School’s out

The last bell

When I was at school, back in the mists of time, even when the last bell rang we could not pack up and leave the classroom until we were dismissed by the teacher. It might be different now of course. However, a desperate rush for the door would not seem to indicate much enthusiasm for the subject we were being taught.

Not far down the road is the main office of a local vocational training centre. At 5pm there is a veritable stream of employees and possibly some students out of the door and down of the road, many lighting cigarettes or on their phones as soon as they step out of the door. I find that very surprising. I would guess that there is not much job satisfaction there if everyone is so eager to get away, but it seems these people are not alone. The Cabinet Office has apparently found that there is a huge variation in job satisfaction.

Getting satisfaction

Of course I am not surprised that those in authority have more satisfaction than those that do not, and clergy as top dogs work mainly at their discretion, helping people, which must be rewarding. However, farmers come pretty high despite lower incomes, and I suspect that is not so much because they are in charge of others, but because they are actually self-employed and more in control of their own destinies unless weather takes its toll.

We small business owners do have a considerable advantage in having job satisfaction, don’t we? We make our own decisions, do not have reason to resent the boss (unless we really hate ourselves), take time off when we decide to, and should anyway be running a business we enjoy.

I did not originally choose to start my own businesses, but I am so glad that it happened. After all, as referenced in the BBC article, while we should make good profits, our social well-being and life satisfaction are the main elements in being happy in our work. That stems from our independence rather than dependence on less considerate employers. Aren’t we lucky?

Monday, Monday, so good to me

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanThe Mamas and The Papas sang:

“Monday Monday, so good to me,
Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be”

It seems the rest of their Monday did not work out so well, but I look forward to Monday mornings because I have my own businesses and I am in control of my destiny.

Like many I remember when I was an employee, perhaps with a long commute, to a job I did not enjoy. Sometimes the work was not satisfying, or it was boring, or I simply did not have enough to do.

When I was under-worked I was under pressure to deliver to the firm more fees when I had spare time and no money made available to do my own marketing. There were several people in the same position and I went to find a more challenging position.

Sometimes I had an unsympathetic boss. When I was with a firm that had been taken over, the new partner in charge felt lumbered with staff he did not want. He gave the quality clients to his own people. I was then supposed to report to someone who had no confidence in me and also had that same problem of not enough work.

Then there was the bully boss, the rude man who shouted and swore at his staff. Come to think of it, I had two of those a dozen years apart.

In the end I started my own businesses because I had to in the absence of employment, but if everyone knew what I know now, no one would want to report to someone else if they had any go in them.

Isn’t being in business on your own account so satisfying, and yes, so much fun?

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Working from home constructively

Break-time walk

Break-time walk

I have been in business working from home for more than a decade. Of course working from home doesn’t mean working at home all the time. I do a lot of work at home, but I visit clients all over the place to help them with their businesses and their tax issues, and I go to networking meetings and training sessions.

Not being responsible to anyone else means I have to be responsible to myself. Working from home is not about using the technology. People have been doing it for a long time. It is about discipline.

Discipline is a word my Dad used to bark at us children when we had apprently misbehaved. In a sense it has a bad press, being associated with regimentation. Yet all we are really talking about is being sensible and organised.

It would be all to easy to lie in bed when we have work to do. We need to get up, have a set time of when we work, and broadly stick to it. If we don’t have work, i.e. business to service, or employees and subcontractors to organise to do it, then we should be at our desks, or on the sofa, or somewhere, marketing. Alternatively we should go to that early breakfast meeting.

It can be lonely working from home. Before the internet, we could have our “water-cooler” chats on the telephone, but now we can chat and interact on-line. We can use Twitter for conversations as well as for our marketing.

We have to have that discipline not to allow our social media interaction to get in the way of work. Yes, I like to see whatever everyone is up to by scrolling around Facebook, but there is a time and a place, and that certainly isn’t when we should be working for our clients and customers, or trying to find new ones.

