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.

You’re Fired!

I was listening to a friend talk the other day about a period in his career where he was firing lots of people. His manufacturing company had a number of employees and sometimes he would fire as many as five in a day. It appeared that he kind of enjoyed this task. He liked to make a public spectacle of a termination. He’d yell at someone in front of their co-workers and then tell them they were through. And I quote, “There was none of this ‘you’re just not a good fit for this job’ nonsense. Very simply – you’re fired!” Whoa! This sounds pretty cold – maybe even cruel. I don’t agree at all with his approach, but the conversation was positive from the standpoint that it crystallized a concept for me.

Firing equals failure. You may think this is an obvious thing to say – of course the employee who is fired has failed. But actually I’m looking at it as a failure on the part of the employer. This is a critical distinction for entrepreneurs. The reasons for terminations are numerous. Poor performance, lying, misappropriation of company property, behavior that is contrary to company policy, insubordination, being tardy or excessively absent, drug (or alcohol) abuse during the work day – the list goes on and on. Still, the failure mostly falls on us as entrepreneurs when an involuntary separation occurs.

For starters, it’s quite possible that we hired the right person for the wrong job. The current labor market is very difficult for employers, and there can be a tendency to hire job candidates that simply aren’t the right fit. We resolve not to fall into this trap, but weeks later we’re hearing the rumblings from our team that they are overworked as they are covering the vacant position. Productivity is suffering and we finally hire someone who we know is probably “iffy.” We rationalize that we can make this person a project, and with a little mentoring they’ll be fine. The outcome is predictable. It seldom works out – both the mentoring and the new employee.

Hiring the right folks is hard work. Our company needs to at least have a neutral to positive reputation if we expect to attract the kind of talent we need. A negative reputation will likely result in driving away quality talent. A strong positive culture supported by authentic core values will bolster our reputation. Creating comprehensive roles and accountabilities is an absolute must. Actively recruiting for new team members is mandatory. Simply posting a position on an online recruiting website isn’t enough anymore. We must do everything in our power to create a large pool of qualified candidates from which to choose.

Once we have prospects for a vacant position, we need to pull out the stops to find the sparkling diamond that adds value to our organization. Testing, psychological profiling and multiple interviews with different members of the management team, are standard fare. Background checks and drug screening are also part of the process. Interviews must be carefully crafted to develop the full picture of an individual – strengths, weaknesses, traits, tendencies and even danger signals. Here’s the bottom line. It’s on us if we don’t hire the right person to begin with. And if we have to fire someone because they weren’t the right person, that firing is our failure.

When we terminate someone’s employment we must also take an introspective look at our own performance. We may have hired the right person for the right job, but did we do our part? How well did we train our new team member? Or was it the famous, “here’s your desk, here’s your phone, lots of luck, you’re on your own?” Another common rationalization for lack of solid training goes like this, “John Doe was in a similar position at Company X. We’re a fast-paced organization and we don’t have time to train people who ought to already know what to do based upon their level of experience.” There may be a grain of truth to this but for the most part, every new team member needs to be trained. The training may be less focused on the mechanics of doing the job and more centered around our company’s way of serving the customer, maintaining efficiency, being safe and increasing productivity. If we have to fire someone because they weren’t sufficiently trained, that firing is our failure.

Finally, we must ask ourselves whether or not the team member we are terminating had the proper tools and/or resources to do their job. How unfair is it to fire someone when we haven’t provided such basic elements to ensure his or her success? You probably wouldn’t be surprised to know how often this happens due to budgetary constraints. We expect someone to do their job perfectly, but then we hold the purse strings so tightly that they can’t even meet minimum standards. If we have to fire someone because they didn’t have the necessary tools and resources, that firing is our failure.

Firing a member of our team is nothing to celebrate. In fact it is often a failure of our leadership and can be prevented by putting the right person in the right job; providing sufficient training, and making sure to provide the proper tools and/or resources.

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 107 – Whale Sharks.

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.

The Mystery of the Undercooked Steak

Customers quit all the time. Many entrepreneurs work extremely hard to prevent the big screw-ups that alienate and enrage customers. Yet, even with this effort, there are still customers that leave and don’t come back. What’s up with this?

Consider this scenario. An entrepreneur has opened a new restaurant and works 24/7 to develop a loyal clientele. Over time the restaurant grows and enjoys success – it’s even profitable! But then its trajectory levels off. It’s not growing like it was and some of the regular faces aren’t there anymore. The entrepreneur studies his operation but can’t find anything glaring that is causing this trend. His puzzlement and frustration grows. Why isn’t he winning like he used to?

Had the entrepreneur taken a much closer and more granular look, he might have discovered the root cause of his problem. Had he followed one of his oldest customers – we’ll be original and call him Mr. Smith – he might have observed the following occurrences. On one occasion, Mr. Smith made a reservation in advance, but when he arrived the time was wrong. The hostess apologized profusely, but it did cause minor inconvenience to the customer. In another instance Mr. Smith’s credit card was declined. After an embarrassing moment for Mr. Smith, the server found that the credit card terminal was on the fritz. A few weeks later Mr. Smith was in a hurry to leave for a business appointment and his lunch was delayed due to a mix-up in the kitchen. Another time his steak wasn’t properly prepared. In still another instance, one of the side dishes he ordered was forgotten.

