In defense of knowing things

I frequently advocate for generalists here and in other forums. I think generalists are incredibly important to every team. I think great generalists should often be hired over great specialists to run large teams, complex projects, or sprawling, fast-evolving organizations. I think they are undervalued in this hyper-specialized economy we accidentally built. This is my opinion. It is both well-informed and open to honest debate.

At the same time, I recognize we are at a period in history where, somehow, knowing things isn't taken as seriously as it used to be. It has become clear that certain people don't know the things they should know if they are to do the things they want to do. And many of these people don't think it matters - that real management is about hiring great people, facilitating the flow of ideas, communicating a message.

It's a problem. It isn't true. It's getting conflated with a real, legitimate debate about the skills and knowledge of people who lead and people who manage.

Do not confuse this problem with the generalist vs. specialist question. They are entirely different discussions. Generalists knows lots of things. Specialists know lots of things. They are different things, but they are still things.

Great generalists know things. They know a lot of things. They know things about what they are about to be doing. They do not know every detail, but they know the basics and are reasonably deep in a few key areas.

They know a lot about things that are only vaguely related to what they are doing. This gives them a large pool of experience and metaphors to draw from. They understand cultural dynamics in different situations with lots of different people. They care about those dynamics. They have seen enough to be able to extract and understand nuance from most situations. They can handle diversity. They can handle and navigate through disagreement.

This is because they know things.

Some people don't know that many things. They are not generalists or specialists. They cannot pretend to be great managers. Great managers still know things. Many things. Enough things.

People who don't know things are just unqualified.

So what's my point? Regardless of what you want to do, know things. This current phase will not last and the world will once again belong to those with knowledge. Know a lot of things about a lot of areas. Know a lot of things about one or two areas. But know things. 

As Clay Shirky once said - age + paying attention = knows lots of things. Grow old and grow smart. Don't let someone with a pulpit who knows nothing change this.

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Your Digital Resolution for 2017

Is your company ready to absorb what you're going to throw at it this year - more customers, higher sales, lofty revenue targets, and elevated customer service expectations?

Embracing a "digital" mindset will not only help through the tools it brings - better analytics, big data, mobile, and cX (customer experience) tools - but can transform an entire company's culture to be more customer-centric and better able to execute quickly and accurately.

Middle market companies want to understand how to evolve into this new paradigm and avoid the cost, disruption, and risk of jumping in all at once. To that end, here are three simple things you can do in 2017 to get your team ready for digital transformation:

1. Focus on creating a culture of execution

Why

A organisational culture that is not built for speed or set up for continuous improvement will impede the successful delivery of digital projects,
— Kapil Bagga, GROW-Strategy.com

Digital is all about execution - constantly improving how you serve your external and internal customers and constantly innovating, implementing, and iterating. Achieving small execution victories will build a culture that prioritizes action and will serve as an example for long-time employees about the value this mindset brings.

Just as importantly, an execution culture knows how to fail small and move on. This is difficult for historically risk-averse environments and takes strong leadership to change.

How

  • Execute a project in Q1. Pick a project, a small project. Assign it to someone. Ask them to create a plan. Assign a team. Meet for status weekly. Make sure it's adopted by the business. Simple!
  • Do at least one technology project. No matter what industry you are in, software will be a major driver of your capacity to execute over the long-haul. Bring in the right people to help decide on the project, choose how to do it, and manage it through to execution.
    • Simpler projects can include reorganizing your inventory, improving how people are quoting, or rolling out a new sales tool to your staff.
    • If the business is ready, extend yourselves by touching a large system and more people - inventory control, time and expense tracking, order management, or even a full-blown ERP or CRM project.
  • The goal should be to get someone in your company to plan and execute a project, to improve one very specific area or solve a specific problem, and to prove to your people that not only can changes make things better for them, they can be done with little disruption and be led by people you have.

2. Start a mentoring program

Why

Digital requires collaboration towards the goal of total company achievement. Succeed together on small things that mean something big for the company. This means everyone in your organization needs to support each other and be vested in one another's success. Mentoring relationships send a strong message about how you intend to grow people internally, allow them to develop over time, and how your most experienced people need to invest in the next generation. The best encourage open and honest dialogue without fear of retribution. They also serve as arguably the strongest way to retain and grow young talent.

