Perspective

Most of the posts included on this page were published in The Bromberg LLC perspective, a bi-monthly (as in, every other) email newsletter, but some are original thought-pieces.
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Apr2016
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How Does Your Business Grow?

Did you start your business simply because you wanted to be your own boss, and have the awesome flexibility and freedom to decide which 80 hours you were going to work each week? Or, were you driven more by a desire to make a measurable impact, bring great products / services to the world, and build and create wealth?

While I’m presently living the former, I’m much more excited by the latter. Over the years of managing businesses and supporting those who own and manage, several practices have stood out as compelling contributors to achieving measurable company growth and success.

Two leaders are way better than one. Complementary skills at the top of the organization are key to driving more consistent, quality performance. When one leader is focused on vision and the pursuit of money (externals), and the other addresses how great work happens and is continually improved (internals), sustained, scalable, and profitable growth is a far more likely result.

Better still: Collaborate with a co-founder or co-conspirator whom you genuinely like and respect, and will treat employees, customers, and investors with decency and respect – alienating no one!

Structure an efficient organization. Think through the overall work process, and use that to define coherent and humanly-achievable roles and responsibilities. Limit job responsibilities to no more than 8-10 items requiring a consistent skill set. “Multitasking” is actually an oxymoron (“juggling” is more accurate), and even more so when employees have to constantly shift mindsets. No job is done really well under those circumstances.

Hire great employees. In addition to well-defined roles, define what behaviors are compatible with company vision and culture, and then keep interviewing until you find 100% right, slam-dunk hires. Getting hiring exactly right is a pain in the butt and a major time sink, but done well will result in far less time than teaching and managing eventually wayward employees. In this area, “good enough” never is.

Handle fund-raising in focused bursts. Operating hand-to-mouth financially is an incredible distraction to everybody. It prevents leadership from focusing on vision and causes employees to wonder if they’ll get paid this month. Do not allow cash to become a constant source of enhanced stress!

Set leadership priorities: Priority #1 = Employees; #2 = Customers; #3 = Investors. Great employees, in well-aligned roles and treated with love and respect will kick ass. Customers want to buy from kick-ass companies. Investors are happy when their investment is producing kick-ass returns.

Better still: Treat all employees as equals. Sure, some skills are less common and/or produce greater revenue, and those folks get paid more. But every role is important (otherwise you wouldn’t have them), and each person who does great work enables their colleagues to focus and also do great work. Besides, how would you want to be treated?

Listen. Employees live the work every day. They have smart insights and ideas on how to do even better. Customers are not always right, but they are always the customer. Understanding their needs is central to earning top dollar and loyalty. Investors have experience and contacts. No matter how bright you are, there is always more to learn.

Jul2015
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Your First Follower

Who advocates for you when you’re the CEO, sitting atop the heap? Who enhances and amplifies the credibility of your vision with employees? Who helps you make sure you and your business are well on your way to achieving the goals you’ve set?

Who is your First Follower?

In a 2010 TED talk (link at the end of the article – keep reading!), Derek Sivers introduced the concept of the First Follower, or the person who “transforms a lone nut into a leader.” The First Follower helps create a movement, first by being embraced as an equal by the lone nut and then by showing others why and how to follow as well.

Having a strong First Follower is critical to entrepreneurial success. A First Follower is not necessarily an entrepreneur’s first hire. It’s the go-to person on the leadership team whose influence, attitude, and skill set has helped the company develop an upbeat and achievement-oriented culture. This person:

  • Grasps the big picture – warts and all
  • Advocates for pretty much everybody (including the leader!) with the goal of bringing greater unity and alignment between the leader’s vision and employees’ skills and interests
  • Makes sure the business maintains focus on the vision and goals
  • Works with individuals to define and achieve goals and improvement, and to see their respective value to the overall organization
  • Provides presence and leadership when the CEO needs to spend more time facing outside the company
  • Is the voice when no one else wants to speak, knows what to say, or how to say it

A First Follower is expected to facilitate company growth, by enabling customer-facing personnel to spend more time facing customers, and non customer-facing employees to feel valued and equal to their colleagues. With a good First Follower in place, businesses will attract and retain similarly motivated folks, sustain and improve cohesion, enthusiasm, focus, and culture, and ultimately see at least steady growth and goal attainment.

If you (the leader) are dealing with issues such as an antagonistic / dispirited / demotivated workforce; feeling alone, overwhelmed, or like an inadequate leader; and/or are uncertain how to get everyone pulling in the same direction, you don’t have a First Follower and you need one.

