangle is a region covering roughly 500,000 square miles in the Atlantic Ocean where ships and aircraft have seemingly vanished without a trace. In other words, it’s akin to a mysterious black hole, sucking in the unsuspecting. Unfortunately there’s no mystery to The Bermuda Triangulation Effect. Triangulation is a no man’s land where different parties whine, moan and groan about another party without speaking directly with that party. In our example Frank, Shirley and Jessie are triangulating about Don and the problems he has caused. Yet, no one bothered to talk to Don about the issue.

Triangulation is bad for business and bad for relationships. It’s pure poison and can dramatically and adversely impact the chemistry of a team. Why does all of this grousing happen among teammates in the first place? I believe that it’s indicative of a team that does not hold mutual respect as a cornerstone. Team members also don’t trust each other to the point that they can have conversations directly with the party who is causing issues. I’ve heard many people explain that they feel like such a conversation could be confrontational and they want to avoid conflict.

Here’s the truth. Entrepreneurial leaders must take all steps necessary to eliminate triangulation. This starts with identifying clear roles and accountabilities for each team member. And everyone must clearly understand how they are accountable to each other. This accountability should include a process for addressing issues and concerns that are encountered from time-to-time. Team members should understand that it is incumbent upon them to speak directly with another team member should a challenge arise with that individual. Discussions among peers should be taboo as they are counterproductive and accomplish absolutely nothing. And team members should be discouraged from trying to resolve their issues via e-mail. E-mail is a one-dimensional form of communication and is one of the worst ways to try and sort out problems within a team.

Team members should be educated on how to speak directly with another team member in what might be perceived as an uncomfortable situation. Had our fictitious team been properly educated, the following exchange might have occurred with Shirley going to Don directly.

Shirley: “Don – I was looking for the graphs that you were preparing and found that they weren’t in shared folder. I need to drop them in the PowerPoint for the Magruder presentation. When do you think you’ll have them ready?”

Don: “Shirley – “I’m so sorry. I spent the night in the emergency room with my daughter and wasn’t able to finish them like I promised. I’ve been working on them and will have them completed in about 30 minutes.”

Shirley: “I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter. I hope she’s OK. If you need any help, just let me know.”

No triangulation occurred. The team continued to move forward to achieve its goals. Feelings weren’t hurt and time wasn’t wasted with angry chatter.

As entrepreneurs we must endeavor to create a culture of mutual respect where team members are totally comfortable having conversations of all sorts with each other. Stamping out triangulation should be a priority to this end.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Audio Episode 14 – Obstacle Proof.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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Urgent Care

Allow me to set the scene. We are about to embark upon a major project that could make or break our company. There are a wide range of complexities involving this project and it will require a supreme effort from our entire team to successfully bring it all together. But there’s just one problem. Invariably someone on the team is not as responsive as necessary or doesn’t seem to possess the same sense of urgency as does everyone else. As a result the ball gets dropped and we fail. Alternatively, others on the team step in to pick up the slack which creates resentment and hard feelings. How do we effectively deal with this rogue team member that is at the center of all this?

There are a number of steps that can be taken to stack the deck in our favor when it comes to ensuring responsiveness and urgency. Step one is to develop clear written roles and accountabilities for each member of the team. Considerable thought should be given to this process so that a high level of precision in role definition can be attained. Being as comprehensive as possible in describing a role will produce clarity. Vague and generic verbiage muddles the picture and may lead to confusion later on. As team members we have overall roles and accountabilities. For major projects it’s a good idea to dive even deeper into a separate set of intentions for each of us relative to the specific matter at hand.

Step two involves gaining a commitment from each team member. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to hold a team meeting to reaffirm the vision for the project. For example, suppose we are developing a proposal to win a major piece of business. We assemble the team that will be creating and implementing the proposal and paint the picture of what it looks like when we win (vision). In the meeting we review team member roles and accountabilities and ask each person to make a verbal (and maybe even written) commitment to do their part in this endeavor. It’s critical that this commitment be made among those on the team and not just to the enterprise.

