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 too 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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Keeping your business safe – Part 2

English: Thomas Boylston to Thomas Jefferson, ...

English: Thomas Boylston to Thomas Jefferson, May 1786, Maritime Insurance Premiums (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping your cover

You are the boss. It is your business. But suppose you were not there for a week, or a month, or many months, or couldn’t work ever again. How would you manage?

I believe in insurance and I believe in common sense. Not everyone does believe in insurance. I know people who have been robbed, and people who have lost their possessions in a fire and they were not insured because they “didn’t believe in it”. For a small annual outlay they could have replaced what they had lost; of course not personal or family items of sentimental value, but at least stuff to help them get on with their lives.

So it is with business. Paid for insurance should cover:

  • Compensation when we are not able to work due to illness or accident.
  • Perhaps paying someone experienced to work in our place
  • Indemnity insurance in case our business is sued. We may have done nothing wrong at all but we might still have to pay lawyers fees.
  • Accident insurance in case anyone visiting us or working with us has a serious mishap.

Being sensible

Then there is the common sense insurance:

  • Have someone nominated who can step into our shoes if we are not there, and make sure they would be able to do so by briefing them “just in case”.
  • Keep as fit as we reasonably can. Go for a walk every day, go to the gym, eat sensibly. Take precautions.
  • Have a ‘flu jab every year.

There will be people who disagree with me because they still don’t “believe” in insurance or they have “heard” that people can get bad reactions to ‘flu jabs. Of course we cannot argue with those who won’t listen. Some would rather risk being broke when their business collapses because they were not insured. There are those who would rather risk being ill in bed for two or three weeks than have a ‘flu jab.

I am risk averse and not ashamed of it. I pay my insurance premiums. I have my ‘flu jabs. I would not want put at risk my clients and my colleagues by not being insured, and I would not want to give the ‘flu to my colleagues or to my elderly relatives who are most at risk.

Do you feel assured that you are insured?

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Keeping your business safe – Part 1

The high wire

Most small businesses rely heavily on the boss. That’s you and I. We may have great managers upon whom we can rely when we are away, but sooner or later, we have to be available to make decisions about the big issues.

However, accidents will happen, and therefore we need insurance, whether it is the sort for which we pay premiums, or our insurance is a common sense approach.

Safety nets

One of the hazards of running a small business (or should I say “challenges”) is when we are offered a really good project which is far too large or complex for us to do. It is beyond our current capabilities. We need to assess the risk to our business in taking that source of business on:

  • Can we do it comfortably by engaging another business as a partner, assuming that is acceptable to the client?
  • Is our insurance cover enough if the project goes wrong or if the client thinks it has? (We need to be covered for wrongful claims too).
  • Can we cope with the stress?

If we can say “yes”” to all those questions, then go for it, because it will be an exciting development and something to talk about in pushing our business forward.

If our answer is “no” to any one of those questions, then we can decline politely and respectfully, and still have the opportunity to make a great referral to a bigger business who may reward us then or later.

It is wonderful to get an exciting new client, but it is honourable and sensible to decline when we know we just cannot meet client expectations.

Have you ever bitten off more than you could chew?

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Enjoy yourself

Reflections

Isn’t it great to be happy? We cannot be happy all the time. Life can be difficult. We have family pressures and worries. We have business pressures too. No one has ever run a business where everything went right.

This past week I have been thinking how important it is to be happy in work. In my days as an employee I have had several periods when I was very happy. I felt liberated early on in my working career even as an office junior, because for the first time I was treated as a real person and not an irrelevance as I had been during my mostly rather unhappy education. It was great.

Later I had a magical few years working close to the London insurance market, and then again during my first job as a manager. Finally as an employee I has a very brief but enjoyable period working with someone who has this week fallen from grace in a rather shocking way. Although we did not part on good terms, I am truly sorry and at the same time grateful that I was allowed a time to know how good I was at what I did; even if it did turn out to be the last time I was able to have a job before passing the age barrier to getting another.