  • Have particular times to work, whether normal office hours, or four in the morning start, but stick to it.
  • Limit the social media marketing time to an hour or so.
  • Set yourself break times and make sure you take them.
  • Try to do the on-line social stuff to the breaks.
  • Don’t work long hours, because if you feel you have to you must be doing something wrong.

What tips do you have?

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Curbing our aggression?

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanPerceptions

My very nice Twitter friend, Elaine Clark, commented the other day:

“Why is it that women are aggressive and men assertive – well that is what blokes always tell me!”

I do not have that opinion (and I think Elaine had her tongue in her cheek), but it set me thinking about how perceptions of people govern their success in employment or in business.

Aggressive or assertive?

In large businesses I would have thought that employees perceived as aggressive would not be favoured by their bosses or the owners. However, I have to say that if we think about “assertive” meaning rather pushy and extrovert then I do think that getting noticed does help people to be promoted, sometimes above those who have more ability and knowledge. That goes for both women and men.

Certainly I remember in a previous employment spotting early a very pushy female junior whom I thought would go far. She is now a partner in that international firm. Did her pushiness pay off? It might have done, because another very pushy person but not so clever guy also made partner. I like to think the pushy lady made the higher echelons because she worked hard and is clever too.

I do think it is possible that pushy people get promoted in larger organisations because their managers prefer a quiet life. Do you?

Pushy or confident?

Having met many small business owners since I became one myself, I am not convinced that it pays to be pushy and in-your-face. In fact I know it is not. Don’t you try to avoid those people at networking events who buttonhole you and thrust their flyers and cards at you even though you have not expressed an interest?

There is nothing wrong with putting yourself forward of course. I do, even though it is not really a natural thing for me I am an introvert really, but have trained myself, through watching others, to speak and to do presentations. I try not to talk too much face-to-face about my business unless asked. It is quite different to set out our wares on our websites, or have flyers delivered door to door, because that does not force anyone to look at whatever they don’t want to.

Mainly we need to show what we can do, and what successes we have had, and demonstrate our knowledge. Male or female, we should not be aggressive or assertive so that people notice, because they are likely to react against us.

We need to gain the confidence of our business community. We can have a personal brand which people like without being over-the-top and freaking people out. To me, pushy doesn’t cut it. What do you think?

 

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Communicating with your employees and colleagues

iStock_000020557146LargeThe team

All successful small businesses need to have their owners, management and employees work as a team. That means quite a degree of commitment from everyone and that has to be based on mutual respect.

When I was a manager in someone else’s small business, and indeed when I was in charge of a department in a larger firm, I always believed in a relatively hands-off approach. I didn’t tell people what to do, although I helped them if they asked. I tried to be approachable and friendly, and I always thought that I got the best response.

I found that way of managing because it worked for me. I think one’s charges respond better if they like their manager. That doesn’t mean that I am making out I am a wonderful guy. I did it because it was the easiest way and I knew it worked.

Everyone wants to feel included as part of the team and to help each other. I know I did when I was further down the ranks, and I also remember (confession coming up) not trying nearly so hard when I was getting blamed unreasonably for things going wrong which were entirely outside my control. The fact I was blamed was a communication failure in the managers not taking the trouble to get to the bottom of a problem. It was counter-productive of course.

Changes

Businesses do not always run smoothly and sometimes owners and managers will feel that there needs to be a change in working practices. If they do need to be implemented then it is far preferable if the employees are consulted properly and are on board. If they have specific issues they need to be met.

Communicating the need for change is not always easy. Gini Dietrich, writing here in her excellent blog, highlights how badly Yahoo! recently got it wrong and how they should have done better in asking their work-at-home people to work in the office in future.

It’s good to talk

A well-known telephone company if the UK used to have a strap-line “It’s good to talk” and it is, if you are talking with your employees on a level of respect and understanding. They need to appreciate why change is needed, and “management” needs to empathise and understand what problems their staff may have in making the change.

