Week 5: We All Have a Role to Play

As we discussed in week 4, building a team is one of the more critical responsibilities of the founder. This week, we explore some of the challenges associated with matching the right people with the right roles. The Founder’s Dilemmas (Wasserman) points out some of the critical decisions that founders must address when deciding on executive roles. Of particular importance is the selection of the founding CEO, which is the focus of Part 1. Then, in Part 2, we will explore finding hidden talent and hiring for attitude and training for skill.

Part 1: The Role of CEO

The CEO is the top of the pyramid, meaning that final decision-making authority rests on his or her shoulders. As one of the founders, you should have an honest conversation with yourself if this is something you really want be to be responsible for (and if you can see your great idea through without that power). Some founders are great with ideas and specific technical or functional expertise required to bring a new idea to market, but don’t want the responsibility of making the tough calls when there’s disagreement among the c-suite executives.

The first CEO must be visionary in chief, working with the other founders to hone the direction of the company. This requires that he or she be what Wasserman refers to as an “idea person”, which his research shows is more likely of the CEO and usually corresponds to higher stakes in the company.

Part of that visionary role is demonstrating outstanding communication skills. He or she must communicate the vision to new hires, investors, and the public in a way that wins hearts, minds and dollars. Each of the people added to the team after the founders must understand what the bigger purpose of the organization is and how their role contributes. They must want to give their all for it, so a great communicator will help maximize their contribution. The first CEO will play a critical role in telling the story of the company to new investors, so the ability to connect with them and encourage their participation will be particularly important early on in the life of the organization.

In his Forbes article “How to Become a CEO” Christian Stadler mentions listening skills among those communication skills most important to achieve and succeed at the top job. It helps when you are responsible for the final decision if you are able to fully leverage the knowledge and experience of those around you.

Beyond these skills, the founding CEO must also be someone who has great passion for the company and its future. He or she will likely be making many personal sacrifices initially for the good of the company, so entering the job fully committed is essential. Often the first sacrifice is a willingness to give the company his or her full attention and leave the security of a full-time job to focus on the business full-time. This level of risk must be fueled by a confidence that the investment will pay off.

The top job isn’t for every founder. Choosing the right member of the founding team to assume the top job can go a long way to ensuring the long-term success of the company. Think hard as you consider the job for yourself…it is a demanding role that will call upon your skills as visionary, decision-maker and communicator for the company to succeed.

Part 2: Hire for Attitude and Train for Skill

Bill Taylor’s Harvard Business Review article “Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill” points out that hiring people with the right attitude can help differentiate your company among competitors. The assumption that hiring someone that already knows how to do a job is better than hiring someone you need to train on the surface looks like a no brainer. When you look closer, you might realize that with experience comes bias regarding “the right way” to do things. The industry standard approach may be the opposite of what your startup is going for when seeking to reinvent the experience a customer can expect.

Hiring for attitude also creates an opportunity to identify diamonds in the rough in the hidden talent pool. Herrenkohl’s How to Hire A Players suggests looking for those looking to reenter the workforce, those looking to exit corporate environments seeking more flexibility, and great people in service roles or jobs that are demanding and undercompensated who would be eager to find a place that values their hard work and great attitude.

If you are willing to think outside of the box when making your next hire, you might consider hiring someone with the right attitude and teach them what they need to succeed. This helps maximize work ethic and fit with the organization, and minimizes the challenges associated with approaching a job in the same boring way it has always been done when creating something new and different.

Week 4: Building Teams

Building a solid and productive team is one of the most critical roles of a startup’s founder. Wasserman’s The Founder’s Dilemmas points out some of the benefits and risks associated with assembling a team that is very homogeneous versus one that is more diverse. Here is a quick summary of many of those points:

Homogeneous  Teams

  • Short-term benefits include ease of finding people, speed of decision making, quicker to develop productive working relationships, easier construction of shared organizational identity, and less risk of conflict.
  • Longer-term risks include overlapping human capital resulting in overlapping strengths and gaps in expertise. There is potential for a shortage of creativity, greater difficulty in times of turbulence, stunted growth when friendship supersedes the best interest of the business, and a narrower network for identifying investors and employees.