(C) 2016 Ronan Consulting Group, LLC

How

  • Start small - assign one or two junior staff members to experienced staff who have the mentality of a mentor
  • Create a simple list of topics you expect them to work on (avoid developing a complex framework of expectations). Examples could include career counseling, identifying key skills to develop, helping them network within the company, or exposing them to more of the marketplace. They could even include 360-degree elements with the younger staff member expected to teach the experienced staff member something specific.
  • Set aside budget for them to go to lunch occasionally 
  • Meet with both every 6 months to see how it's going. Don't ask for a formal report - just make sure they are talking about important topics for both the company and the junior staff personally. Contrary to popular theory, I do NOT advocate measuring the program off the bat. Evaluate it qualitatively first, then move towards a more structured program later on.

3. Start planning your digital IT function

Why

Effective digital tools require a number of foundational capabilities - a strong ERP/CRM and enterprise systems platform; a level of consistency with your business processes, and baseline technology skills throughout the organization. The odds are, you have some deferred maintenance in these areas. You may not be able to dive in right now, but you can plan the specific steps to prepare your organization to get there over the next 12-18 months.

For example, a central piece of your analytics strategy will be analytics. In their 2016 Tech Trends report, Deloitte called out "information acquisition and curation" and "information delivery" as two key elements of an analytics program. These items require strong underlying enterprise systems, disciplined processes, and well-established integration between your systems. These are all items you can work on now before you make the investment to dive into the latest and greatest analytics tools.

How

  • Create a roadmap to get to the digital future you want. The right consultant will ensure the roadmap is aligned with your overall strategy and contains the foundational elements required to quickly evolve into a digital model.
  • In the little projects we discussed in point 1, make your people accountable not just for implementing, but for monitoring success and improving the systems once they are being used by the business; and second, focus on agile development - constantly rolling out small improvements that add up to something substantial over time
  • Start vetting vendors who may offer long-term relationships to help build your digital capabilities. Make sure they are selected in a way that aligns with your roadmap long-term 

Even if you are just starting to think about digital, that's still a huge step in the right direction. Commit to spending the next year setting the stage for digital and beginning to evolve the organization in that direction.

Tolerate small failures, learn as a team, and generate lots of new ideas. Learn the digital marketplace - webinars, conferences, vendor demos are all great, easy ways to do this.

And have fun. Digital capabilities are exciting - enjoy the journey!

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Four Easy Ways to Make Remote Employees Work

I had a discussion yesterday with a client about hiring an out of territory sales rep. The company has never done it before and is skeptical a salesperson could be effective in this role.

In the current state, that may be true for them, but continued growth - particularly in niche industries - is eventually going to demand it. Being able to do so earlier will open a wider and more skilled talent pool to the company.

Here are four things that can make it easier and more likely to be successful:

Upgrade Core Technology

This does not need to be expensive. The odds are you already own most of these things, you're just not using them. The following tools are critical:

  1. VOIP Telephony: The phone system should have the ability to have a phone with an internal extension anywhere with internet access and should have a mobile app that allows 
  2. Cloud Apps: Ideally these are web-based, but if you have a Citrix environment or a terminal server, that's just fine. The point is, people should be able to access all of your core applications from the field at any time.
  3. Instant Messenger: You already own this, your employees probably just aren't using it yet.

And the following tools are nice to have:

  1. CRM: If you aren't using it yet you should be anyway - no matter how many salespeople you have. If you are onboarding remote salespeople, CRM will be critical to making them successful - particularly if there are backoffice or internal sales and service folks they will be working on the same customers with.
  2. Collaboration tool like Slack which is a great way to organize subject or project-specific internal conversations
  3. Video Conferencing: You may already own something that offers this as well (Google Hangouts, Microsoft Skype) but it takes some heavy management to get people to use it regularly. Video can really shrink the distance between a central team and remote workers.

Organize Your Content

Odds are your information is fragmented across the company. Using a tool like Google Drive, Microsoft SharePoint, or even Box or Dropbox, organize the information that the prospective employees will need to do their jobs. Your employees should get away from storing things in their own hierarchies and on their own devices anyways.

This exercise will also force you and your employees to rationalize what's really important and identify clear gaps in your documentation. Work to fill these gaps over time as you on-board new employees and get them up to speed.