Do you agree it’s good to talk?

Related posts:

What the BBC can teach us about management and team work

Why managers and workers need to respect each other

 

 

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Penny-pinching in small businesses can be very expensive

What shall I do?

Do you try to do everything in your business or do you confine yourself to the sharp end – your expertise?

Most of my work is to do with tax; that is advising people on it or writing about it. I am comfortable within my area. I have a lot of experience. I know how and where to do research to find the right answer.

I did not always know how to find the answer, though. I remember as a junior trainee being tasked with finding the answer to an unusual problem. I did not want to show my ignorance on the subject, and I had difficulty understanding the technical books in the library. After all, I was very wet behind the ears. So I relied on a book published by a well-known bank and aimed at the layperson – in other words, the amateur.

When I took my answer to my manager he told me that the issue was more complicated than I had thought, but not only that; the book’s author had actually got it all wrong! I was sent way with my tail between my legs to try again. I asked a more experienced colleague and she explained the difficult bits from the technical publication. I had my answer, which was different from the previous one because it was right.

Of course I hadn’t known what I was doing, because one of the worst mistakes we can make is in forgetting that we don’t know what we don’t know, or in other words if we are not strong on a subject our incomplete knowledge can cost us dear.

I am not great at sales and marketing. I look to others for advice because otherwise I would waste a lot of time and money. I subcontract quite a lot of work that I do not enjoy or that is not profitable to be done within my office. I have someone to help me with my business websites, though I like learning playing with others which will not cost me money commercially.

If we are inexperienced or simply do not have the time to do something to support, promote or oil the wheels of our business, it will cost us a lot more in sales than if we pay a specialist to help us.

What do you think?

The decline and fall of a successful business

 

Shut up shop?

Sun roofs

Once upon a time there was an entrepreneur (except they weren’t called entrepreneurs in those days) who had a brilliant idea for a business model. He put it into action, offering a type of franchise and took lots of money up front with promises of good and even very large income.

The money just rolled in, year after year. Those were heady days in the eighties bubble with everyone making their mark in fashion with those shoulder pads, and having sun roofs cut into their runabout cars. The profits of the franchisees were not so huge, but in pre-internet days it was easy to keep from prospective new recruits that life wasn’t quite so rosy within the organisation as they might have been led to believe.

The web they wove

Then, gradually at first, the internet enabled people to talk to each other. Those who had bought in found that they were not alone in not making the large amounts of money they had been promised. After a while, everybody was talking and those who might have been potential recruits in the wider marketplace found that the road within the organisation was not paved with gold.

The sign-up income of the erstwhile entrepreneur dried up. He still many of his recruited members, but perhaps had lost the energy to plan. He hadn’t counted on everyone being able to communicate and be so well-informed. In a foolish moment he had decided to do away with the basic annual subscription and without new recruits buying their way in, he had no income.

He decided to sell, but unsurprisingly with no income coming in, there were no takers. You cannot sell a model that doesn’t work.

The Empire crumbles

Our owner had never listened to advice. He had always known best in the past. His was one of those autocracy businesses, with him at the top of the pyramid.

So the business started to crumble away. The owner tried to reintroduce a subscription to keep the basic infrastructure in place to allow the members to communicate with each other. Many of them laughed at this, having seen little return on their investment even in the organisation’s heyday.

Necessity is the mother of invention

What was a great business model 25 years ago might well be a poor one in the age of the internet. There are other ways and, yes, very many ways of making money if we are adaptable.

That is the point. We must be adaptable. We need to change. We need to use the new tools to the best of our ability.

What will become of our autocrat? He will probably retire and is handing over the remnants of his business to his son who is far more experienced in information technology.

What do we take from this? The answer is that the business environment is always changing, and even if we think we know best, we must seek advice as soon as we have a problem we cannot handle. You know when you need help, don’t you?

If a tree falls on your business…

Are you on top of your business finances, managing your cash flow, your sales takings ratio to money going out?

