How often do you think outside the box.

Recently I’ve been challenged to consider the value of people really good at the tasks within their box versus the athletes that can conquer challenges across a broad range of topics.  Specifically I’ve been asked to consider whether I would want to work within a box myself.

There is value to being within a box.  Having a set home and approach to projects makes it much easier to sell and complete work because more can be automated and preset.  It is also much easier to train the next generation that will come through because they only have to learn a limited set of tasks and assignments.  And just because you are in an assigned box doesn’t mean that you still can’t go crazy occasionally and completely go outside that box for projects and answers.

The other side of the equation is that being in a box sets a path for you toward a future.  You now have chosen a course and must stick to it for at least awhile.  It is the end of the free wheeling days where you could work on anything that comes in the doors.  Although to be honest if enough other people in a team are assigned to boxes then there is less work for general athletes anyway because the work starts falling to the preset teams.

I value athletes that don’t want to live within a box.  I value employees that do not want to be simply told what to do.  The value that you get from being involved in a wide variety of opportunities gives you more chances to make random connections between future solutions and opportunities.  It also means that growth will continue on an accelerated pace.

It’s hard to find good athletes.  Most people are not comfortable with undefined roles.  But it is my preference and the best people I have ever worked with hold the same belief.

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If you don’t know your personal 2 year plan take some time to think through it today.

I’ve been managing for a couple, three years now.  It always surprises me to find myself in this position.  But it is fascinating to watch myself in it.

My biggest question in one-on-ones is always “where do you see yourself in 2 years.”  I’m sure people get sick of hearing me ask it but I cannot stress to them how important I think this question is.  Two years is always right around the corner.  It’s far enough in the future that you have to plan for it but not so far that it cannot still sneak up on you.

I believe in working with A+ performers.  I want everyone to be at the top of their particular game.  The stronger my colleagues, the stronger the business.  Strong teams raise all ships.  The single biggest difference between a B performer and an A performer is that the A is working toward something that forces them to grow.  B’s are usually really good at the job in front of them but not striving for something bigger.

Businesses and groups built around A performers are constantly changing and growing.  They challenge themselves and others and compete by not racing to the bottom.  Businesses built around B’s are really good today but their long term prospects will mainly be about simply doing what they do today a little bit better – aka racing to the bottom.

So where do you want to be in 2 years?  What new experiences do you need to get there?  What kind of people do you need to know to get there?  What new skills do you need to acquire?  Do you have weaknesses that you need to work on to get there?  If you don’t know, stop and think about it.  Take a walk while contemplating it.  Then think about it again tomorrow….and the next day….and the day after that.

The best way to get a deal done or grow a business is the same – trust people.

Trust often seems hard to come by in the business world.  It requires you to put part of your success and future into others outside of your control.  Trust is notoriously fickle in the slow to build, easy to break ways.

But trust is the foundation of things getting done.  If you don’t trust (at least in some ways) then you will constantly be treading over the same ground repeatedly.  Nothing fast will happen and no one will volunteer to help out because they know their efforts will be in vane from the beginning.

This is not to say that you should trust indiscriminately but that you should know when, where and who to trust.  Some people you trust to run the financials, some to deal with the client directly and others to keep everything else running.  Trust outside of these areas may not exist yet.

If you don’t trust people to do their jobs you will quickly find your belief to be self-fulfilling.  Those who don’t trust are usually rewarded by being lonely and stuck doing everything themselves.  Hard to grow that way.

Customer service and the path to business growth.

I’m not one of those people that believes the customer is always right.  I firmly believe that my job, more often than not, is to ensure the customer makes the right decisions regardless of where their mindset currently puts them.  Over at TheNextWeb they have a great article titled:  The secret to super fast growth?  Customer service.

The discussions follows the rise of several companies that built themselves up around customer service: Zappos, Amazon, Ritz-Carlton and Nordstrom.  Companies so well known for service that it goes without saying.  Each of these companies compete in highly competitive industries and each stands out because of how they treat their customers.  The ensure that the experience exceeds expectations and that the details are right.

This is a lesson all of us can take away.  Even if we don’t have a team of customer service specialists behind us, we can all find ways to make our customers’ lives a little better with our solutions.  Surprise and delight are easy to achieve.  Surprise comes from getting the unexpected – maybe an Easter Egg in your technology or a new surprise feature for free.  Delight comes from pleasure – maybe we’ve made them look really good or reduced their 40 hours of reporting a month to only 1 hour.  Maybe it’s as simple as we found an off-the-wall alternative solution that exceeds everything they were expecting.  Maybe we simply don’t use a PowerPoint presentation and instead have an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Businesses grow because they increase their revenues.  Revenues increase because there are more customers.  Customers spend money with you because you provide something better or different than their other options.  Customer service is hard to do well consistently and to ingrain into a culture.  Could it be that something you do better and differently than your competition?

Culture is what you do, not what you say.

Culture may be the single biggest factor in the success or failure of a small business.  Some cultures allow an idea to thrive, cultivate and grow.  Others can cause an otherwise great idea to die on the vine.  The difficulty is that the same cultures do not work the same in all situations.

Even in larger groups culture is of critical import.  It’s everything from how  new employees figure out what to do, how the team supports each other outside of defined projects and how innovation happens.  Culture plays a tremendous role in all that we do.

Too often management attempts to drive culture from the top down.  They say that employees should collaborate but then don’t provide the mechanisms.  They say that new employees should be brought in but then schedules don’t allow for it.  It’s usually well intended but the actions don’t quite live up to the intentions.  It’s better to have a culture that tries and sometimes doesn’t achieve all that is desired than a culture that consistently fails to meet its goals.  Under-promise, over-deliver.

Actions tell us everything we need to know – both about a company and individuals.

Exponential Growth doesn’t stay Exponential Forever. Ride it While it Lasts.

I was recently forwarded a presentation on the power of exponential growth and business disruption.  Every other slide told the story of how exponential growth was the new normal and how it needed to be harnessed.  The problem is that eventually exponential growth collapses or has no additional value or becomes focused on a niche instead of the mainstream.  Exponential isn’t forever.

But exponential can last a century as well – it’s just that you may not realize the trend for the first 50 years of the cycle.  Harness it while you can but don’t expect to ride it forever.  The same business rules as always still apply.

Success from Employees versus Owners.

Employees do the work they are given to keep the company moving forward.  Owners take responsibility for creating something new and pushing the company forward without being managed into it.

Employees look forward to vacations and forgetting about the projects they are working on.  Owners look forward to getting back to the office to work on all of the ideas that they came up with on vacation.

Employees take pride in a job well done.  Owners forget about their last success and look to the next one.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an employee versus being an owner.  There are far more great employees in this world than there are even good owners.  Success for a business requires both.  For any given medium-term period it is possible to be successful only with A+ employees.  But long-term success must have owners.