Institute Management Reporting

"Management by walking around" is a great discipline but in the modern work environment it needs to be paired with some level of regular reporting and data-based analysis.

Work with management to develop the core, key management report - both activity-based and output based - that gives them an understanding of what's happening in their department at a macro level. Ideally, generate these from a centralized system (e.g. CRM, order management, production management) rather than asking people to compile them manually.

Once again, this is just a good management discipline. Regardless of whether you're adding remote workers you should be doing this; but in order to be able to manage remote workers this is absolutely critical.

Hire Millennials

That's right. Seek out and hire millennials.

They will challenge you in some ways - they'll ask for more flexible schedules, they will want more feedback from their managers, and they will want a collaborative and fun work environment. Embrace it.

They will also show you how they can be effective under these alternative arrangements. You will need to work with them to find the balance between flexible and traditional.

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How to hire top talent as a mid-sized business

Ronan Consulting Group has being doing a lot of recruiting work recently. Though we don't focus on selling recruiting services, when there are roles our clients need to fill in order for our initiatives to be successful we will source those roles in many cases.

We consistently need to answer the question: How does a smaller company compete with larger companies for top talent? Over time, I think we've found a few good answers.

There are a few more complicated ways to find good people I'll cover in a later post. Today we will look at how to fill senior-mid-manager and senior positions by hiring people from larger companies. 

Things to do now

1. (easy) Ignore every article you see about millenials. They are all wrong. Recruiting high-value millenials isn't that different than recruiting any high-talent person. The term "millenials in the workplace" is, 9 times out of 10, a thinly veiled complaint about how things aren't what they used to be. In reality, employee expectations have shifted across the board. This is going to feel strange for a lot of SMB CEOs. But it is what it is and, ultimately, if you want to be able to hire the best people you'll need to make some adjustments to be able to compete for them.

2. (easy) Have someone independently look at titles in you organization and re-align them to the norms of the industry. Titles carry more weight in larger organizations and will matter to new people you bring in. It will also communicate seniority more accurately and help avoid miscommunication about responsibility down the road

3. (hard) Start to realign current HR policies that deal with flexibility. It is likely new employees are going to negotiate more for flexibility than for pay. The problem is that giving one person more flexibility than others in is much more visible than paying them more and it is more likely to cause consternation with current staff. Save yourself the headache and begin implementing low-cost, low-impact flexibility standards to everyone ahead of time. Examples can include more forgiving work-from-home policies, reducing the years of service required for more vacation time, and liberalizing part-time work arrangements like 3 or 4 days per week.

Things to do during the search

1. (medium) Really think about the type of work the new person needs to do and make parallels to other industries and lines of work. A good search is going to need to be broad. Locking yourself into narrow industries or roles is unlikely to yield the most qualified pool of candidates. As an example, for a high-end hardware manufacturer, we looked to design-heavy industries like jewelry, fashion, and luxury automotive. We found a great candidate who would not have been on our radar if we had stayed in construction, architecture, or manufacturing - all of which appear to be more directly related.

2. (harder than it sounds) Use a rigorous, consistent interview process. We start every applicant with a short phone screen. This is the airport test and to make sure their experience is likely a good fit. The next step is a thorough in-person interview that gives us insight into how the person thinks, works, and interacts with peers. This should contain at least one "case study"-like discussion. I will cover my thoughts on this in a separate post. They are extensive.

3. (easy) Ideally find at least three good candidates to interview but don't make this too much of a constraint. If you find the perfect person, they crush the interview process, and you think you can make the role attractive enough for them to accept, don't play around. The right person can and does come around on the first try sometimes. Trust your instinct when it happens. If you're not sure, then have at least three candidates to compare against each other. But don't feel like you need to hire one of them. If your perception of the role evolves or none of the candidates seem like they fit, keep looking. Making the wrong hire is bad for everyone and is painful to recover from - it's better to just extend the recruiting process.

4. (medium) Be open about the company and encourage your people to be very transparent about what it's like to work there. If most people come in at 7:30 and leave at 8, tell them. If the role has turned over a lot, tell them. If they are going to need to shoestring some tools together where they probably have very sophisticated tools at their current job, tell them. There's no sense in getting a great person and having the role and company not match what you told them during the interview process. That always ends badly.

 

If you do these things you are guaranteed to find the right person and keep them forever.*

 

*This does not represent a guarantee. There is no substitute for good judgement.

