Monday, December 22, 2008

Take Advantage of the Slow Time

The holidays are notoriously slow. In fact, one of my Corporate America pet peeves is the oft-spoken rule that "nothing will get done between Thanksgiving and New Year's." It seems to become a more ingrained self-fulfilling prophecy every year, but the slower pace can also present opportunities for you to focus on creating options for yourself.

Here's a quick list of suggestions to seize on during the holidays:

Books. Hit the bookstore and grab a couple of those books you've been meaning to read (see my Amazon list on the right for some suggestions) and to find some new jewels. Begin with a clear focus on topics to make sure you don't end up walking out with another Dilbert book (understandably irresistible to the cubicle crowd). Then get out your pencil for note-taking and dive in!

Online Research. Dig around the internet and read up on small business / entrepreneurship. I have not found it to be the easiest of topics for this, but see what you can find. You can get through a lot of the internet in an hour! Pop open the laptop and do some digging while you watch It's a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time. INC magazine's site isn't great, but it's not bad. Norm Brodsky's articles are very good. If you don't get the magazine in the mail (and at $15 a year, there's no reason you shouldn't), go back and read his. I have come across one other blog on a topic similar to mine. She's been working on a book (Newman! She's beating me to it.), so her posts are less frequent of late, but try the archives. Get out on this world wide interweb thingy and see what you can see.

Networking. Not everyone is out of town during the holidays, so drop that excuse. And for people with company in town, many would relish the chance to get out of the house for just about any reason other than shopping or returns. Reach out and see who else might be around for the holidays to help you expand your network. For those in town, it's a great time to avoid work, school, and other conflicts.

Conversations with Family and Friends. I include this one, because you are probably think, "What in the world can I learn from that cousin that used to make fart noises under his arm when we were kids?" Well, that cousin probably thinks the same thing about you and your ability to make milk spray out your nose! But you've both changed (hopefully!) and might need to find some new topics of conversation. Ask questions and then ask some more to learn what you can from relatives that might be in areas of potential interest to you. Warning: This one's certainly not foolproof, but it's worth a try. Also, you know those holiday parties you dread (especially New Years)? Take the opportunity to meet new folks and ask lots of questions. Make connections. I guarantee that you will come away with a couple of interesting new additions to your network.

Finally, if you are going into the office during the holidays, it's also a time when you frequently find you get your "day's worth" of work done in about half of the time thanks to fewer meetings and other distractions. Take advantage of the flexibility and efficiency to make some progress on multiple fronts. You'd be surprised what actually can get done in December!

And with that, I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Discovering Servant Leadership

Joel Spolsky's articles in INC magazine are providing a consistently strong accompaniment to Norm Brodsky's monthly missives. Joel's article this month was on servant leadership. He provides a particularly impactful personal example of witnessing and his own recent example of practicing servant leadership. It is an often overlooked opportunity in small business that can have deep and long-lasting impacts on your organization.

Corporate America provides fewer (or at least different) opportunities for servant leadership. Consider the opportunities that abound in small business: picking up the mail, making coffee, cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash, running to Target for Folgers/toilet paper/a box of pens, addressing Christmas cards (maybe try that one today!), replacing light bulbs, .... Those are all provided for you in Corporate America. Warning for those of you in Corporate America, if you are the type of person that leaves the coffee pot empty, then you might struggle with the list above.

The point of the list above is not to say that you as the budding entrepreneuer needs to take care of all of those all the time, but a good rule of thumb I've been told is "don't ask someone to do what you will not do yourself." If your teammates see you delegating or ignoring all of those things, then you are sending clear signals about your priorities. Believe me, toilet paper is important to people!

If you have a list of objections for me at this point, I can assume what they likely are. "I'm busy with running the business.... I don't have time for these details.... I will hire someone to do all of that...." For one, your business might not be able to afford the cost of delegating all of these. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the time required to make this commitment and the return you can see on that investment would make it worth your while to carve out the time to address them yourself.

By displaying servant leadership, your people will respond by giving more of themselves in return and picking up other small things around them because they see you doing that. All ships will be lifted with the tide and the business will see the impact. In return, your objections above will be addressed by the team's overall performance and responsiveness to your leadership. So, pick one or two off the list and make them part of your routine. Servant leadership is simply part of being an entrepreneur and a small business leader.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rattling Your Corporate America Cage

I always find the job numbers thrown around in the news a bit difficult to digest. Sometimes big numbers are small percentages. Typically big cuts at small businesses are not even mentioned. Often there are qualifiers to the cuts such as early retirement, not filling open slots, etc. Recent months have brought a slew of job numbers across the economy, big business, and even some small businesses. The workers at Republic Window and Door in Chicago are a notable example. Here in Richmond, Circuit City, Land America, Qimonda, and others fill the news with cuts at all levels of the organization.

My suggestion is that you focus less on the numbers and the news and consider what lessons you can learn from the current environment. Here are a some ideas for you:

1. Beware your faith in your Corporate America paycheck.
I am reminded of an old adage to "buy as little car as you can stand and as much house as you can afford." The prior is always true, but the latter is also predicated on the thinking that your mortgage payment (before taxes) stays the same in a fixed rate loan and your pay will go up as you get raises. Not necessarily a bad strategy, but consider how many areas of your life are connected to today's paycheck AND tomorrow's larger one AND your bonus AND .... These are the financial corners into which many people paint themselves that prevent them from being able to consider other career options (ones that cannot support that financial pyramid) and make any hiccup in any aspect of pay a cataclysmic event. Of course, it doesn't help dissuade this thinking when the American consumer is implored to SPEND! in the spirit of patriotism and national interest. (Brief soapbox tangent there, so I will stop but I will avoid going back to delete the sentence.)

