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Surviving the next entrepreneurial stage

Sampson runs a thriving small technology company. He decided to enter the business world five years ago after securing several important patents through his work in the engineering college of a large university. Because he was well-known in engineering as well as business circles, finding customers for his products was relatively easy and the company moved to profitability in only two years.

At the beginning, the company ran like another research project where the chief researcher, Sampson, made all the decisions. He was the spider at the center of the web. Now, after growing to twenty-five employees, Sampson is overwhelmed with people coming to him for direction, for decisions, for “what should I do now?” Sampson has become the elegant knothole of his business. His approach is restraining the company’s growth.

If you are like Sampson, the center of your company, what can you do?

  • Commit to change. This requires facing up to your inner motivations for being the center of the company’s action and decision making. Being the big guy (or gal) in the business can be an ego booster; leadership can be exhilarating to many people. But, if if you want your company to grow, you must develop a competent organization where you are not the center.
  • Set the overall direction and foundation for the organization. Make sure the desired future state of the business is stated, or painted, in terms that inspire everyone in the company. The foundation should also include a set of defining values to help guide everyone’s behavior.
  • Set goals with each individual, both short and long range. Short-range goals help define the pace and immediate results required, longer range goals set the direction. If Sampson has been setting the pace of the company by telling people what to do and guiding all activities, moving to a different mode of management will take time. The employees will have to learn how to take responsibility, understand their goals, limits and guidelines, and be coached in new ways of working. Sampson will have to move from director to coach, not an easy transition. Most employees will probably welcome the new responsibilities and freedom, but others may feel suddenly abandoned. The change in management methods will take teamwork and good communications.
  • Prepare a decision matrix. In any organization, certain decisions are reserved for the top dog, while many others can be delegated to employees or other managers. Sampson should prepare a list of the types of decisions required in the organization and designate who should make each decision, who should be informed of the decision and if he needs to approve certain delegated decisions. When a decision needs to be made, take the time to layout the decision process. Some decisions, of course, need to be made quickly. In that case, delay or delegation may be costly or have other negative consequences, but, for most decisions, timing can be planned. Defining the decision steps is a good way to coach subordinates and still provide management oversight of the ultimate decision or result.
  • Provide good feedback and encouragement to the staff. Be open with the staff about what you are trying to achieve by delegating more of your responsibilities. Ask for their help in reaching your goals. Describe the approach you plan to use. Then give them frequent feedback on the progress. Also, ask for their feedback as well to let you know how you are doing in your new role. Following these steps can help you move to a growth mode of management…growth to the company, to you and to your staff members.

With these steps, you can become more of a leader rather than a spider at the center of the web.

Developing a Talent Supply Chain: Construction Superintendents

Superintendents are the “master sergeants” of the construction industry, the guys or gals at the front lines leading the construction of tall buildings, roads or other projects. They manage the work crews, coordinate the work of subcontractors, keep projects on schedule and within costs and insure a safe working environment. And, like the post office, they are there, every possible day, moving projects ahead.

Construction projects have a lot of moving parts, so superintendents, like football quarterbacks, need a keen sense of pattern recognition—the ability to coordinate people, machines, environmental conditions, and diverse organizations. A good superintendent is decisive, but not impulsive, has good empathy, is results oriented, is a pragmatic problem solver, and is a strong leader. And he/she must understand how to build things, how to put tops on bottoms in the right sequence. In oth
er words, superintendents need to be strong leaders, know construction, and also be able to work well with subcontractors and owners of the buildings or roads being constructed.

Where do good superintendents come from? Although universities have developed good programs in Construction Management, many superintendents are graduates of the school of hard knocks; they have worked their way up from laborer, to foreman, to assistant superintendent to superintendent, a process that may have taken twenty years. Indeed, many construction executives think this is the only path. Construction Management university graduates may have the theory, but still lack the relevant on-the-ground experience. Is there a shortcut? Most people would say “No.”

Construction executives are now decrying t
he shortage of talent at all levels. (See Of the shortage, superintendents are among the most critical. To survive the great recession, many companies reduced staff, causing many of the laid-off workers to migrate to other career paths. Construction h
as long been a cyclical industry, but the last recession represented a particularly difficult cycle. Given this characteristic, how should construction companies think about superintendents, one of their most important skilled staff members?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Develop a long view of talent development. During growth times, develop a reserve fund to help retain critical skills during a downturn. (Oh, I know, profit margins are too thin even in good times to do this, but have you tried?)
  2. Develop a long term supply chain to build critical skills. That means working with high schools, vocational schools, community colleges and universities to encourage young people to go into construction an
    d help them build the skills and knowledge required. Develop apprenticeships, internships, scholarships, and tuition assistance programs.
  3. Outreach to schools and community organizations to extol the merits of careers in construction. Let leaders know that construction can provide good careers to those with or without a college education. High schools are measured by the percentage of their graduates who go to college, and career counselors therefore, diminish opportunities outside of the college career track. Work with them to open their eyes to new opportunities.
  4. Develop internal programs to help employees develop their skills. Many companies in cyclical industries cut training in downturns and say they’re “too busy to train” in upturns. Training should be a counter-cyclical activity. Use downturns as a training opportunity.
  5. Work with key employees to develop an individual develop program, set goals, and execute the plan.
  6. Provide timely, honest feedback to employees.
  7. Keep tabs on what employees are thinking. Use internal Net Promoter Scores to measure engagement and feedback.
  8. Top executives and line executives should develop and implement the talent development strategy. Line executives should be accountable for the results, not HR.