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[Breathe] Presence [Breathe]

When I was in big consulting, we were taught how "presence" is critical to providing excellent client service. There were big picture ideas like "make the person know you're listening and want to learn learn more" to tips like "put your phone face down," "take handwritten notes," and "look the presenter in the eye."

As I have worked to get my business up and running over the past four months, I have discovered a subtler, more pervasive element of "presence." It's the presence that builds a community of supporters around you in every facet of your life. When there are other obligations; when you can't figure out how you will catch-up, you still need to "come up for air", so-to-speak - breathe, relax, and remove distractions for a little time to offer your presence to the people around you.

I attended an event recently where there were four sponsoring entities. I know for a fact that two of the entities are struggling - one reputationally and one financially. The other two are doing quite well - strong growth, good brand, community support, etc. Two entities had senior leaders show up to the event, two didn't. Guess who was who.

I'm sure if you spoke with the two who didn't attend they would offer good reasons - I won't even call them excuses, because it's really the judgement they made on tradeoffs of attending or not. No doubt there were other pressing matters they needed to attend to and the individuals may even have made a decision I would agree with if I knew all the details.

But to the people at an event, appearance is binary. They didn't need to be there to have a meaningful discussion or present a new cutting edge viewpoint. They needed to say "hi, thanks for coming", and shake a few hands. They needed to be recognized by a few other attendees. That would have made it feel like they were part of it. Their printed logo on a flyer did not.

The way I have internalized this is to participate in the community as much as possible. Go to events without the intent of selling yourself. Be seen. Say hi. Follow-up with emails or tweets. And don't do it once - go to events where you will see the same people 3, 4, 5 times. Become a known entity. Care about the people you meet.

It takes time but people gradually begin to trust you; to know that you are grateful to get to know them and their interests in the community. Two months ago I doubted I was spending my time in the right places. But as I get further into this journey, I realize that even if I don't make a new connection; even if I only see someone I saw two weeks ago and shake hands and talk for 30 seconds, it is usually worth it.

This will get more complex as things get busier, no doubt. I will choose (and have chosen) family and work events over another breakfast or cocktail hour and I will continue to do so. But when figuring out how to balance work and life, I will save time to just be places; to relax, breathe, and show up smiling and excited to see friends and acquaintances and to meet new people.

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The Culture of Successful Projects and the Superbowl

As has been noted ad-naseum today, last night's Superbowl commercials were decidedly more subdued than in past years and many brands made a clear pivot to conveying more "authenticity" in their brands. I would like to think this is a good thing, but there were a few brands who...well, let's charitably say they didn't do this very well.

The worst sequence of ads reminded me of the characteristics of dysfunctional project teams. It came from InBev's Anheuser-Busch who managed to turn themselves in a bully with three commercials. I couldn't help but think how emblematic they were of my least favorite managers and implementation partners. Let's go through their sequence:

First, they aired a commercial intended to convince people to return to Budweiser by mocking craft beers and the people who drink them. Full disclosure: I am a bit of a craft beer fan. What you'll usually find in my fridge is either from Two Roads (Probably their "Road 2 Ruin" double IPA) or from our local Stamford brewery, Half Full. Let's first say that this campaign doesn't make any sense: Budweiser is in the process of aggressively buying craft breweries and marketing them as "craft" brands trying to win back some of the 15% of the market that hundreds of local breweries have taken from them. But then, they try and do that by mocking - without any relevant content - the people who enjoy these products. It's a really unfortunate, bullying approach.

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

This is Heidi. See, we love dogs!

Then, that lost puppy commercial. Trust me when I say that my wife and I love puppies like everyone else in America. We have a dog. She was a puppy once and we enjoyed that. I "like" puppy pictures on Facebook when my friends welcome new canine members of their families. I legitimately enjoy puppies. Despite this, my wife and I looked at each other after this Budweiser ad and said "That was basically offensive." It felt like Budweiser was trying to manipulate us into liking them - not that they were making an authentic connection. It was focused on creating a tenuous emotional connection to their logo rather than anything to do with their product. It didn't work for us.

Finally, AB aired the obligatory "drink responsibly" commercial also containing, for some inexplicable reason, a dog. How about a wife and kids? Maybe families of someone else on the road that night? Anyway, I actually didn't have much of an issue with this ad in isolation but found it to be problematic in their sequence.

