Photo credit: Kristopher Roller

5 Fears to Consider and Conquer as Your Business Grows

Experiencing your efforts morph from big dreams to big rewards and finally equate to success, is something more satisfying than a beach-side sunset.  If you are a company experiencing rapid growth, it means you’ve been working incredibly hard.  You have a likable product or service and you are likely a step ahead of your competitors in every way.   You’re confident in your ability to please your patrons and extend your offerings on a larger scale.

Here are five fears to consider and conquer, as your next monumental success skyrocket’s you out of your current atmosphere:

  1. Lost humanity.  Don’t lose sight of common sense for the sake of formality.

“We don’t have a button for that.”

Before celiac disease and gluten-free were commonplace, I was an anomaly.  Work travel was my constant when I was told I was never again to eat wheat.  Despite having been Vegan for over a decade, the exclusion of wheat made eating on the road almost impossible.  I could have everything in a burrito, just not the tortilla.  I could have everything in a sandwich, just not the bread.

For a moment, pretend you are me ten years ago on a road trip; imagine yourself so hungry that you begin to feel dizzy.  After an hour on the interstate in West Virginia the letter S seems like a straight line.  It’s 2 AM and the only living thing in sight is a raccoon running across the road.  Thump thump, oops…nope…just you again.

There in the distance is a Taco Bell, with the lights on!  It is both a saving grace and the sustenance you need to get you through another eight hours on the road to Chicago.  It’s only a drive through away!

As you pull up to the window to place your order, (stomach full of air, head full of food fantasies), they inform you over the loudspeaker that you cannot have what you want.  You aren’t being denied because they don’t have the ingredients, but rather because they do not have a button that properly describes what you are asking for.  Sadly, they think outside the bun while staying well within the confines of the button.

“But you do have beans, right?”

“Yes, we do.”

“And, you have lettuce & rice right?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Why can’t you put them in a box and hand them to me?  You can charge me for whatever you want.”

“I can’t process your order; we don’t have a button for that.”

“Let’s charge me for a burrito and just not include the tortilla.  Put all the contents of a burrito into a box and throw a side of lettuce on top then.”

“No, I can’t do that.  I’m sorry.  You have to order a menu item.  I have to ring up a menu item.”

It would be difficult to quantify the number of times that has been said to me, but I assure you the number is high.  On most occasions I removed the poisonous tortilla myself, fingers crossed that there wouldn’t be enough wheat crumbs in the leftovers to kill me.

Here’s another version of this story:  Last week while I was shopping at a high end retailer, an obviously distraught man told the cashier his car had broken down and asked if he could use the phone.  His cell phone had a dead battery and he needed to call AAA as soon as possible to avoid picking up his kids late on the first week of school.

He was denied on account of a strict policy that restricted phone use to employees only, with no exceptions, per the owner.  His request to call the owner was also denied.  The man used my cell phone and the owner got a call from me regarding his inconsiderate, robotic employees shortly thereafter.

As our businesses grow, we find that we need to standardize our processes.  We must be careful in the creation of newly standardized policies/work flows.  We must ensure partners and management make efforts to maintain the qualities of our business which are human, like common sense and courtesy. Try to trouble shoot a few, “if…, then…,” scenarios for every rule you implement.

Lucky for me, Taco Bell has since come out with several options that suit my fancy! Hooray!

     2. Lack of support and absence of empathy. Don’t forget the death of Socrates:

“…single parent is not a protected status.”

A friend told me a story a few years ago, about a man who worked at a young company which specialized in fast paced and new age innovations.  The company was popular and rightly boasted a never ending stream of fresh talent.  He said the culture there was much like he imagined it might have been in Athens around 425 BC.

When he joined the company, he was trainable, enthusiastic, well qualified and eager to work hard.  The majority of the office engaged him in frequent conversations.  They regularly toasted as tradition over appetizers at a local brewery to celebrate their collective corporate accomplishments.

Then it got awkward; he was asked out on dates by seven of the ten single women in his hiring group and two of the five married managers.  They freely commented on any aspect of his work/dress/manner they chose to highlight with a variety of buzz words, whether or not it was appropriate.  Their comments were often forward and assumptive; he chose not to engage any of them.