The third step is for the team leader(s) to make an assessment of the capabilities of each team member. The roles and accountabilities have already been established for each position that will participate in the project. Will the individuals who fill those positions be able to perform the tasks assigned to them? And do they have the tools and resources that are needed to prosecute their roles effectively? If it’s determined that a team member isn’t equipped for his or her role – i.e. skills, training or experience – then that person becomes the weak link in the chain. A decision must be made at the outset whether or not to replace that team member with someone else, or be prepared to provide greater than normal support for that individual.

Finally, team members should be encouraged to set their own deadlines so long as they are compatible with the overall project timeline. When a deadline is imposed by others, there’s always the opportunity for someone to claim it to be unrealistic. Accountability is first to one’s self and then to the team. Self-imposed deadlines are congruent with this approach to accountability. As team leaders it’s equally important for us to be aware of all deadlines and check with team members well in advance of them. Then if there’s a chance that a deadline will be missed we can muster additional resources or take other steps to make sure that the train still runs on time.

Instilling responsiveness and a sense of urgency within a team is a process. When we clearly define roles and accountabilities, obtain commitment, assess capabilities and resources, and work with team-member established deadlines, the process should put us in a position to win the prize we are seeking.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

On It or In It?

I have the good fortune to regularly mentor several amazing entrepreneurs. One question I frequently ask is, “how much time do you spend working on your business versus in your business?” A similar question is, “how much time do you spend working on strategy vs. tactics?” Usually the answer to both questions is, “not much.” The problem is easy to identify. Entrepreneurs find themselves sucked into the daily grind of firefighting and there’s no time left to do much else.

So how do we focus on strategy and vision when the bullets are flying and we’re hunkered down in our foxholes? For starters, we need to examine exactly what it is that we are doing. As part of my mentoring process I inquire on specifically what an entrepreneur is spending his or her time. It’s interesting to listen to the responses which often reflect the fact that  entrepreneurs are handling things that really shouldn’t be their responsibility. Mostly this includes performing tasks for which others should be held accountable. And it’s not just about the failure to delegate. Some entrepreneurs take the position that “if I want it done right, I need to do it myself.” Or, “I really don’t have the time to show someone else how to do it – it’s more efficient for me to bang it out.”

To solve this we need to understand what prevents us from delegating that which should be handled by others. Do we have the right people on the bus? Do we have enough people? Are the right people properly trained? Are we too high control? When I have experienced problems with delegation in the past it’s usually been the result of not having the right people to whom I can delegate. Getting to the root cause of our inability to delegate is crucial. If we don’t have the right people, what is more important than solving this problem? One of the nice things about having the right people on the team is the fact that they may not need as much training – bright, right people figure out a lot of things on their own.

How is an entrepreneur who has a very small team able to delegate effectively? In other words, he or she is a player/coach and is on the field for every single play. This is where blocking out specific amounts of time to plan and strategize can be invaluable. Perhaps this occurs every morning from 8:00 to 9:00 without fail. During that timeframe, the entrepreneur takes no phone calls or any other interruptions and refines the strategy for the enterprise, reviews key performance indicators and determines if the business is on track with respect to vision and mission. Then the entrepreneur suits up and runs out on the field with the rest of the team to face another day. I cannot emphasize enough how absolutely nothing can be allowed to disrupt this daily routine.

We can ill afford to procrastinate when it comes to working on our business because we are too busy working in our business. The more this happens the more likely it is that we’ll get caught on the hamster wheel. Around and around we go as fast as our legs will churn – but we’re not making any headway. Why exert so much energy (and money) to end up right back where we started?

Learning how to delegate and hold others accountable will allow us to strategize and envision the future for our enterprise. And sequestering ourselves for a specified period of time every single day will enable that planning and visioning to happen.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

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