These seemingly small and inconsequential issues continued to occur over a period of months. Mr. Smith did not encounter problems every time he ate at the restaurant. But they happened often enough that he began to feel as though this eatery wasn’t the bright and shiny object that it had once appeared to be. Gradually Mr. Smith came to the restaurant with less frequency. The final straw came on a day when Mr. Smith noticed he had been charged for an appetizer he hadn’t ordered. The bill was corrected, but that was the last time Mr. Smith ever patronized the restaurant.

I call what happened here The Cumulative Effect of Little Things. The entrepreneur who owned the restaurant was prone to look at each minor problem on a stand-alone basis. And when viewed in this manner, it’s a mystery to see how a slightly undercooked steak here or a credit card snafu there could be enough to chase away a customer. He was looking for and trying to prevent, much larger issues. What he failed to understand is that the small stuff contributes to an overall customer experience. If Mr. Smith had visited the restaurant only once, he probably wouldn’t have given much thought to the fact that his meal arrived four minutes before that of his dining companion. But Mr. Smith was a regular customer and his impression of the restaurant was driven by an accumulation of experiences.

We can keep The Cumulative Effect of Little Things from causing our customers to quit. How? There are two ways. First, we must be sticklers for the small details. With the right systems, processes and team member training, we can eliminate the small mistakes that seemingly happen every day and yet are excused as too minor to matter. Second, we must be joined at the hip with our customers. It’s crucial that we know what they are experiencing at all times. Continuing with the restaurant example, when the owner or general manager shows up at my table at some point during the meal; chats briefly with me and asks (genuinely) what can be done to make my dining experience better, then I know I’m dealing with someone who really cares about me as a customer. I generally don’t ever encounter problems in those restaurants.

Customers leave more often than not as a result of The Cumulative Effect of Little Things rather than a major malfunction. Caring about the little details AND the customer will go a long way to creating a loyal following.

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.

Steak

The Wheels of the Bus Go Round and Round

Here’s a scenario. Sales are flat. The product development team is feuding with the marketing folks. Production is lagging and customer complaints are trending in the wrong direction. Sounds like a nightmare situation – right? It’s at a time like this that makes us wonder why we became entrepreneurs in the first place! As we try to sort out this mess, something becomes quickly apparent. We have the wrong people on the bus.

The whole problem wouldn’t even exist if we had selected the right people in the first place. But for most of us, we are where we are and have to deal with an unwise hire here and a hopeful hire there. Rarely do we make the right hiring decisions from the get-go and find smooth sailing forevermore. Something I’ve grappled with for decades is when to change out the people on the bus – and sometimes the bus driver to boot! The mistake I’ve made over and over has been to give people too many chances and believe that if I just find the “right slot” for someone, that I can “save” him or her. In recent times I’ve come to realize that we’re not in the business of doing social work and it does no favor to someone who is miscast to continue to try and salvage them.

Most of us have a level of empathy that prevents us from being Donald Trump . . . that is to simply say, “You’re fired!” But there’s undoubtedly a middle ground. We don’t have to have a hair trigger and instantly terminate someone who is beginning to struggle. And we also don’t need to continue to enable someone for months or even years who can’t get the job done.

As with much about entrepreneurship, there is a process that can make the decision to invite someone off the bus both humane and timely. We start with clear written roles and accountabilities. It’s imperative that our team members truly understand what is expected of them. Roles and accountabilities should be quite comprehensive and they must be measurable. We also must make sure that our team members understand how to perform their roles and accountabilities and that they have the proper resources to succeed. If I tell a non-pilot that he is responsible for flying a passenger jet from New York to LA I can be very clear about this. But if he’s not trained to fly the plane, then it will either fail to get off the ground or if it does, well, what happens might not be pretty. I realize that this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it illustrates the point.

Hand-in-hand come key performance indicators. These are the metrics by which we determine if the roles and accountabilities are being sufficiently executed. Ongoing performance reviews are also an important element of ensuring that the right people are on the bus. Some companies do an annual performance review. This may be fine in a formal sense, but team members need a continual feedback loop. Then there will be no surprises when the annual review is performed. It’s also helpful (and often judicious) to offer a written assessment as part of the continual feedback process. It’s not so much to build the file as it is to make sure that everyone is on the same page regarding where improvement is needed.

Often when things are going poorly, it’s the result of a lack of roles and accountabilities; or a lack of training; or a lack of proper resources to get the job done; or a lack of measuring results; or a lack of providing team member feedback, or all of the above. When this happens and we must make a change in personnel, we dread having to take action. Why? Because we know deep inside that we probably didn’t do everything necessary to be completely fair with our team member.

Ensuring that we have the right people on the bus is a strong step toward building a successful culture and producing the results we desire. And following a well-designed process to invite people off the bus who aren’t the right fit will allow us to act objectively and at the right pace.

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.

school bus