Diversity and Counterbalance

Even more important might be the likelihood that homogeneous teams tend to have similar tolerance for risk and share similar values. This can make for a more stable partnership, but could also mean that there is no counterbalance if the team is too risky or too risk adverse. They may share priorities and preferences, but might struggle to counterbalance each other when their shared preferences are not in the best interest of the long-term success of the company.

Hiring a Great Team: A Competitive Advantage

Harrenkohl’s How to Hire A-Players  points out that having an incredible team of high performers can be a significant competitive advantage to the organization. He points out that your business should have the leadership to continue on without you, so it is essential to have the right people in place and to give them the autonomy and authority to do great work. This requires, as we have discussed in previous posts, that the founder must be willing to give up decision-making control and resist the urge to micromanage.

Hiring great people attracts other great talent and creates a virtuous cycle of success. Not only are current people more likely to be retained when they are surrounded by excellence, but they are likely to continue to be engaged and perform at the highest level themselves. This positions everyone for the opportunity to advance their careers as the company grows and thrives.

Selfishly, as the founder it is in your best interest to hire great people even though it means yielding some of your control. Doing so will allow you to have more balance in your own life, as the company’s growth becomes a shared goal and not one that you alone must realize.

 

Week 3: Building Social and Financial Capital

One of the great benefits of living and working in one town for most of your adult life is that you have the opportunity to develop a strong social network. I do feel confident in this area, as I have worked hard to develop a reputation where people trust me and my work. I have had the opportunity through several volunteer experiences to make connections with people with significant fundraising and nonprofit experience, so I feel like I have a deep well of expertise that I can call upon. I’ve also worked closely with many business leaders in my roles with local universities, so the range of consultants (and potential volunteers) I can call upon is pretty wide.

One area I have not spent a lot of time yet is developing my network in the human services community currently working on the hunger needs of my city. I’ll definitely need their support and guidance, both to minimize the duplication of efforts and to maximize the impact of the work. It would also be important to ensure that those doing the work now don’t have any impression that I’m looking to compete or “steal business” from them. There is plenty of unmet need and never enough resources. My hope is that the food truck will be seen as additive and a partner in this work.

In terms of financial capital, I’m fortunate that I have a runway before this business can launch since I’m waiting for my father to retire. This time represents my window to get organized and save/raise the necessary funds to start operations. Initial startup expenses are mostly centralized in the truck itself. The goal is to purchase it with cash, to ensure expenses are very low. Since dad will be retired, labor costs are flexible. I do want him to be paid, but he insists that while things get going this is not important. Eventually, he’ll also need the help of a sous chef to minimize the burden of preparation. This will be a great learning opportunity for a culinary student completing a required internship for their degree program. Volunteers can also be helpful with this kind of work.

My intent is not for this to be a full-time endeavor for me or my dad, so the decision whether to leave full-time employment is not the same as it is for many new entrepreneurs. If the response to the food truck is good, it would be more likely that we’d have to hire a second chef before we’d need a large, full-time administrative team. If the idea took off, and we were able to launch in multiple cities that would be a very different kind of organization that would require a lot more attention. This is probably the scale that would be required for me to leave my full-time job to focus on the organization as my primary work.

Week 2: Maximizing Wealth vs. Maintaining Control

Wasserman’s (2012) The Founder’s Dilemmas describe difficult decisions that founders must make that can have a lasting impact on both the founder and their startup. What’s more, most founders often do not recognize the options they might consider or the impact of avoiding tough decisions early in the life of their business.

Wasserman describes the wealth versus control dilemma as “the most common and difficult of them all.” On the surface, they might appear to be complimentary, but in fact they are in constant tension with each other. This counter-intuitive relationship is the result of the need for human, intellectual, and financial resources to get the business off the ground. To land the best talent, ideas, and money it is often essential to offer investors equity. This means that they share ownership, some of the risk, some of the potential reward, and voice in decision-making. The author emphasizes that it is imperative that the founder be conscious of his or her own motivation, allowing decisions to be intentional and consistent with that driving goal.

