Playing with Fear


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Fear is a primal response to threat. And, it has played a crucial part in the management of human instincts and survival trends through the ages. While it served its purpose of taking a fight or flight decision when faced with physical danger during primitive times and also serves for the same, during modern times; it has also shaped into a formidable management tool through the industrial age to modern times. This time, it’s not necessarily about facing physical danger but facing uncomfortable situations as a result of not following planned direction. However, it’s usage and potency is arguable and I am sure there will be people on either side of the fence deliberating fear’s effectiveness as a management tool.

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Today, I am more interested in exploring fear for what it is and how, as an individual and leader, you need to understand it, to use it effectively to your advantage. Like someone said, risk or danger is real, but fear, it’s a choice. Either you can decide to let it control you or you take over the reins and control it. And, if you do manage to take the reins in your hands to manage fear, let me assure you, you will experience freedom in its full glory.

Fear, like many things that are the most potent when used in calculated measures, is the most effective, when used sparsely. Life is a swing, there are ups and there are downs. That’s a given and most of us have experienced it and continue to experience it. There is euphoria with the ups and fear with the downs. However, with effective preparation and management of the downs, fear doesn’t have to rule you when you are experiencing them. Fear, at optimal measures, can be a great motivator for yourself as well as when applied to a team that is pursuing a goal, to nudge them in the direction of achievement, deft responsibility management and understanding accountability. In such situations, triggering fear can help with the release of tension and buildup of energy to tackle the problem at hand and eventually result in a sense of accomplishment.

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However, when fear starts to engulf you or you end up using it beyond its potent value, it can be very damaging; its potency is lost to keep you or your team on track and as a result, chaos can take over. Knowing when to pull back is as important, if not more than to when and how much to push. When fear takes control, it tends to paralyze creativity and decision making prowess. As a result, there is a tendency to shift responsibility and depend on others’ decisions to act on, in order not to be held accountable. That just goes against the grain of accomplishment and progress. Be what you expect of others. Foster a flexible and positive atmosphere where mistakes are allowed but challenged not to recur, and when not on track, to come back to it. Knowing that its okay to screw up, so long as you learn from it and get back on track, helps everyone and instills a sense of camaraderie and trust among co-workers. It’s also important to understand that being on a constant alert to tackle stress is not healthy and can cause burnout. Winding down, relaxing and rejuvenating before picking up the mantle, is all a part of fostering the right stress management process.

On the individual front, fear tends to curb adventure and can hold you back for no reason. Any venture can either flourish or flounder. The risk or reward for any steps you take, tend to stay defined. If you fail, have the willpower and planning to get back up and try again. It can’t get worse than that. Then, why, let fear take you over and hinder you from make an attempt for a prolonged period, when there is a decent chance of you succeeding? Go ahead, and do what you plan to do. Believe me, the rest will all follow through.

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Frontline Performance Management-What​ it means to the top-line, bottom-line ​ and organizational ethos!​


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An organization and its performance are dependent on the day-to-day functioning of its frontline employees who generally make up the bulk of its workforce. The tactical stewardship of execution is in the hands of the frontline staff that reflect the company culture and its values to the customer. And generally, these associates who are the majority of an organization’s workforce are the ones affected by several challenges across industries – low levels of motivation, economic and emotional stress, stressful work goals and management pressure to meet them, poor growth prospects, all of which result in high levels of attrition.

Today’s organizations are moving toward building their future prospects on customer experience. According to a recent article I was reviewing, an estimated 90% of all organizations are expected to craft themselves around customer experience by 2025. With customer experience becoming such an integral part of an organization’s success, it’s important to re-focus on the frontline staff who are the face of the organization to the end consumer. Although technology in its various forms is making in-roads into customer experience, the human element is still very much an integral part of the value an organization provides to its customer base. Be it retail, airlines or business process outsourcing, frontline employees play a major role in day-to-day activity and customer interaction.