2. Root for some form of national health coverage.
This is the one that always raises the most eyebrows. I'll quickly give you my arguments. I have innumerable conversations with people who use their health coverage in Corporate America as a primary reason for not pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. For some this may be a red herring, but for many it is a true, harsh reality. I have been fortunate to have good enough health to be able to pursue my own options for health care, but any hiccup in your health can shut this door in an instant, thereby truly eliminating this option for people. This leaves someone no choice but to pursue only those opportunities that provide health care. I am not saying that the government would necessarily run programs better, but I believe that the blind faith in business-based health care is not without its own major flaws. [NOTE: Feel free to comment below on this one, in particular. It's always a topic sure to stir debate!]

3. Create options for yourself.
Some people feel that it is dishonest to be looking around for other jobs while at their current employer. Poppycock! (There's a word that doesn't get used enough.) As long as you are fulfilling the duties of your job and not surfing Monster all day or mentally checked out (an unfortunate, ongoing struggle in many corporations), there is absolutely no reason for you not to be networking constantly. There is not a thick black line between looking for a job and not. Keep discussions going and see where they may lead. Answer the calls from reputable headhunters. Beware of loving a corporation, because it can't love you back. Besides, a great piece of advice I received was that considering other jobs either confirms you are in the right place or leads to a better opportunity. That is a great set of options!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Can You Work with a Variety of People?

This may sound like an odd question to which you would automatically answer "yes," but I will tell you that for many people that would be a lie. Realizing this too late can be catastrophic in small business. For example, if you've been cooped up in Corporate America with the MBA crowd your whole career, you might be wildly out of your element with the machine operator out on work release. (Link graciously provided for those of you that just said "What is 'work release?'")

Personally, I have enjoyed the jobs I have had where I have interfaced with both the boiler room and board room. I love the variety. Maybe it's the engineer in me that still gets a charge out of talking to the line operator. I have also seen the extent to which others can struggle when thrust into a situation with one or more of the groups across this spectrum. And if you don't know how to interact with a certain group, your biggest mistake will be to try and fake it.

Most entrepreneurs will run the gamut from bankers to adminstrators to salespeople to maintenance to purchasing to operators to lawyers. And that's probably all in the same week! There are a couple of risks of which you should be aware. For one, many people will consciously or subconsciously avoid the groups with which they are least comfortable. Danger! Another risk is that you can get taken advantage of when you are visibly out of your comfort zone.

Therefore, it is not a topic to be overlooked when considering small business opportunities. You can either steer yourself towards opportunities more in your comfort zone or be aware of the challenge and mitigate it with your teammates and/or a focused effort on your part. This can be one area where a personal coach or other reliable resource can help expand your comfort zone and your skills.

Both internally and externally, your interpersonal skills will be of heightened importance in small business. Much gets done on trust and relationships in this space. And the inverse is true too. You can't hang up a banner proclaiming "People are our Greatest Asset" if people do not see it in your actions. In small business, actions speak much more loudly than motivational posters! (For those of you still in Corporate America, see for some amusing alternatives.) So much is of heightened importance in small business, and your ability to connect with people is not one to be taken for granted.

REQUEST: Last week, a friend of mine emailed with some suggestions for post topics. Please email or share those in the Comments. I'd love to hear it. My goal is to sustain two posts per week, so variety helps.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Managing Yourself in a Home Office

For those considering the move to small business, the ability to work at home at any hour is an important consideration. I've had the pleasure of having my car in the shop for the last two days, which has forced me to work from home more than I have in the last few years. It is interesting how a couple of days of this bring back the challenges and the adjustments necessary to succeed in this setting. It is certainly not something to take for granted.

I am fully aware of its upsides--wearing slippers to work, cranking my favorite Pandora stations, going for a mid-day run, etc. There are several other negatives or, at minimum, double-edged swords. Some are clear--seeing the kids, random doorbell rings, etc. One that is often taken for granted, however, is the ability to stay focused and get work done.

For those of you coming from Corporate America, take a minute to stop and think about a day with no meetings. How would you utilize it? Specifically. It's a tougher answer than you may first think. Some struggle with limits on the above pros and cons. Others simply struggle with keeping their head down and getting productive work done. This point can kill an entrepreneur. Your time is more precious than you think.

I am no expert here and certainly have my own challenges, so this post is not intended to provide a magic recipe. 'Boundaries' is my one word of advice. Give it a day and you'll know what I'm talking about. As for managing your time, I can say that there are some useful points in a book by David Allen called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Some people that I know and admire absolutely swear by this book!

The important thing is that you find your own solutions. As mentioned here multiple times, small business has a way of permeating your life. In general, I find this to be a bigger pro than a con, as long as the business is one that you love and can abide having permeate you life. It is critical, therefore, that you find ways to be productive at home. So before you sit down with cell phone in hand and computer on lap, outline your plan for making sure that you can be your own boss and do what you need to do in that potential black hole called 'the home office.'