So, in about 90 total seconds, InBev AB:

  1. Mocked everyone who doesn't like their product
  2. Tried to emotionally manipulate us into liking their corporate logo with a commercial that had nothing to do with their product
  3. Insisted that they are good guys because they want people to be "responsible" with their product and protect their dogs or families, or something.

Insult your opinion. Try to break you down emotionally with messaging unrelated to the main topic at-hand. Protect themselves from blowback by insisting they are good guys and only have your best interests at the top of their mind. Sound familiar?

This happens on big, hard projects all the time and it's the best leaders and managers who can craft a culture that redirects these tendencies. It only takes one person on the team who embodies AB's approach to damage everyone on your team. This will not only damage the mentalities of the people on your team, but create an unhelpful, unproductive and highly political environment that will make it difficult to get meaningful things done. 

There are many approaches to avoiding this type of team culture, but I'll outline five of my favorites here:

  1. Repeat early, often, and in every venue, that all opinions are important. Thank people for sharing their opinions even when they are not necessarily productive. Eventually be direct (and nice) about your viewpoint, but during the process of developing it be thoughtful about every idea and opinion. Avoid mockery or belittlement at all costs and never, ever condescend someone because of an opinion they provide. Assume they arrived at their opinion thoughtfully and probe it - don't seek to discredit it.
  2. Avoid the blame game. Things will go wrong. People will make mistakes. At least once (probably more), someone on the team will make a mistake that requires everyone else do a lot of work to correct it. That's unfortunate, but it will happen. These projects aren't hard because they require everyone to work hundreds of hours towards linear goals: they are hard because there are hundreds of interlocking decisions, ideas and goals that have to interact perfectly. The biggest sentence to avoid: "How could this happen?" There is almost never a productive answer that will help you move forward. The answer is that it's because people are people and you're asking them to do something difficult. One of my favorite quotes to use here comes from HBO's "Too Big to Fail" - [paraphrased] "If you want to go back in time and figure out what happened we can do that later, but right now we need a solution and we need it quickly."

  3. Keep the main thing the main thing. Be the person to redirect the conversation. People will try to use their version of Labrador puppies to sway others to their point of view. Don't let them. You need to be the person to (again, nicely) redirect the conversation to the main question you are trying to answer. There will be lots of good stories, lots of interesting ideas and lots of ways to never solve your hardest problems. State the intent of every conversation or meeting and make sure the dialogue is productive and stays on track.
  4. Meet people where they are. Make authentic connections by being interested in their interests. Do not force generic tropes or mindless sentimentality on them - make an impact by listening to their stories, picking up on queues about their interests and openly expressing interest. I had a client with a division in the Netherlands during the 2010 World Cup. Many of us Americans knew very little about soccer, but some of our team members talked to our Dutch colleagues about the game, its cultural implications, why it was important to them, etc. Many of those discussions turned into real friendships which, in turn, led to a wonderful, productive work environment. It's only because those were real conversations. 
  5. Own it. This is repeated so frequently that I hesitated putting it on this list, but I've seen this at so many clients I feel it still needs to be said. After Russell Wilson's game-ending interception last night, Pete Carroll went to the media and completely owned the turnover. It wasn't a bad pass, there wasn't anything wrong with the route or the receiver, it was a play that he wanted to run that just didn't work out and that was his decision. I loved that. When things go wrong and it starts to point back to you or one of your team members, don't say "well yeah but I'm a good guy because I want you to drink responsibly and I do nice things for people all the time and I give my time to charities and I donate to my alma-mater and...and...and." Just own the mistake, apologize and move on. People will respect it and forgive the mistakes.

No matter what AB's Superbowl ads were, I wasn't going to suddenly start drinking Budweiser. But I could have at least enjoyed the ads and not thought less of the company. Instead, they embodied everything bad about poorly run projects.

Poorly run projects are just awful: they wreck careers, they destroy people's self-confidence, they industrialize an organization's worst cultural tendencies. They represent horrible opportunity cost because good projects can serve as the spark to turn companies around.

Don't run your projects like Anheuser-Busch. Run them like a carefree Labrador puppy trekking back to his best horse friend after sleeping on a not-so-smart craft-brew fan's couch the night before because he had integrity and cared about being responsible.

See what I mean?

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