Bike time

The rest is history of course, because I got on my bike to start a business. I have had a lot of fun and still do. I could not work for anyone else now. Times were very hard at the beginning, and there have been ups and downs since, but we are still standing and the economy does seem to be better.

Relaxation

I have learned it is important to relax. I need to get out of the office, and I enjoy walking around our local countryside and across along the river. When I am outside, I get my best business ideas, my best ideas for articles and blog posts, and get to sort out solutions to difficult problems to do with business or otherwise. I don’t have to make an effort to think. In fact I do not dwell on sticky issues when I am out. I take in the scenery and surroundings and the useful thoughts just pop into my head, because I am enjoying myself.

My wife and I do take holidays as often as is practical, which is at least annually and sometimes twice a year. We are sometimes self-indulgent, but we only get one go at our lives.

It’s later than you think

An elderly couple to whom I used to speak sometimes on one of my local country walks no longer seem to be living at home. I don’t know what happened to them. Maybe they couldn’t cope any more. Perhaps one has died or maybe both. I know the old gentleman had run his own business, though mostly we talked about cameras and photography. I just hope he and his wife had fun.

Business should be fun. If it is, we run it better because we have enthusiasm. If business isn’t fun we need to sort ourselves out or run a different business which is fun.

My old biology teacher used to say “Are you happy in your work?”. Well, are you?

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How not to run a business

 

English: NHS logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patience is a virtue?

This week I have witnessed some very poor business management, or more to the point, no management at all. As it was in a hospital I have also come to understand how the word “patient” has become the word used for those “customers” who are in hospital, because you have to be exceedingly patient when you are in there.

This is not a piece bashing the UK National Health Service. The NHS is great when you have an acute problem. Emergencies are usually dealt with very well. Our local plaster room has always seemed very efficient, but the key there is that the staff in there take responsibility for their own work. They are skilled and they move things along.

A good start

We had to go to a surgical assessment unit. We were told that the patient would be there five or six hours while she was being assessed and the tests were done. She was checked in quickly and efficiently. They took blood fairly early on and the patient was examined a couple of times soon after arrival in the morning.

All downhill

The ward was not especially busy. In the afternoon several patients were taken down for X-rays. Our patient was left to her own devices, and it was just as well she had a good book to read. However at around 7 in the evening when clearly nothing had happened for hours, she asked to be collected as she thought they must have finished with her and she had been told she was fit to go home.

Comedy time

When I arrived, the patient told me she was now supposed to be going to have an X-ray. A porter duly arrived and wheeled her off. Fifteen minutes later they were back. The lady had been rejected by the X-ray department because she was still in her day clothes. She offered to put on one of their gown there and then, but was told she would have to return to the ward to get one.

Now be-gowned she was wheeled off again. Fortunately the porter managed to keep her place in the queue from the previous visit, which was the only initiative shown by anyone all day.

Breaking out

We escaped from the hospital at 9 in the evening. I was starving and while I had been waiting I had sought food in the canteens and hospital coffee shops, all of which had closed. The patient had been fed a rather disgusting shepherds pie in the hospital.

Blaming the management

I found the hospital nursing staff and admin people to whom I spoke very pleasant. I am sure they are good people. It was no good complaining anyway. Clearly there was no organization or management. Many of them were sitting or standing around most of the time, and it did seem that they were over-resourced when we hear so often that the NHS suffers from staff shortages.

It seemed to me that the staff were in the wrong places. Also, in the absence of hands-on management and being told what to do at each stage (often not a good idea as it damages self-esteem), workers do need to be allowed to use their initiative and take responsibility as in the plaster room. Empowerment of the workers to think for themselves within certain constraints leads to greater efficiency and, very importantly, they will be happier and more confident.

Empowerment

I have always believed in largely hands-off management but not in no management at all. Managers should be friendly with their charges because that encourages loyalty, which again promotes good work. You really can’t beat giving your employees responsibility for their own domain in an atmosphere which encourages them to report problems without any fear of criticism. Then you have a really efficient productivity model.

It is a shame when good people are not allowed to be at their best in the workplace. It is a terrible waste of their abilities and a dreadful waste of money.

We wouldn’t run a business like that would we?

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