It will be very interesting to see how this dilemma develops for my own business, as the motivation is neither profitability nor control. Intellectually, for me, starting this organization is about maximizing impact. In my head I feel like if someone else has the time, passion, and energy to devote to the cause I will be happy to yield (or at least share) control. As I really reflect on this honestly, however, I think that when making decisions I would probably lean more toward control because my vision for the organization is fairly limited. I can understand how the push-pull of this dilemma can be challenging for other entrepreneurs as I review the various dynamics involved. Making the choice to limit the scope of the organization is in effect choosing control. If the need is greater and the resources are available for the taking, this choice would be the only reason not to scale up the operation to maximize the impact.

One challenge, that I can imagine being similar for others, is that I imagine this operation as a family effort. There are certainly ways to engage other organizations to maximize donations and volunteers, but doing so would mean that they would dictate some of the terms of use. On the surface, this seems absolutely fine…but the added complexity and unforeseen challenges must be expected and planned for.

An area where I may veer more toward the maximizing wealth orientation is my desire to involve smart people and a willingness to accept outside advice. As someone who has always worked on high performing teams, I feel in no way as the source of all good ideas and decisions. I am happy to delegate and support those who assume responsibility in whatever way they need to perform at their best.

I strongly identified with the desire for slow growth and he feeling that we are well equipped to launch and build without a lot of outside help. My dad is an expert chef and has been operating a mobile catering business for 15 years. This expertise serves as both motivation and a foundation for the success of our project.

Week 8: Self-Managed Teams and the Pursuit of Wow!

The fact that this chapter on self-managed teams wrapped up The Pursuit of Wow! reminds me how much the business world has changed since this book was published over 20 years ago. Since that time, self-managed teams have become the norm in so many workplaces. It is interesting to see Peters discuss them as if they are controversial. What he did well with this closing chapter is the same thing he is known for in all of his writing…pointing out simple truths in a simple way that somehow help his readers wake up and see something new.

Peters points out that nearly all employees are well positioned to accept the task of self-management. He indicates that many managers like to think their contribution to the operation of their unit is irreplaceable. In fact, managing a team isn’t terribly different than the way that most people manage the affairs of their lives. Here are a few examples:

  • Long-term View: Most workers understand thinking long-term, as demonstrated by their willingness to make a 30 year investment in the purchase of a home. Show me a manager taking a 30 year view of their department’s operations.
  • Trade-offs: Every family has to make decisions about complex trade-offs all the time when they make personal choices about where their money should be spent. Do you save money for a vacation or invest in buying a more reliable car? Retirement vs. college savings?
  • Eliminate Job Descriptions: Detailed, written guidance does not exist for most of what we encounter every day. We solve problems, make progress, work together, and move forward toward our goals.
  • Manage a Budget: Living within a budget is understood by most responsible adults. Don’t over-complicate this function in a team.
  • Projects: Life is not a series of repetitive tasks, it is closer to a set of projects that we complete concurrently.

And yet, 20+ years later self-managed teams are still a topic of popular business conversation. Take the 2014 article in Inc. magazine titled “Why Self-Managed Teams are the Future of Business” Chuck Blakeman makes a similar case to the one Peters made in 1994. He points to the following lessons:

  • Ownership: The organization that inspires a sense of ownership by its employees has achieved something great where motivation will likely be maximized.
  • Empowerment: When employees are empowered to make decisions, companies tend to grow faster, have less turnover and are more profitable.
  • Simple, Not Easy: Changing from a “boss knows best” model to an “employees know best” model is hard for everyone. We’ve been doing it the other way for a long time.

The case that is being made is essentially the same…giving a group of people clear goals and supporting them as they determine the best way to get there usually results in a better product or service than if the manager tried to drive every detail of the process themselves. Having diverse teams positions them for success, as they can rely on each other to help solve the complex problems they face. Peters would argue that they already have the skills they need to make self-management work.

What do you think? Are you ready to yield your control as manager and trust the collective decision-making of a self-managed team?

 

Reference:

Blakeman, C. (2014, November 25). Why self-managed teams are the future of business. Inc. Retreived online at http://www.inc.com/chuck-blakeman/why-self-managed-teams-are-the-future-of-business.html.