Are your orders coming in well? Are you attracting new business?

Do your staff have any issues? Are they happy? Have you asked them recently?

The strange thing is that some business owners are so focussed on the sharp end of their business, their enthusiasm and what drove them to start in the first place that they don’t realise when things are going wrong. It may be that the product is going out of fashion, or that someone else is selling a better one, or that that the whole marketplace has changed, or that they should be competing more on-line.

Because the product is fun, and the business is fun doesn’t mean that it is still successful. Just now and again, we, by which I mean you and I, need to check on the mechanics. Money makes the world go round, and money and our workers make our business wheels go round.

An extension of the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum physics suggests that if a tree falls in a forest it hasn’t really happened until someone notices (measures the event). Unfortunately your business and mine could fail without our noticing until it is too late, so we need to check regularly on the nuts and bolts of our businesses.

I don’t much like the Copenhagen interpretation in quantum mechanics and it certainly does not make sense when we could easily go bust without noticing if we take our eye of the ball.

Is your business safe from falling trees?

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Run too fast, fly to high

Janis Ian and me

Many successful people in business are prepared to take risks, which is why they get ahead of the game. I admire some who have take calculated risks to be a huge success. I guess Richard Branson would be one example of someone who stuck his neck out. Very often he has taken risks with finance and burrowing. Sometimes he has come to grief, but has had enough to fall back on. With the huge empire and brand he has, you have to admire his courage.

Sir Richard has always shown a certain prudence, though. He has never obviously put all his business interests at risk.

When I am out for my evening walks, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, I have to take added risks in crossing the roads because of the boy racers; those driving at excessive speeds over the limit. They don’t worry about the statistics.  The adrenalin takes control and they take risks. So many more come to grief in the age group 17 to 24 than in any other age profile.

There do seem to be people who are the equivalent of those drivers in running their businesses. They take excessive risks. They do not consider the consequences of their actions down the line. They try to expand too fast, and they borrow money in order to do so.

Nowadays the banks appear reluctant to lend too much, and are very risk averse, yet somehow they allow businesses to borrow through credit cards at very high rates interest, with APRs well over 20% when in the UK our bank base rate is still only one-half of one per cent. At a certain point the high interest takes its toll in terms of cash flow, or absurdly in some cases, they make a decent profit and borrow so much against their success that they cannot pay their tax. And so the walls of the business come tumbling down either because the banks / credit card companies or indeed the tax authorities want their money, but the business owners have spent it on more assets which are not readily convertible back into cash.

As usual it is all down to planning. If you fail to plan…

There is always a temptation to try to fulfil as many orders as possible no matter what. It is very easy to overstretch both in terms of resources and in terms of finance. If we have a resources problem only we can pull our horns in and manage what we are able to deliver. If we are over-committed on finance and borrowing we can lose everything by running too fast, and trying like Icarus to fly to high.

Do you know anyone who has flown too near the sun?

Here is a video with Janis Ian about running too fast.

Click here if you can’t see it.

 

 

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What the BBC can teach us about management and team work

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Head Man (Director General) at the BBC, George Entwhistle, resigned not because he made an error of judgement but because his management or his employees did not keep him informed about a major mistake they had made. He then looked foolish because he had not seen what was reported through other media including both the press and Twitter. A man who seems not in control has to go. He might very well be able to take control, but he has lost the confidence of the customers and his staff.

These sorts of disasters can happen in small businesses too. It is so important if you are the person at the top that you are approachable. For that to be so, your employees have to feel part of a team and to belong. They have to know you and to like you. Then it will be easier for them to tell you what you need to know, which will include the bad things as well as the good things. They need to be able to tell you anything, without fear that you will be angry.

As long as there is communication between you and your workers, and as long as you keep them informed as well as they keep you informed, there should be no disasters and no problems that can’t be managed. Of course that requires mutual respect, and from your side that requires you to be fair and to listen to their feedback, critical and general.

Do you manage a successful team?

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