When Small Company Thinking Beats Big Company Thinking

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I love being the CEO of a small company. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. One of the biggest reason is the speed at which we operate. Having worked for three multi-national corporations and the U.S. military for 22 years, I have a lot of experience with the often-slow pace of large organizations.

It makes sense that big companies take longer to get things done. Based on their size and complexity, they need formal command-and-control processes to ensure local units carry out the wishes of the head office. While there is a lot of talk about empowerment in big companies, the truth is employees at lower levels still don’t have a lot of authority.

In the past ten years, I observed a significant shift in authority from local units to headquarters of the large companies I worked for. It became harder and harder to get things done in the local units as we waited for approval from above. Even though I knew the importance of command-and-control, I became increasingly frustrated with the bureaucracy of big companies.

Running a small business for the past year has been a breath of fresh air. We seem to run at a pace that is ten times faster than the large companies I worked for. One example is implementing an on-line ordering system. I worked for six years in one company trying to get the approvals and support to implement a simple on-line ordering tool. At my new company, Peak Demand Inc., we got it done in six months.

Here are some times when small company thinking beats big company thinking:

1. Action vs. discussion. Big company thinking says we need to discuss the idea and present it to upper management for approval. Small company thinking says, “let’s do it!” At my new company, we made the decision to hire a great employee in five minutes when we heard he was involved in a restructuring and was available.

2. External vs. internal focus. Big company thinking means spending a lot of time in business reviews and internal meetings. Small company thinking means spending more time with customers. At my new company, my time-on-task for customers is nearly 100%. With fewer internal meetings, I have more time to travel and spend time with my customers.

3. Trust vs. suspicion. In big company thinking, there’s a tendency to question people’s motives, especially if they are from a different department or business unit. In my big company experience, I spent countless hours in meetings working to resolve disputes between various units. Small company thinking says there is no time for that. In my new company, we work as a team and trust that each person will do his part for the overall success of the company.

4. Performance vs. politics. In big company thinking, it’s about who you know, what you wear, who you went to school with, what type of car you drive, and what you say in front of senior management. It’s about looking good not just being good. In a small company, performance is the most important measure of success. Limited budgets, limited resources, and critical deadlines means every employee must be action-oriented. Those that can’t perform at a high level, won’t make it, regardless of who they know.

5. Today vs. tomorrow. In big company thinking, there is always tomorrow. Decisions and approvals come at a glacial pace. I recall once working for over six months to get all the signatures necessary for a capital improvement project. Small company thinking says it must be done now. In my new company, we use an expression, “ship it.” It’s a simple phrase that says, I’ve reviewed your project, it looks good, you have all your bases covered, “go for it!”

The good news is that big companies can think and act like small companies.  I saw it early in my career working in a large corporation that gave power and authority to local, autonomous business units. Each unit acted like a small company and was entirely responsible for their business. The result was strong performance, empowered employees, and quicker results.

Whether you work in a small company or a multi-national corporation, speed is essential in business today. Big company thinking can lead to endless meetings, internal focus, lack of trust, politics, and a glacial command-and-control process. This will erode the performance of any business.

How is the thinking in your business? Are you fast and nimble or are you slow and cumbersome? Do you empower and trust your people to make the right decisions or do you require approval for every activity? Do you spend countless hours in internal meetings or are you on the road visiting customers? Comment with your thoughts below.

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Do Something Memorable for your Employees

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The manner of giving is worth more than the gift ~ Pierre Corneille

The company I recently cofounded, Peak Demand Inc., celebrated its first anniversary last week. As you can imagine, the first year of any new company is especially difficult because you are building everything from the ground up. Our first nine employees had to endure challenges that will never be seen by future employees. In my view, that makes them very special.

Because of that, I wanted to do something unique to thank them for their extraordinary efforts. The challenge, of course, is we are a young company and our resources are going towards payroll, factory equipment, inventory, and travel to visit customers. I wanted to do something significant that didn’t cost a lot.

It only took a quick walk around our offices to understand what is meaningful to people. You can see the same in your business. Every employee decorates their work area with things that have significance or meaning to them. If you look beyond the personal items to the work-related objects, you see the few treasures employees keep to remind them of important times in their careers. They are tokens of the past proudly on display.

In my case, I have a photo signed by all the employees of my first manufacturing business. It is my most sacred work treasure because it reminds me of all we accomplished together in that business.

I wrote down what I think are a few principles for giving gifts that are memorable.

1. It should represent a significant achievement. Gifts and celebrations should be special. They should represent something of importance to the company or employee. Celebrating and giving gifts too often minimizes the impact.

2. It should be something that can become a memento. Giving a gift card, a travel mug, or a t-shirt is great but it’s not likely to become a treasured token. Pick something that is unique and can be displayed in the employee’s work area without taking up space.

3. It should be personal. A gift with the company logo is nice but your gift will mean more if it is personalized. Something signed by the team or with the employee’s name and accomplishment will mean more.

4. It should show the employee is part of something special. As humans, we like to belong. Giving a gift that shows the employee belongs to a special group will have more meaning. A patent plaque or a Six Sigma Black Belt award shows the employee has achieved something significant.

5. It should reinforce your principles. Keep in mind, the employee receiving the gift is not the only one who will be affected. Other employees should notice the gift and understand the significance. They should be motivated to try and achieve similar success.