Unlike in the video where a random person assumes the role of First Follower, business leaders need to look for someone whom they believe will be compatible with everyone in the organization, and whom the leader is prepared to view as an equal. Specifically, a First Follower in business:

  • Has multi-disciplinary expertise
  • Operates inside the organization with minimal function bias
  • Is goal oriented and comfortable in a leadership role
  • Demonstrates consistently great people skills, including enthusiasm and realistic optimism
  • Is absolutely trustworthy

When you team up with a great First Follower, you’ll find the credibility and strength of your message increases exponentially.

When you have a strong second, many more will follow, and you’ll be in a much better position to make mad bank.

Now you may watch this 3-minute video.

May2015
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Of Dawgs and Technology

At a recent, fun-filled, weekend-long party I met a business owner from Atlanta. This gentleman was building a novel business related to college sports. As a University of Georgia alum, well connected in the sports community, and living in the middle of the somewhat enthusiastic (aka rabid) Southeastern Conference (SEC), the idea he described immediately struck me as a winner, potentially a big winner.

Why did I think that? First, as a lifelong sports fan I know “sports” and the SEC are borderline redundant (meaning a ready market to sell into). Second, it was easy to see multiple benefits for customers. Third, he described a very thoughtful and deliberate way he was building the business. Fourth, he was (and still is, two weeks later) intelligent, credible, and likeable.

What concerned me? The foundational activity from which products would emerge would be incredibly labor-intensive, thus potentially inhibiting his ability to scale. I explained how I thought this would be the difference between a very-nice-but-relatively-modest business and a truly scalable and extendable offering.

I highlighted how important technology and process would be to the success of the business. If he could solve how to make that core activity more efficient, he’d dramatically improve margins thanks to decreased labor costs, and increase business value through unique and leverageable intellectual property. And he’d make it much harder for any potential competitor to ever pose a threat.

I truly love these types of conversations. The fun for me is in hearing others’ passion and ideas, and then providing a unique perspective that often results in “ah-ha!” moments for others.

If you’re a business owner who frequently feels alone at the top, overwhelmed, and stuck working too far in the business, you owe it to yourself and your team to find that counterpart, whether full time or contract. As the saying goes, none of us is as smart as all of us (exception: Congress), and creating a multi-dimensional view of the business is likely to pay significant dividends.

How ’bout them Dawgs?

Mar2015
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Healthy, Happy, and Productive

Earlier this year, Lori and I became the parents of two college dropouts. (That’s 100% of our offspring. A clean sweep.) What’s somewhat surprising to me is that we’re ok with this.

Andy (first-born) spent two years at college. Truth be told, throughout his youth other parents would say to us they could imagine Andy bagging school “a la Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.” Nonetheless, when during spring semester sophomore year Andy told us he was thinking about taking time off to start a business, we were surprised. Wouldn’t he be better served to complete the four years and proudly display his Stanford diploma?

Noah (second-born) spent one very successful semester at Menlo College in California, openly saying “I love it out here.” He thrives with independence and had long spoken of a desire to be out west. We were stunned when he said he didn’t want to go back, preferring instead to move away from the typical classroom to attend barber school in Massachusetts.

Lori and I are both graduates of four-year colleges, have happily followed a very traditional life path, and held default expectations Andy and Noah would do the same. But we also knew as parents our primary goal was to prepare the boys to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. Given that only they can decide what “happy” looks like for them, how to achieve those results is also theirs to decide and execute.

It’s the same for business owners / leaders. While many feel they alone know best how to do the work, running the business that way pretty much guarantees limited growth and job satisfaction. It is the job of the owner / leader to define and hold others accountable for what needs to be accomplished – end-point goals, values, culture – and let the employees figure out how.

When employees receive that responsibility and freedom, they get to build a career, feel a sense of contribution and accomplishment, and are more likely to stick around. In turn, the owner / leader gets to spend more time handling the fun and challenging visionary, sales, and leadership work, and less time in the weeds.

The job of the leader is to define the goals – the whats – and let everyone else figure out how. This formula usually results in a happier, healthier, and increasingly productive organization.

Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As one friend wrote after learning both of our boys deemed themselves former collegians, “No more tuition, free haircuts for life, #winning!” We can live with that.

Feb2015
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I Love Status Update Meetings

“Yay, it’s time for the weekly project status (or pipeline, or receivables) review meeting,” said no one. Ever. The vast majority of attendees at weekly review meetings find them to be boring, inefficient, soapboxes for blowhards, kinda’ fun when there’s a fight, but generally just a waste of time.