Week 7: Media as Customer and The Pursuit of Wow!

What really stood out to me in this week’s chapters was the recommendations Tom Peters makes about interacting with the media. He shares his lessons from years of ups, downs, quotes and misquotes by the media. He says, “The press has made me. And made me mad as hell.”

  • Tell the whole truth. Most people don’t lie, but too few tell the whole truth. They are reporters, so they will probably learn the rest of the story eventually. Peters suggests acknowledging the good, bad and ugly right up front.
  • It is okay (and preferred) to change your position/story if new information comes to light. When you dig your heels in based on old information it makes it look like you are being untruthful by sticking to your guns.
  • Get over quotes taken out of context. It is going to happen and there isn’t much you can do about it.
  • Return phone calls (and emails) promptly.They are always on a deadline. It is the nature of their business.
  • Treating the media like an ally will aid your success in a crowded, competitive market.
  • Take a long-term view. You want reporters to come back to you again and again, so maintaining a strong relationship will help position you for long-term success.
  • There are jerks in the media, just like there are jerks in every kind of business out there. Don’t assume that one jerk speaks for all media or let one bad experience sour you from actively engaging with reporters.
  • “Don’t take your press releases seriously. The press doesn’t.”
  • Media are looking for a sound bite. Give it to them.
  • Don’t forget about radio. It is still possible to discuss a story for 10 or 15 minutes on radio and a lot of people are still listening. [I’ll throw in podcasts too…since this book is 20+ years old.]

In complement to this, here are a few more tips I found in my research:

Stratcommunications.com (2016) reinforces the importance of developing relationships before you “need” the media. They also wisely suggest being a broken record to ensure your key messages are heard loud and clear. They point out that live interviews are great for maintaining control of messaging. They also suggest making the reporter’s job as easy as possible by providing background information and explanations if your message is complex.

Brad Phillips for Mr. Media Training recommends never going “off the record.” There is a lot of ambiguity as to what “off the record” means, so it will be hard to ensure that you and the reporter are agreeing to the same terms. He also says that you should never say “no comment” because the public hears that as “I’m guilty.” Instead, Phillips suggests making a comment that doesn’t really comment on that issue. Phillips points out that when you are being interviewed you can limit the duration of the interview if you are worried about a fishing expedition. His orientation is definitely more adversarial in orientation that Tom Peters.

My experiences working with the media have all been very positive. I have certainly exercised understanding with regard to their deadlines and tried to respond quickly when asked for an interview or comment. In all, I think my organizations have all benefited from media relations that came from an orientation of appreciation for the exposure.

 

References

Phillips, B. (2011, May 11). Eight ground rules when working with reporters. Retrieved online at http://www.mrmediatraining.com/2011/05/12/8-ground-rules-when-working-with-reporters/

Stratcommunications.com (2016). 7 tips for working with the media. Retrieved online at http://blog.stratcommunications.com/7-tips-for-working-with-the-media/.

 

Make it Better: Product or Service Review

I would appreciate your feedback on the draft of my product/service review. I chose MBA@UNC, the online MBA program offered by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. This is the “sister” program to the Master of Accounting program that I work with. I’ve worked with a lot of MBA programs over the 15 years I’ve been in graduate education, so I thought taking a closer look at this program would be interested. Thank in advance for your feedback!

Jeremiah

Innovation Leadership Podcast: Five Obstacles to Innovation Leadership

 

Nicole Fallon points to five big obstacles to innovation:

  1. Lengthy projects
  2. Time to innovate
  3. Internal walls
  4. Imbalance between speed and data
  5. Fear of change

This list served as the framework for the discussion in my podcast. You can read the original Business News Daily article here.

Week 6: Breaking the Mold and The Pursuit of Wow!

In an age of commodities, so many companies and their competitors offer products and services that are so similar you frequently cannot tell them apart. Tom Peters points out that when everyone else looks mostly the same, this is an opportunity for some companies to really stand out by doing something different.