In my case, I decided to give each one of our employees a rock carved with the company logo and the phrase, “The Founding Nine.” When I presented them, I said there would only be nine of these rocks ever made and they were the only ones to get them. I chose a rock because it represented the solid foundation with which we would build the company. I also wanted each rock to be different to represent the different strengths each person brought to the team.

Giving a memorable gift is easier than you think. Walk around your offices and learn what your employees truly treasure. You will be amazed at what you see. Following these five simple principles will help you give gifts that will become your employees’ treasured tokens.

Do you have a treasured token? What is it and why is it so special? What experiences have you had with gift giving? What works and what doesn’t? Comment below.

3 Lessons in Customer Service from a Captain Who Cared

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Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong. ~ Donald Porter

If you’re looking for great examples of customer service, don’t travel by air. Delayed flights, lost luggage, crowded airports, long lines and disinterested employees seem to be the norm across the country. There appears to be little effort or desire to take care of the flying customer. It makes traveling for business depressing, discouraging and disheartening.

So, when you see someone trying to do everything in their power to take care of you, it stands out.

My day started with an aborted take-off from a frozen runway on an uncharacteristically cold Monday morning. The 10-degree weather froze the plane’s systems and caused them to malfunction half-way down the tarmac. We all noticed something was wrong when the plane powered down from 120 to 0 MPH in what seemed to be several short seconds.

This is when we met our captain and learned 3 valuable lessons:

1.  If you screw up, let the customer know what happened. Once the plane was stopped and off the active runway, our captain let us know exactly what happened. He explained in detail why he had to abort the take-off and what he planned to do next. One of the keys to great customer service is communication. Things will go wrong but great customer service starts by being transparent and keeping the customer informed.

2. Take ownership and do everything you can to make things right.  As we returned to the gate, our captain informed us of what he was going to do to try and get us out as soon as possible. After we deplaned, he appeared to be personally working with the airline to get the plane fixed or get us another aircraft. Great customer service means not passing the buck or blaming others for the customer’s poor experience. It means taking ownership of the problem and personally working to fix it as soon as possible.

3. Apologize and be sincere. Our captain eventually got us another aircraft and had us boarding only a few hours after the aborted take-off. He continued to keep us informed and apologized for all the delays as we continued our journey. After we safely landed, he stood at the front of the plane and sincerely apologized to each of us personally. Customers can tell the difference between sincere and fake apologies. Great customer service begins with caring deeply for your customers and their experience. It should personally hurt when that experience is poor.

Customer service in the airline industry is generally poor but there are some people trying to make a difference. I’m glad I could witness someone who truly cared about their customer. Our captain demonstrated three simple rules of great customer service not because it was required, it was because he cared.

If a problem occurs in a customer experience, you have an opportunity to make it right. Great customer service begins with transparent communication. It continues with taking ownership and fixing the problem. It ends with a sincere apology.

How does your company measure up? Do your forward-facing employees care deeply for the customer? Do they communicate transparently? Are they empowered to fix the problem? Are they sincere? Have you experienced great customer service after a problem? How did that change your thoughts of the company?

Five Ways a New Leader Sets the Tone

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“As a leader you set the tone for your entire team.” ~ Colin Powell

You did it. You got the big promotion. You now have the opportunity to lead. You’re about to take over a department, a team, or a business. That’s great…now what?

After leading eight different manufacturing businesses in my career, I have learned the first 100 days are critically important. This is when the new leader sets the tone for how the business will be run under their leadership. There is only a small window of time when you have the full attention of the workforce so your actions need to be carefully considered.

The first thing to understand about leadership in the first 100 days is that you’re under a microscope. Everyone is watching you. Everything you do is seen. Everything you say is dissected and discussed. People notice where you go and even what you look at. (See a personal example of this here)

This is good news! It means you have an opportunity to make a huge impact if you take advantage of all the attention on you in these early days.

Here are some items that need to be on your list of actions:

1. Create a Buzz. Do one thing that everyone will be talking about. This can be a big or small item but it needs to send a message about how you will lead. As an example, when I took over one business, I noticed all the managers had assigned parking spots in the front of the building. I quickly found the maintenance manager and had him paint over all the manager’s parking signs including my own. My point was that managers are not more important than anyone else and shouldn’t have assigned parking. We are all in this together

2. Listen & Learn. Spend the first few weeks listening and observing. Look for the things that are going right and the big things that need to be fixed. I also like to have one-on-one meetings with as many employees as I can. The one question I ask them, if you were in my shoes, what would you do first? It’s amazing how much consensus there is on what needs to be fixed.

3. Walk Around. During the first 100 days, it’s important to be present. People need to see you walking around, talking to people, and observing the day to day activities. This accomplishes two things. First, you continue to learn more about your team. Second, you are seen as actively engaged and approachable. Nobody wants a boss who just stays in their office and doesn’t even know what their people do.

4. Set Expectations. It’s only fair that you also communicate your expectations to your team. For example, if you expect people to not use computers in meetings, tell them. If you want a monthly report from each manager, let them know. Don’t expect them to read your mind. I send a list of 10 expectations to my team in the first few weeks so they know what I expect and they don’t have to guess.

5. Cast a Vision. At the end of the first 100 days, your team’s strengths and weaknesses will be clear. You will also understand the opportunities and threats. The goal now is to communicate a clear vision for your team. Consider where you want to go and how to get there. Communicate this vision to your team in a way that is clear and concise.

Leadership in the first 100 days is an exciting time. You are under a microscope which means you have an opportunity to make a huge impact if you take advantage of all the attention on you.  These five steps will help you get a jumpstart on your new role and position your team for success.