Believe it or not, weekly meetings can be really helpful to an organization if they address important areas like culture / cohesion, skill development, accountability, messaging, planning, and coordination.

Here’s how to make weekly meetings good meetings:

Make the meeting beneficial
It’s really easy to call a meeting because you want everyone to weigh in on or hear about a topic efficiently. But before you call it, consider the following:

  • What’s the purpose of the meeting? What result are you looking for?
  • Why will the larger audience (not you, them) benefit?
  • What types of actions are you expecting from the meeting?
  • Why are you willing to cost the company so much money (salaries for meeting attendees)?
  • Is a meeting necessary?

Make the meeting interesting
Want folks to care, show up on time, and participate? Give ‘em reasons to. Aspire to hear employees say:

  • “I feel part of a team. I feel connected.”
  • “We’re always learning.”
  • “It helps me make sense of why we do what we do.”
  • “It’s a good way to step back and look at what we’re doing, to stop and think.”

Collect data outside of meetings
Make it easy for management to know what’s going on, get answers to their questions, better inform decision-making, and avoid wah-wahhhh meetings.

  • Ask employees to submit a 4-10 bullet point email once a week, summarizing actions / results from the past week and actions / goals for the upcoming week. Compile and distribute.
  • Update CRM and Accounting software pretty much obsessively. Make data entry and reporting increasingly streamlined and efficient.

(Building the discipline for the above is not easy, but it goes a long way towards running a business smarter and more efficiently.)

Make the meeting participatory
With separate reporting of details, the meeting can be more conversational / interactive. Focus the agenda on each attendee telling one or two stories. Sample topics:

  • A technique (sales, programming, consulting, etc.) recently used and results
  • Why I’m excited about this specific client or project opportunity, and this is what we’re doing to crush it (if you don’t know “crush it,” it’s a good thing)
  • Market intell I want to share
  • The gory details about a recent loss or failure; what’d we learn from the experience

You can still do a classic droning, line-item review once a month, to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. And management should still do a regularly scheduled review of revenue, the sales pipeline, executed work, capacity planning, and resource allocation. If the data’s always available it’s easy for management to be disciplined and efficient.

When you keep your meetings focused and think in terms of why the assembled crowd will care, you are far more likely to hear, “That was really helpful. That was a smart way to address our issue. Thank you.”

On-line sleuthing on status update meetings confirms they aren’t popular. One of the more lucid posts was this one from Inc. which espouses written summaries over status update meetings.

Dec2014
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Every Number Tells a Story

I love numbers. Always have. Numbers and me are kind of like Harry Potter and Parseltongue. We just hear each other. It’s also in my blood, with both parents holding graduate degrees in Math. (Oh yeah, that.)

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not a finance guy. Not even close. I like to point out I can spell “GAAP” but know none of the regulations or legalities thereto. I can read financial statements well enough, but I’m not shy about requesting involvement from a proper accounting / finance expert.

I come at numbers from the vantage point of enjoying playing and shifting puzzle pieces around, eagerly developing informative analyses for managing the business. It’s fun!

Recently I was getting familiar with a new client’s business and I found myself thinking, “Will we have the money to fix this?” I asked the owner how they measure company performance. The owner responded by assuring me they kept a close watch on the bank balance.

I asked to look at the financials.

After downloading QuickBooks data into my beloved Excel, I started playing. At first glance, the data showed a company running a small profit, under-spending on Sales, Marketing, and employee development, and where the CEO / owner was not paying themselves enough.

Knowing my client wanted more financial breathing room and fewer hours at work, I dove deeper into the data, testing different assumptions, calculating ratios between expense categories, separating fixed and variable costs, looking directly at how much consultants get paid, and playing with pricing.

The resulting spreadsheet analysis showed, very simply, how much each billable consultant hour cost the company and how much the company was charging clients for those billable hours. It was a real eye-opener, as we saw right there how little margin was built into the company’s pricing. This small margin was also a key reason why funding into Sales, Marketing, and employee development was limited, and an even bigger reason why the owner felt great strain at keeping the business afloat!

Seeing the small margin caused me to ask the owner how often the business lost clients on price. The owner sat up tall and proudly replied, “Never.”

Wrong answer.

Possessing both the quantitative data from the analysis and qualitative data from conversation (as well as my repeatedly saying, “Really, it’ll be fine”) we started raising prices. That turned into a home run of a solution, as revenues grew by 50-60%, profits from sub-5% to mid teens (while paying raises, bonuses, and for a consultant), and client retention held strong at over 97% of existing.