They made him uncomfortable, but he opted not to return the favor when granted an opportunity to bring light to the situation.  While no one seemed to note his discomfort or his colleagues leaving and lunching as they pleased; his every bathroom break was, (from declined dates forward), tracked and scrutinized.

Of the first 80 days he worked, he mentioned only having left the office for lunch 9 times.  The other 71 days, he stayed at his desk and worked.  Like me, he was a single parent.  When a problem arose with his childcare provider which could not be solved, the only option that remained required working the first 3 hours of his salaried position from home.  Working the first few hours of the day from home meant he arrived at the office at ten rather than seven.

There was no public service announcement broadcasting the temporary arrangement.  He did not post a sign in his cubical that stated he had no help with his children physically, financially or otherwise…it would be a short term arrangement and he desperately needed some support from his peers in a moment of weakness…but would they have cared if he did?

Soon the same individuals that had spent months in pursuit of occupying his mind-share via text message, email, G-chat, Facebook and in person invitations had a new goal in sight: getting rid of him.  As he entered the building, they scowled in silent disapproval of his tardiness.  They gossiped and made petty comments, loosely disguised as sarcasm about special treatment.

They made it uncomfortable enough at the office that executive level management decided caving in to a negative internal perception was more important than both the company’s overall growth and respecting a person who made a choice to put his children first.  Ultimately, he was fired for taking his children to and from school.

Despite its wholesome global appeal and many of its executives serving as core members of Christian churches, did the company choose to keep the person who spent breaks snorting cocaine off the bathroom counter?  Yes.  Did they keep the person who regularly texted naked pictures to coworkers? Yes. Did they keep the people whom had taken two hour lunches daily and spread the negative comments instead of spreading acceptance? Yes. Why? Well, per the person who fired him, “…single parent is not a protected status; we don’t have to support you.”

It’s true; single parent is not a protected status.  Still, I encourage you to think about that statement for a minute.  Protected statuses become such because people are treated unfairly by other people lacking empathy, until legal actions set a precedence to correct unfair treatment.

As you scale consider the following: Do you make decisions as a company based on what you are obligated to do by law, or based on what is right?  If someone asked you your views on a particular topic publicly, (for example the importance of family or the importance of keeping children safe), would your private decisions be congruent with your publicly stated opinion?  If they are not, they should be.

Here’s another version of this story: Does anyone remember the death of Socrates?  Yes, enough said.

Don’t reward bad behavior, don’t forget to practice empathy, (would you make the same decision if an identical circumstance was playing out in regard to you, your wife, your children…), and reward the employees that operate under this principle.

     3. Staying adaptable.  Don’t assume you can withstand the saltwater:

“The reason some fish normally live in freshwater and others live in seawater is that one or the other environment provides them with opportunities that have traditionally contributed to their survival.” -Aldo Palmisano

All parents are asked questions they can’t answer with absolute certainty; in these moments I refer to search engines.  My child happens to be a stickler for facts about biology.  When I was asked about the differences between saltwater and freshwater fish, he did not want to hear anything about the obvious answers-salinity and osmoregulation.

He wanted specifics in regard to environmental adaptations and the lack thereof in various fish.  He wanted to understand anadromous fish varieties like Salmon and how they are able to survive two opposite environmental extremes. He wanted to understand the nuances of the rare instances in which remaining flexible and adapting to the environment would make a creature from the stream capable of navigating and successfully surviving the ocean.

I found myself using business metaphors to explain biological concepts, “Honey, remember when we talked about the company that makes your building blocks, Lego, branching out into films and making that movie Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers, and that theme park, Legoland California?”

Bigger isn’t always better, we’ve all been told.  Certain business expansions may prove too salty for companies that can’t quite master the business version of being an anadromous fish.  Before you abandon the comforts of your pond, carefully evaluate your available resources and skillset.

Consider the opportunities you are afforded in said small pond and how they stack up to the opportunities that may or may not present themselves in a new environment.  Note the differences between your current and prospective environments, then work out the nuances of any necessary adaptations in your newly expanded environment in beta or betta mode before going live, (yes, that was a tech/fish joke…humor me).  🙂 Click here to read more about how fish do this…

It’s cliché, but true that great risks are often paired with the possibility of great reward.  Realistically, you could kill your business by branching out into uncharted territories.  Still, carefully planned transitions that complement existing business plans and take advantage of well-paced adaptations could catapult you into spectacular places.  It won’t be easy, but you have to work hard for most things worth having.