Southwest Airlines – Even though this book was written more than 20 years ago, many of the insights that Peters makes about Southwest Airlines continue to be true today. Most of the time, their people are having a good time and giving their customers a memorable travel experience. A good example of this was when I recently flew Southwest and they got to the portion of the safety instructions where they talk about oxygen masks. They say to secure your own mask before assisting others, but this flight attendant said “If you are flying with more than one child, apply the first mask to the one who is most likely to contribute to your retirement account.” This got a healthy chuckle from the crowd during an exercise that most other airlines appear to “get through” as quickly as possible and most travelers are actively ignoring. At Southwest it is more than simply getting from point A to point B, they are providing an experience.

Some great “guru” quotes from this chapter:

Are you regenerating? Are you dealing with new things? When you find yourself in a new environment, do you come up with a fundamentally different approach? That’s the test. When you flunk, you leave.” — Jack Welch, former CEO of GE and Management Guru

“While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generates wisdom.” — Henry Mintzberg, McGill University Professor and Management Guru

“Effective prototyping may be the most valuable core competence and innovative organization can hope to have.”— Michael Schrage, Innovation Guru

“Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde, Author, Playwright and Poet

It is freeing to realize that doing things (in life and in business) differently from the way others do them is actually a good thing. To stand out, develop a specialty, fill a unique need in the market, be colorful, leave a lasting impression and take risks is really the best way to approach things (again, in life and business). Breaking the mold means being one-of-a-kind, so celebrate and differentiate on what makes you and what you do/provide for your clients that is unique.

 

Week 5: Differentiation and The Pursuit of Wow!

Tom Peters makes a great case that there is no excuse, no matter what kind of business you’re in, for thinking that what you offer can’t stand out from your competition. This week is all about suggestions for ways a business can reframe the way it thinks about differentiation and many practical ideas that can be implemented to make a business one of a kind. Customers are loyal when they connect with your business, and those connection points are the things you do that surprise, delight, and inspire them.

Customer Service Matters – Reinforcing a culture of excellent customer service pays high dividends to a business. There are several ways this can prove to be a differentiator. First, many companies tolerate mediocrity (and sometimes even unintentionally encourage it). Exceptional customer service is a strategy that almost any company can employ, yet it continues to be an underutilized strategy. Understanding your customers’ wants, needs, and expectations and then exceeding them in as many ways as possible can establish unbreakable customer loyalty.

Your People Matter – Who you hire mediocre people, don’t be surprised when you get mediocre performance. If you hire creative people, they will likely come up with new ways of doing business and see opportunities that others have missed. Reliability is important, but reliability does not have to equal boring. People can be visionary and reliable. Seek out the best people in the business, treat them exceptionally well, and reward them when their performance is outstanding. They will delight customers and drive profit over and over again.

Design Matters – Peters shares a list of 142 different examples of great design. Some of my favorites are:

  • the precisely correct placement of an airbill on a package being shipped to a finicky customer
  • the formal position of chief designer on a corporate organization chart (and the importance that role plays in every decision about a product or service)
  • a 20-year-old sweatshirt that you love
  • the smell of a new baseball
  • the garnish that makes a plate of meat and potatoes an elegant dish
  • stuff you can’t explain but know is there
  • the fact that you sometimes buy books for the cover and wines for the label
  • something that old folks appreciate…and wee kids…and the handicapped
  • a truck stop where you feel at home

Really Listening Matters – Beyond customer service, listening to your clients creates an ongoing dialogue that can yield amazing results. If you hear and address little problems, you can avoid them becoming big problems. Customers often have great ideas…often beyond what you could have imagined yourself. Hearing those outrageous ideas might produce your next breakthrough product. Peters also suggests interviewing 5-15 irritated customers and sharing it with your colleagues and management. It will likely produce a big discussion and inspire some memorable changes for the good.

Everyone Matters – Everyone in the organization should be able to produce a wow list that captures the things they are doing or projects they are working on that produce memorable results. HR might be doing things to improve the lives of employees so they can deliver better service or products for customers. Accounting might be working on ways to make customer payments easier for them. Everyone in the business has a role to play in making it stand out among a crowded field of competitors.