To achieve the above took using the numbers that are captured through proper accounting and applying technology, enthusiasm for learning what numbers have to say, and asking questions and listening to responses from client associates.

Clients see better results, and I have fun. Numbers. Go figure.

Sep2014
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Thinking Like a Chief Operating Officer

So how do you feel about your interrupt-driven life? Do you enjoy the steady diet of texts, emails, phone calls, decisions, advertisements, crying children / employees, professional “fire drills,” demanding spouses / bosses / investors, and email newsletters? How well are you able to do what you do best and enjoy most in the face of this unyielding onslaught?

For many business owners (and parents) this only begins to tell the story of their lives. Each day is a whirlwind of demands on their time, often requiring immediate attention to the latest stimuli, crisis, or opportunity. Time to think, write, plan, and get ahead is relegated like a bad English Premier League team to a lower division known as Evenings and Weekends.

[Evenings and Weekends were once the top / preferred division – time for rest, family, friends, prayer, exercise, home care, reading, tv, etc. Now, as my working son out in Silicon Valley tells me, “Sunday is the new Wednesday.” Yee freakin’ haw.]

Believe it or not, there are those among us who are very comfortable living the life of a master juggler or air traffic controller, and every business needs people like this. A COO is one of those folks. For example, here is a typical breakdown of the simultaneous questions I’m working on for a given client:

  1. How well are we using all the Sales & Marketing tools now available?
  2. How do we make product / service Delivery easier and less costly?
  3. How do we transition our Org Structure from all employees wearing many hats to lower cost and higher quality division of labor?
  4. Are we tracking and paying attention to the right financial and operational performance Measurements?
  5. How do we ensure our Culture attracts and retains the right employees, customers, and vendors?
  6. How do we always keep our foot on the Innovation and improvement gas pedal?

Those who start businesses often do so because of subject matter expertise – “technical” product or service design, service delivery, sales, or finance. Each of these disciplines is best performed via focused, extended, and concentrated effort.

These technical types deliver much greater benefit to their company when able to focus, yet they are also responsible for oversight and overall company performance. It makes sense that they’d benefit from someone who could keep them focused on the work they do best and protect them from details that can be handled elsewhere.

If you’re not a natural multitasker, there are many ways to calm the swirling mass of interruptions outside of work too: marry or partner with someone really well organized; don’t enable your kids’ texting capabilities; take the dog out for long walks and forget your cellphone; or just go back to work. No muss, no fuss.

Jul2014
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Release the Chains That Bind

The reasons given by Founders and Chief Executive Officers for hiring me are pretty consistent.

I want my business to grow, but I’m buried in administrivia and working like a dog. How do I shed all this work I hate doing?

We have a hard time keeping our better and more experienced people. What are we doing wrong?

If we’re going to grow, we need to put better processes and structure in place, but without becoming bureaucratic. Is that possible?

What do you know about the show Celebrity Wife Swap?

OK, no one’s actually asked me that last question (thank goodness). But the first three are pretty close to verbatim, and reflect issues of scale and growth.

Growth is critical for any business wanting to offer salary increases and career paths to employees, enjoy the excitement of new challenges and opportunities, and improve potential exit options. But growth is hard. Customers want more for less, employee average tenure continues to decline, and it can simply be challenging to “teach old dogs new tricks” (unless you have a Goldendoodle named Cooper).

The good news is these challenges and aspirations are solvable, and have been many times before by many people, including some not nearly as talented as you! Four approaches I’ve found to be quite successful include:

  1. Let go. The biggest reason leaders are stuck in the day-to-day is their own reluctance to relinquish at least some elements of control. If you’re bringing in talented people, allow them to step up and show what they can really do. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll live up to expectations, enjoy their jobs more, and stick around.
  2. Learn to accept that others won’t do the work the way you do. Your job as a leader is to define the objectives, the WHAT, and allow others to determine how. In many cases, when you knew how to do the work we still used rocks for tools, so allow new blood, new ideas, and/or new technology to bring your company into the modern era.
  3. Understand that the growth of an organization is accomplished via subdividing existing roles. When companies are small, employees wear many hats. As the company grows, it is necessary to increase division of labor / specialization. A secondary advantage of this approach is it is easier – and cheaper – to hire folks with a narrower band of skill than those who are awesomely multi-talented.
  4. Bring in or assign someone to manage. When managing is but one of an employee’s responsibilities, it will likely fall to the bottom of the list and get short shrift. If you’re going to grow, you have to have someone responsible for looking over the company landscape and figuring out how to drive improvement and performance against goals. Tell me, what’s the last championship sports team to have a crappy coach / manager?