The construction industry provides rewarding careers where a person can literally see the results of her/his work.

Making the Top Ten List

Note: This was an article from several years ago, but I think it’s still applicable today.

If you have money, recognition comes easy. The Sunday paper contains an ad for the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts. I don’t know Mr. Isenberg, but he sure made enough money to have an MBA school named after him. Take a look around the top business schools of the nation and you’ll find scores named after big contributors. Look deeper into universities and you’ll see the Joe Dokes Professor of Management and other such titles. It takes about a million dollars to endow a chair at a university these days, so you know that these people had lots of money. If a chair costs a million dollars, how much money does it take to have a whole school named after you? The donors hope that, two hundred years from now, people will still be talking about the great person for whom the school was named. Students who attend those schools are more likely to remember the great teachers rather than the large donors. Sure, big endowments build strong faculties, but who should get the recognition for the school’s success?

Whom are we recognizing these days? A site called “ named Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Bo Jackson Wayne Gretsky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth and Pele. Searching further, you can find lists of the greatest artists, greatest business people, greatest musicians, greatest this and greatest that. While scanning the web and sipping my tea, I began to wonder if there is anyone who would add me to their list of top ten whatever’s. Not likely. I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve worked in several careers, made lots of friends, worked in big corporations; but never became CEO, became rich, or wrote an enduring scientific paper—never achieved “success” as defined by the “top ten’s” of the world today.

I think about my many colleagues who, over the years, made their respective companies successful. They were people who did their job every day with dedication, competence and enthusiasm, but never made Time or Fortune. They manufactured the computers, helped the customers, taught their fellow workers, and solved the everyday problems of work. No glory, just performance.

In my early career, I was part of a manufacturing team that built IBM’s newest computers. A tough-talking, white-haired fellow named Olin Lilly was the key to our success. Ollie knew how to translate engineering drawings into manufacturing processes and set up the procedures for the rest of us to follow. He was the expert in computer manufacturing. But Ollie had no degree. Rumor had it that he was a high school dropout. Yet, none of us with our BSEE’s could have existed without him. He knew where to find the tools and supplies, he knew where to find the experts, he taught us all how to do our jobs. Sometimes our project manager would thank Ollie in a project meeting. Maybe he got bonuses at the end of the year, but if the company had paid him according to his worth, he could have retired a millionaire. I doubt if that was the case. When I left Endicott, NY to help start a new plant in Colorado, Ollie was at work on the latest new computer–doing his job without fame or fortune.

We all know Olin Lilly’s. Our companies and organizations depend upon them to be there faithfully every day getting the work done. While the CEO is out there giving speeches, raising money, restructuring the company, and smiling on the TV screen, the Ollies are doing the real work. They’re solving your computer problems over the phone, wrapping the gift that you just bought for your husband, cleaning the office while you’re sleeping, repairing the telephone system, driving the bus, designing the new medical device, doing a sonogram of your gall bladder, teaching your children, and entering your insurance policy information into the computer. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an Ollie yourself. Most of us are.

Unfortunately, public recognition flows to the top. CEO’s of big corporations are praised for their vision or their great turn-a-round program. Some get awards for their innovations or new ideas. Sometimes you hear one of them say, “I couldn’t have done it without the effort, loyalty and dedication of the hard working employees. They led the way. I’m just here to serve.” I wish that we’d hear more like that.

So, today, I hope that we all take the time out to celebrate each other’s daily work. Most of us really don’t want to be in a national magazine or on the century’s top-ten list. We just want to think that we’re doing a good job and, once in a while, have someone say, “Thanks, you really helped me.” So to all of you, I say “Thank you, I couldn’t get along without you.”

Working for a Company that Snoops

You’ve arrived at work a little early, poured a cup of coffee and logged into the company network. It’s a good time to ask Betty about her blind date last night. But wait! Do you know who will read that E-mail?

“A recent survey by the American Management Association shows that about 78% of companies in the U.S. monitor their employees in some way. Employee Internet use is monitored by 63% of employers; 47% store and review employee e-mail messages; 15% view employees by video; 12% review and record phone messages; and 8% review voice-mail messages.”[1]

This quotation is from a 2007 report. Since then, employee surveillance software has become even more sophisticated. If my iPhone can sense the steps I take, it’s a small Long-shadowmove to monitoring the motions I use while working. Cruise the Internet and you can find vendors hawking snooping software, hidden cameras, miniature microphones and consulting services from ex-CIA types.