With customer experience playing such a vital role in the performance and growth of any business, productivity and progress of the frontline staff becomes that much more important and its imperative to focus on them to ensure that there is a fair exchange of value going on.

With a slew of challenges, from financial wellbeing, poor work environment, boredom, and lack of challenges to stimulate creativity, poor growth prospects and high-pressure micromanagement to reach goals established by management without any space to induce their own personalities in what they do, the frontline employees continue to paint a poor picture of the organization to the end consumers, and move between jobs frequently trying to find a suitable position and organization to work for. As a result, management challenges include finding the right associates, coaching and training them to only lose them and work on the next while also battling work goals that need to be met. Dealing with the revolving door continues to be an impediment that affects operational and financial goals of organizations.

How can an organization double down on and tackle this issue, especially in these times of renewed focus on consumer experience to drive the engines of an organization?

That is where building a culture of empowerment comes into play. The frontline employees are the visible face of the organization. Development of a culture of performance through focused drive, clarity of mission and vision, and imparting value individually and as a team, should become the tenets of frontline management.

Better pay and employment conditions are the first tenet. It’s important for organizations and management teams to understand that the first line of employees on the job is the most vital arm of an organization and its long-term success. Since these employees are on the lowest rung of the ladder, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be the lowest paid, more importantly, they should be paid to have a decent living base, without the worry of day to day financial challenges in their personal lives which tend to have an impact on their performance at work. All employees should be treated as an extension of one work family. Equanimity of base pay and benefits go a long way in improving employee morale. Pay for performance, whether positive or negative has some implications on performance, but not necessarily long term.

Next, support through training and coaching is important to ensure clarity of purpose for frontline employees. Each individual needs to understand, not just their work but also the impact it has on the larger scheme of things. They need to understand their contribution and value they bring to the organization, to own it and impart it on a daily basis to their best. Coaching, especially through peers or managers on a one on one basis reflects the investment the organization is willing to make in them, as valued employees, to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and help them cope to get better, and more importantly to advance in their careers. Frontline employees should be coached to look at their roles, less as jobs and more as careers where they have opportunities for advancement, provided they work on their specific strengths to take the lead as opportunities come up within the organization.

Empowerment is also a vital aspect of this puzzle. Generally, frontline roles are treated as jobs with high attrition and to be easily replaced with the next person coming in. It is also assumed that the role is a set of repeated tasks to be performed thus boxing in the role. That notion has to change. These are probably, the most important roles within an organization as the first line of customer interaction. Empowering the frontline employees garners multiple benefits for the individuals in the roles as well as for the organization. By empowering the employees to identify challenges, think creatively and come up with ways and means to interact with consumers, find and execute solutions to the challenges, the organization gains to improve upon its frontline as well as other specific challenges, finds new ways of interacting with consumers, thus raising customer satisfaction and loyalty with the organization and also helps identify the difference makers within the employees and offer them better career growth prospects. This empowerment also boosts employee morale as they feel challenged and in control of their work execution, thus bringing the best out of them. Productivity boosts can be seen in employee work ethic and improved influence on organizational performance resulting in higher revenue at the same or lower costs and better profit margins allowing the organization to experiment further and provide better opportunities to its employees. Further, the brand recognition and goodwill gained in the market is invaluable.

All of the above alleviates stress from the work environment, focuses on training, coaching and empowerment than micromanaging, using positive and negative motivators that have a limited shelf life and more importantly, brings the employees and management closer as one work family out to succeed together, working on a unified mission and vision, that they all take pride in.

Zirtual – A Startup Story Gone Wrong


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Unless you learn to get comfortable with failure, you cannot aspire and look forward to success.

By now, most of you have heard of Zirtual, an on-demand personal assistant company founded in 2011 that went out of business last week and laid off more than 400 employees. The employees received an email on Friday, 08/14 notifying them that the company was shutting down due to financial issues. And the clients received their notifications too.