Yeah, #4 is self-serving. But more to the point of this summary, these four ideas taken together can inspire, motivate, unclog what’s bottled up, and best of all, produce a healthy growing company – and a much happier owner / leader.

May2014
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Turn and Face the Changes

Four weeks from now, Lori and I become empty nesters, and eight weeks after that we deposit our younger son for what threatens to be long term in California. (Yes, that means both of our boys will live 3100 driving miles away—so we’ll have to get a really fast car!) In between those two departures we’re selling our home of the past 10 years, and moving into an as yet unknown rental home. Not too much upheaval, eh?

Raising two boys over the last 20 years has been a time of constant change and challenge. Each stage of our kids’ growth required us to anticipate, act, and make decisions for which we had no experience or qualifications. How much do we intervene, or discipline, or let go? When can we increase our level of trust and their level of freedom? And who knew that talking involved thumbs?

The biggest challenge was the moving target that we were powerless to stop: our boys were going to grow up, and we had to move with or slightly ahead of their next steps.

Similarly, growing, successful companies never stop changing and improving. They hang on to what’s nearest and dearest – what makes the company appealing to employees and attractive to job candidates – and continuously improve systems, processes, and organizational structure.

When I go into companies nowadays, I often find a mindset based on “make THIS work.” I end up asking, “Is THIS the only solution?” Maybe there’s a good reason this solution doesn’t work, and it’s not incompetence or a lack of effort.

Companies need to grow comfortable with always asking, “What does better look like?”

The benefits of growth and continuous improvement are many, including the excitement and stimulation of new opportunities and challenges, knowledge we’re likely positioning ourselves for more and better exit options some day, and providing money to pay for running the show, including increasing salaries and paying bonuses (big kid allowances)!

Of course there are significant challenges to running an always-growing company, but the continuing and increasingly difficult problems just mean we’ve qualified to play in a tougher league, hopefully leading to bigger returns.

A former colleague once said, “Raising children is an ongoing series of behavior modifications . . . for the parents.” It’s no different for business leaders.

Seeing our sons leave the nest does hurt – a lot actually. But within days of their leaving we’ll hear the excitement in their voices and we’ll smile and feel proud. And then we’ll go out to dinner, read quietly in any room in the house, and take more trips.

Mar2014
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Zen Now!

A couple weeks ago I was cleaning off my desk a bit more rigorously than usual since it was staging time for selling our home. As one corner emerged from its long burial under miscellania, two books remained. The book on top: being zen (Bayda); on the bottom: GET CLIENTS NOW! (Hayden). And yes, that’s how the books’ titles are printed on the spines.

My first reaction was to laugh at the pairing, imagining, “breathe in through the nose, brea…GET CLIENTS NOW!” and “No clients no problem because I’m zen.” But since I do get serious eventually, I thought about how these two books represent a foundational challenge for business owners: how to maintain a focused drive – even zealous pursuit – via a calm, thoughtful, and chill mindset.

As a solo practitioner and advisor to really bright people who run multi-employee businesses, I am always either living or witnessing the schizophrenia arguably inherent in leadership. As a business leader, we want better and more, and are emotionally invested in achieving those goals. We want to demonstrate how great we are – at least to ourselves, if not to family, employees, friends, investors….

So how do you, as an owner, handle balancing the yin and yang of driven pursuit and calm mind? My favorite answers are:

  1. During each workday, ask yourself: Why am I doing this task / work? If your answer has direct implications for getting money or developing or promoting the product or service, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, get someone else to do it.
  2. Put down the Chalupa. Step away from the computer and email for at least one full day each weekend. When I do this at first I get a bit confused, stumbling about, but as the day goes on I find myself happily remembering what else in life I enjoy!
  3. Lots is written and said these days about meditation, and I’m a fan. My version isn’t sitting cross-legged, focusing on breathing; almost every day I take beloved dog Cooper for a 45-minute walk, often in the woods. I don’t listen to music and I rarely talk on the phone. Just me, m’thoughts, ‘n m’dawg.
  4. Do something else besides work and thinking about work. Still married? Know the names of those small people in your house? Like using power tools? Iron Chef? Enjoy chasing balls around? Penguin Classics? Do you have … friends?
  5. Make the time to ask employees, customers, and vendors what’s good about your company, and what they think could be improved. If you get a lot of input, you’ve probably got a lot to fix.

The balancing act to achieve calm-drive is worth the effort. A clear mind, good data, and perspective go a long way towards achieving great results.

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