Why do companies snoop? Some are trying to prevent transmission of illegal or unacceptable material, such as pornography. Others want to make sure that company secrets are not divulged to competitors. Some just want to make sure that employees aren’t wasting time or company resources. Companies that run service desks usually monitor phone calls of service reps to make sure that customers are getting the best service. The latest twist aims to measure employees’ productivity.

If your company spies on its employees, there’s a good chance that you’ll know about it. Eighty-four percent of the companies report that they let employees know that they are being monitored. Whether you know about it or not, you’ll need to adapt your work habits to the new environment. Here are some strategies:

  • Assume you are being monitored

There’s no need to get paranoid, but your best strategy is to behave as if your work is open to everyone in the company. Write your E-mail messages as if they will be public property. Avoid foul language, slanderous remarks, or other statements that might be injurious to you, your team, or your company. Remember that most E-mail systems keep a copy of every message in the server.

  • Keep your personal files separate from those that belong to the company

Whether the files are kept in a file cabinet, your hard disk, or folder on the company’s Intranet, remember that the space is the property of the company. If you need to have your private files at work, store them in a private place. Carry personal electronic files on a thumb drive, or your personal secure space on the Internet. Store your personal paper files at home. They are far safer there.

  • Be a prudent user of the Internet

We all need information to do our work, and the Internet has opened up vast new opportunities to find what we need. But, we all know how the web can suck us in. It’s easy to check on the news, latest sports scores, or order from L. L. Bean. So watch your time and Internet use. If you don’t, someone else might do it for you.

  • Become sensitive to video cameras

drone-cropppedVideo Cams are usually just part of the company’s general security program. Nevertheless, they’re watching you. Learn to detect these cameras and
you may be surprised how ubiquitous they are. I’ll have to admit that my reaction is to make a funny face or to give a finger to such a camera; but it’s probably best to avoid such reactions and simply look normal. You can’t tell who is at the receiving end.

  • Be careful with telephone calls

Unless you’re at a service desk, your phone conversations are probably not being monitored. Yet, act as though they are. Work is not the place for long, gossipy phone calls. Even if someone is not listening to the call, your colleagues and team leader will notice. Besides, such calls detract from your own accomplishments.

Mobile phones are relatively easy to tap, and electronic devices sometimes do strange things like projecting your call into someone’s flower vase. I think of my mobile phone as a broadcasting microphone. Maybe you should, too.

Almost all companies look at their long distance charges, and, of course, receive reports by telephone number. If you must make personal long distance calls from work, get a personal phone credit card to use on such occasions.

  • Protect your company’s intellectual property

Keep your personal files separate from company information. The reverse is also important. Don’t put company confidential information in your personal file space. Also, treat company information like crown jewels. Observe the company security guidelines, and, in addition, use your good judgement to make sure that company secrets remain secret.

  • Talk to your manager about surveillance

If the company’s surveillance policy bothers you, don’t just fume about it, talk to your manager. If the system is too intrusive or is interfering with your work, tell him/her about it. Perhaps enough feedback may change the system.

If you do your job well, and stay away from time-wasting activities or materials, you don’t have much to worry about, regardless of your company’s policies.

So go ahead, send the E-mail. But take the time to be careful. On the other hand, you might just want to push the ‘cancel’ button.


If You Sign Up, Show Up

Last week I had the opportunity to attend two conferences. After each one, I saw a sea of unclaimed name tags. Name tags for the people who did not show up.

I know, things happen. People get sick, crises need to be managed, cars break down, but I’ll bet for most absentees, the dog ate their homework. In other words, some other priority got in their way.

In one of the meetings, the organizers had a limit of 50 attendees. A day before the event, about 10 people were on the waiting list. What to do? Play the probability game, admit the 10 on the waiting list, anticipating that some that registered would not show up—or turn the 10 away? Lunch and amenities had been planned for 50 people plus or minus zero.

The organizers decided to admit the people on the waiting list. On the day of the event, guess what? Fewer than 50 people showed up! What’s going on here?

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but to me, it is a matter of integrity—give your word, keep your word. If something serious comes up, let your hosts know, don’t just fail to show up. Suppose those organizations published their “no show” list. How would we feel about the people on the list?

Coming back to the USA in the late 90’s, after five years in Europe, I was appalled to see how many of my fellow Americans had low attendance integrity. People would sign-up for meetings, even accept a phone or personal invitation—and then not show up. Someone once told me, apparently in defense of Virginians, “They are probably too polite to say no.” (Incidentally, the Europeans I knew were much more reliable.)

In sales, we have a saying that the second best answer from a sales prospect is “No.” At least then, you have a clear answer.

So,here’s my plea to fellow professionals “If you sign-up, show up.” It’s a matter of integrity.