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     4.  Staying connected. Don’t be a shark, be an octopus:

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

We all need a work space, but should it be a cubical or a couch?  Apple began in a garage; Facebook began in a dorm room… I am sitting in a coffee shop this very moment, pondering various potentialities.  Often businesses begin as conversations between friends speaking informally over coffee on mismatched furniture or during family dinners.  The birth of concepts that have captured the attention of entire generations have been the direct result of brainstorming sessions in places that promote active thought, not back pain.

Once upon a time you were a ten person team.  You had one person for marketing, two or three people in sales, a finance officer, a visionary at the helm, an executive assistant to whom you delegated all the data entry and dirty work, maybe a developer that carried all of you along the shoreline until you were ready to get your toes wet as a team, and hire more. Remember how it felt to eat lunch together in an otherwise empty room?

No one could escape my Billy Joel albums back then.  We may not have consciously stopped to observe the systems at play in other departments, but they were near enough to us in terms of physical proximity to always know what was going on, without having to ask.  The exchange of free thought is often lost on large companies.

If you want the potent communicative potion that promotes life changing levels of excellence, implement small groups and stage the scene appropriately.  Synergy can’t be faked, so try creating meeting places that mimic the relaxed real life locales we all frequent in our off time.  Note that small groups are awesome because all members are heard, individuals can offer up their ideas and action is taken in accordance with the ebb and flow of open conversation.   Unless you have hired Chatty McTalks-A-Lot, don’t over structure the agenda.

There’s a bottleneck of information as it travels up the echelons.  This bottleneck situation is extremely unfortunate because the best practices will come from the people who spend their days actively immersed in the tasks at hand.  The teams doing the time should be directly involved with decisions that instead likely trickle down from the top and surely have a significant impact on their work.

Constructive collaboration doesn’t commonly occur by accident.  It is an intentional combination of individuals with alternating specialties and independent perspectives that can culminate in an insane amount of success.  You may think you do this already.  I’m not talking about team meetings in the traditional sense.

When you shattered doubts and shook the competitors like an earthquake, you weren’t just collaborating with the like-minded people or your direct reports. Of course your subordinates think all of your ideas are great…they work under your thumb.  Remember you’ve hired extremely intelligent people for good reason; ask them what they think.

What I am recommending is regular interactions that span across company divisions and title delegations.  If you’re the CEO get out of your office.  Loose the door at least.  The team needs to see what you do.  You need to lead by example.  See how this works for SquareMeetUp, ASB & other creative office spaces…

Be an octopus not a shark…

As an octopus company, employees are each grasping their own share of the responsibility to achieve a common goal. They are encouraging not critical.  They embrace democracy and chart their course internally. Acting like an octopus, they extend collaborative departmentalized tentacles out onto the floor, yet stay connected to a central nucleus that is the heart and mind of the company.  Remember, A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

The companies that survive their own growth don’t operate like dictatorships.  The CEO’s aren’t stationary in glass bowls, leaving their desks only in shifts and swimming around the office to incite panic like sharks.  Sharks can be found carelessly snapping up the small fish as a show of force…but you can click here to see an octopus eat a dog shark.

5. Losing something you can’t replace.  Take care of what you have while you have it.

You interviewed extensively.  You saw talent and promise in the select few.  You fostered their growth, trained them and set them loose on an unsuspecting pool of prospects.  Now, take care of them.

We all know how to nurture a lead.  We have read the studies and statistics on what it takes to create lasting relationships with our consumers.  Why aren’t we striving to make lasting relationships with our employees?  They know your secrets, they take the weight of your stress and transform it into profit, if they love you.  Great employees will relocate, risk their health, risk their time, they will risk it all in the name of great leadership for the sake of someone else’s vision.

I’m not going to short story this, it’s direct enough.  You can replace a copier, you can change the decor, you can buy a never ending supply of nearly everything, but you can’t replace good people.  Good people don’t stay in bad places.

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men.  No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard

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