Hold Tight the Reigns without Killing the Horse

Practice Management Post 1.2

I have run into this issue on a number of occasions. It has to do with an owner or principal holding the reigns of the business so tight no one can make a move without them.  Basically there is little sharing of business condition, sales, tasks, profitability or efforts.  By keeping things held tightly the owner makes assumptions that a) the staff simply doesn't need to know, or b) sharing this business detail will harm the company or it's reputation, or c) even if they know more internal information, they are not in a position to help.

Of course, reality is quite to the contrary.  I am not encouraging the owner to release information willy-nilly to anyone that asks.  Instead I feel it can be a help to be honest with staff about business operations.  It may be couched in relative terms such as "we are doing half the sales compared to this time last year", or "we have doubled the new clients and projects this year".  In my experience this is part of getting everyone at the station altogether on the North Bound train - if not several could be inadvertently on the ol' South Bound.  By letting staff know that we need to complete $X/month of billable work they can be asked difficult questions such as, "is it feasible to attain these goals without hiring?" or, "what are we doing around here that is taking too much time or may have become an unnecessary task given our growth".  Owners can be surprised by staff comments and the level of insight provided from the rank and file, non-ownership point of view.

At one particularly busy point for my firm I simply asked staff if they would prefer to work overtime or weekends to deal with competing deadlines - or would they prefer for me to hire additional staff.  They were presented with the option of paid overtime and performance bonuses or time off.  The majority wanted to earn the money and did not want to hire folks that we may not need later.  By presenting them the choice I also attained their buy-in on the additional work and sacrifice we all needed to provide.  I held work planning sessions to layout all the deadlines and staffing required to meet all the goals.

Think about planning a session to discuss internal issues that may be presenting roadblocks to smooth delivery of your projects.  Hold this session after hours or off-campus to create a relaxed environment for communications.  Let the ideas and complaints and issues to flow in a stream of conscious manner and appoint someone to white board the issues.  Don't forget to note what things or processes are working well - it can't possibly be all bad.  Reward great ideas.  Drill down to isolate the issue at the roots and discuss a solution.  Nothing is impossible, but it may take an open mind to allow the solutions to flow.  Document the session, the discovery and the solutions.  Break down the topics into meaningful categories such as Firm Management, Project Management, Design and Marketing.  Note who is most vocal with beneficial thinking in what categories. You may see your future leadership forming in front of your very eyes.

Keep in mind that junior and less experienced staff may not have the wisdom that you may bring to the firm, but respect their comments.  Show them how their ideas are helpful but help them understand how it might better be expressed or incorporated.  Encouragement goes a long way towards instilling loyalty and ownership in the future.  Remember that you want their fresh perspective but you are still the teacher and principal, so share your wisdom and knowledge to amplify their learning and absorption.

Enlisting management and staff support can bring an interesting perspective to running your firm. Relax those reigns and let your thoroughbred business run free and fast to accomplish the seemingly impossible.