Tag Archives: Management

Reducing Burn-out

Employee burn-out is a constant worry for the modern day manager. Distracted by the day to day business of sales and profitability growth, it is all too easy to forget about the human costs of doing so. But how does one avoid employee burn-out?

The most important thing is to understand the risk factors that contribute, and where you sit on the spectrum. When you look around your office, how many open fires can you see? If the answer is more than one, then maybe you should reconsider, as our research indicates that the number of fireplaces in an office block is directly proportional to the number of employees who catch on fire. Open fires increase burn-out. It reads like a truism, but it is amazing how many modern day offices operate multiple hearths in the open plan.

However that is not all you can do. Many offices don’t even have a single open fire, yet experience regular employee burn-out. This is because of hidden risk factors that may exist. I know that pile of kindling will be really useful for the next company retreat, but do you remember when it started that electrical fire? (RIP Frank). And as much as I understand the importance of the barrel of diesel (I know it saved Barry a trip to the petrol station a couple of weeks ago), it’s not only pretty flammable but is stinking the place out. These are easy wins that can reduce the number of employee fires that happen every year.

But what if the worst happens, and burn-out starts happening in a busy city office? This is where burn-out protection comes in. Everyone in the office should have a personal fire extinguisher, and should know how to use. Using espresso cups to throw water when Jamie’s coat caught on fire was as successful as you might expect, so do attend your quarterly extinguisher training course.

As a closing note, what is most important is constant diligence, as this is not just a quick fix. If you see an employee playing with matches in the office, suggest that they do it at home instead. If a colleague is spotted purchasing an office blowtorch for the break room, indicate that a Nintendo Wii might be better. By working together, and following these basic steps, your employees will be happy, and most importantly fire free.

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Business is war: Leading from the Front

The comparison of business to the art of war is often made, drawing on the experience of dead generals to address commercial problems.

While there are some aspects of war that I would certainly not inflict upon my coworkers (e.g. slaughter, copious blood), I have often found these comparisons ring true.  In this post I will discuss how applying military thinking has helped my business succeed.

One of the key components of leadership is how you are perceived by your followers – are you a strong, confident person? Or are you shy and retiring, afraid of the fight?

Hard as it may be to believe, 10 years ago I was once very much in the former camp, at least in the eyes of my team.  I spent hours poring over the literature, desperate to discover what was lacking  It soon became clear to me – I was not leading from the front.

Being the first to enter the fray is an often-used way in which military figures gain respect from their soldiers, and I found the same to be true in business.

Instead of walking to meetings willy-nilly, I began to have my teams walk behind me, in formation. When sitting at a boardroom table, I would place my seat 2 feet in front of everyone elses. In all conversations I would make sure to have the first word, and never the last.  The results were remarkable.  I was suddenly spoken to differently, by both my team and my clients.  Where previously I had been a person, I was now a leader.

I quickly reorganized the whole way we did business. I placed my office at the front of the building, with all other desks behind mine. I installed an entrance such that I could walk in backwards, ensuring that I never have any member of my organisation behind me, always leading from the front. I haven’t seen any of my co-workers’ faces in years, and business is booming. If you lead from the front maybe yours will too.

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Less meeting, more doing

In the early years of my career I seemed to spend all my days in meetings, one after the other from nine to five.  In general a lot was said, but all too often I found that too little was achieved, with the resultant verbatim Minutes document a poor substitute for the actual minutes lost along the way.

The potential people-hour cost of meetings has been noted elsewhere, with Harvard Business Review estimating recently that one company’s weekly meeting was taking up 300,000 people-hours per year!

This frittering of time always bothered me, with so much time spent merely meeting people, most of whom we probably already knew!  That is why in 2009, when I was in a more senior position, I implemented a seismic change in my company’s working culture, transitioning from Meetings to Do-ings.

While this may appear to be a basic change in company lexicon, it actually had a profound effect on the daily productivity of the business.  Suddenly the focus was on what would be done, as opposed to who would be there.  Where previously we were emphasizing the communal aspect, we were now all about what would be achieved while we were together.

This cultural change organically developed, altering the whole Do-ing occasion within the business.  Where previously we received meeting invites, we started receiving Do-vites.  Conference calls became Done-ference calls, and Minutes became Done-things.  With each definitional change, we saw a boost in our KPIs, from employee productivity to operating margin.

While we do still spend lots of time together discussing things as a team, we are no longer wishing the time away.  So perhaps next time you find yourself confronted with a directionless meeting agenda, you might move your focus from Meeting to Doing.

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Making small business more like big business

Google was founded in 1998.  Facebook was founded in 2004.  In a world that has been transformed by companies that are younger than the legal drinking age, the startup has gained an almost mythical quality, with even the most cursory of Google searches yielding multiple articles encouraging  startup behaviour in larger, more established companies. Large companies with paltry single digit revenue growth are clamouring for startup gold dust, rethinking strategy, R&D and even hiring policy along the way.  However I am here to argue that the opposite should be taking place – why aren’t more startups acting like multibillion dollar corporations?

This may be against the currently held wisdom, but the numbers back it up.  Forbes’ top 10 companies in 2013 made c. $175B in profit last year, while most startups don’t even generate any revenue.  The latest and greatest startup tech companies might be valued in billions, but Walmart’s market capitalization is c. $250B.  So why on earth are business gurus imploring these leaders of industry to imitate their lesser cousins?  The sooner early-stage companies start to act like big corporate, the better.

As an entrepreneur, how is it best to go about this startup transformation?  The first step is obvious, which is to focus on shareholder value at all times.  While your shareholders are probably limited in number (indeed it might just be you), that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adopt this crucial tenet of big business.  It doesn’t matter if your lead developer’s latest idea could get you 100,000 new users, what does that mean in terms of market capitalisation?  It doesn’t matter if a new idea might change the way in which people interact online – if it doesn’t increase your shareholders’ dividend then you don’t want to hear it.  These things are important to big business, and as an aspiring big business, they are therefore important to you.

Having realigned your company’s focus, the next thing to do is to introduce some bureaucracy.  Big corporate has lots of hierarchy, and so should you.  Establish a layer of managers between you and your front-line workers.  Hire some managers to manage those managers, with management team leaders to oversee it all.  Introduce committees, bringing in people with disparate views, interests and competencies.  Make sure that all decisions have multiple stakeholders, with diverse and vested interests.  Only then will your startup start to mimic the dynamism of big business.

When hiring your myriad management structure, the approach is well-established – competency-based questions. Often startups focus a lot on company fit, and technical skills, when they should in fact be worrying about times their employees have historically dealt with conflict.  What about your employees’ self-reported track record when it comes to team-work, and overcoming difficult problems?  I, for one, would never hire anyone who couldn’t give me two examples of times when they have implemented change in their organisation.  I would strongly recommend that you don’t either.  Rely on competency-based questions, and you will get the loyal foot-soldiers your company needs.

Having established your structure, and hired your employees, how should you go to work?  The key is to be as prescriptive as you possibly can.  Some foolish startups encourage “free time” and “employee creativity”.  This is to be discouraged, as it wastes valuable company time, and company time is company money, and company money is shareholder value.  Lest you even consider wasting shareholder value, I will refer you to my first point – Shareholder Value, Shareholder Value, Shareholder Value.  If you focus on that, you won’t go far wrong.

These changes may all seem large scale, and fundamental, and that is because they are.  But if you are serious about making your business a big business, they are changes that you will do well to make, and you will surely be glad when you have done so.


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