Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A little "less" in "relentless"

As someone running a small company with a handful of employees and several contractors, I've had to learn the limits of how hard I can push people and what I can ask them to do. I suspect other founders or managers in larger companies could stand to examine this aspect of their leadership style as well.

A few months ago we took on a very large consulting project helping George Mason University and IARPA launch and grow a new prediction market focused on Science and Technology forecasting called SciCast (it's launched, you should check it out!). While the project has gone well thus far, it has also presented our small company with a significant set of challenges: namely that we still have product development, customer support, consulting, and sales activities for our own product line, Inkling Markets! 

Where as before our interaction with our clients was controlled and routine, the SciCast project is a traditional consulting engagement with deliverables, timelines, a demanding client, multiple collaborators, and metrics we've been asked to meet. As anyone who has been a consultant knows, this level of accountability can be a serious amount of work. And with that amount of work inevitably comes adversity and additional pressure to succeed.

Unfortunately, this is where things tend to get dangerous. 

Doing well on this project, trying to grow our revenue, building our company for long term success - these are all goals that are of primary importance to me as the founder, but only secondary importance to any employee. An employee may partially share my goals for the business and see its growth as beneficial to their sustained employment, but they have other incentives at work as well. They want to make a good salary, they want to maximize bonuses, and they want to build experience for gaining more responsibility in the company or for their next job outside the company.  For us to have the most productive working relationship, we must reach a balance. That balance is lost if I'm making excess demands on people's time and well-being.

Before working at Inkling I worked at a large consulting firm for many years. Consulting firms are famous for the "grind" - working 6 or 7 days a week on a client project, excessive travel, 16+ hour days. If you talk to anyone in the middle of one of those projects, you hear words like "death march," "fire drill," and "insanity." Managers are hard charging and tend to focus more on making sure short-term tasks are getting done on time vs. the long view of burning people out. One not need to look far then to understand why attrition rates at consulting firms are high and why a disproportionate number of people leave after only a few years. 

That model may work (despite itself) when a large business can afford to have a human resources machine drumming up interest at universities around the world for new employees to indoctrinate, but it doesn't work so well for a small business whose switching cost at losing even a single employee can be quite burdensome.

With that in mind, I've tried to catalog some warning signs that you may be pushing your team a little too hard and need to ease up:
  • People start becoming unresponsive or orders of magnitude slower responding to requests;
  • Quality of work diminishes - just doing tasks for the sake of doing them;
  • People are quiet in discussions and don't proactively offer up opinions or solutions; and most obviously
  • Openly complaining about the amount of work or the tedium of completing it.

"But we still have to meet our deadlines and how do we do it without working people hard," you ask?

Sometimes the problem may not be quantity, but quality. Is everyone working as effectively as they can? Is someone spinning their wheels on something unnecessarily? Sometimes you may just have to bite the bullet and tell your client you simply cannot get something done on time. My experience more often than not is if you are transparent about the likelihood of missing a deadline as early as possible and give valid reasons for why it can't get done, people are understanding and will work with you to narrow the scope of your work or agree to an extension. If there is no other option left than to put yourself through a "fire drill," try to keep the length as short as possible and ease off when it's over for a few days. I strongly believe in the concept of vacationing while not actually on vacation.

As a founder, no one is going to be as passionate about your business as you will be. If you want your team to work hard, they need to share in some of that passion and be incentivized correctly. If they are not, their shelf life will be short. Eventually, people break and simply decide it's not worth it anymore. When that happens, you're on your own with no team at all, and that's the worst outcome of all.

Like this post and want to know when I write others every once in a great while? Follow me on Twitter