According to Zirtual’s now, ex-CEO, Maren Kate Donovan, the business was on an $11 million run rate, and was burning $400,000 a month.

There were various causes that frothed up for what happened.

Maren Kate Donovan blamed it on “burn” which is more money being spent than what came in. She also regretted not having a full-blown board in place. Another reason given was the conversion of 1099 contractors into full-time employees without considering the implications of the 20-30% employment expense increase. The lack of a full-time CFO although the size of the organization demanded one, was another factor that came up as well.

The irony is that Zirtual raised about $3.2 million in just this past June and July. Although it might look surprising that a company that just weeks ago, raised funding went under, there is more to the truth than that. Zirtual’s SEC Form D filings show that they tried to raise $5.75 million in June and July – but got only $3.2 million in total. And mind you, this is debt with its own contractual obligations.

Startups.co, depending on how you see it, came to Zirtual’s rescue or gobbled it up post the disaster and acquired it. Startups.co CEO Wil Schroter, negotiated a cash-and-stock deal and added Zirtual to his company’s portfolio of online services for entrepreneurs. In fact, Zirtual, apparently resumed services this past Monday and Startups.co re-hired 60 former employees on a contract basis and looks forward to re-hire more. Startups.co has also initiated efforts on bringing back some of Zirtual’s clients, while the competition is also pursuing them.

Meanwhile, Zirtual has its own set of issues post going out of business. A few former employees filed a class-action lawsuit against Zirtual Inc. in U.S. District Court in the state of Delaware, questioning the company’s violation of labor laws by not giving effective notice of termination. The transfer of that liability to the new owner is still in question. On the other end, there are clients who are hurt by the breach of trust and are hesitant to go back or for that matter, doubt the industry as well.

Lots of lessons here for entrepreneurs. Here are a few:

  • Make sure you raise money way before you need it and raise enough so you and your team are not eclipsed with that worry while you pursue your vision.
  • Debt Financing is great with predictable cash flows; else it can very soon become a nightmare!
  • Do not penny pinch when it comes to finding the right talent and bringing it in when you need it. Find your savings somewhere else.
  • Check, double check and triple check everything. You can never go wrong with overanalyzing operational finances.
  • Proactive and quick decision-making is important, but be wise about your decisions.
  • Your customers and employees come first, everything else comes after them for without them, there is no business.

Learn from them and go find your success!

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Who do you work for?


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When asked the question, some of the common answers are – myself, my family & my company. There are those that refuse to acknowledge they are working for anyone, be it a person or an organization and use the word “with”, I work “with” xyz. Semantics, I guess. And then, there are those that state they work for their boss.

We all work to provide for our dependents and ourselves. The question is not what do you work for, but who.

If you are an entrepreneur and pride yourself in working for yourself, there is some truth to that, but ultimately, the superior power that determines your actions lies with your customers, suppliers & investors. They can dictate the terms of your work. If you work for an organization, ideally your work and its attributes should be focused at fulfilling your organization’s obligations toward its customers and shareholders. Each of us that works in the corporate world falls somewhere on an organizational ladder with a “boss” that we report into. The boss has the power to determine your paycheck, your upward mobility within the organization and responsibilities you’ll handle. Some bosses are company focused which means your expectations fall in line as well. In such situations, there is more transparency built-in between levels i.e. employee reach extends beyond the immediate boss and through a couple of levels above. This is healthy as hierarchical stress is not as much and opportunities open up for those truly talented and doing the right thing. Others are self-serving and that’s when conflict may arise. That’s when one may end up working for a boss. Corporate politics can dictate where ones’ loyalties lie. Much depends on the employee-boss relationship & the personalities involved therein. Many employees are in the process of pleasing their bosses than in the actual performance of their job to meet the objectives they signed up for. And, these employees cannot be blamed altogether for it since they are acting in defense of their position and in many a case, they themselves are the only defense they may have.

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There have been arguments that state flat organizational structures may be the answer to curb such influences, where employees work in teams and natural leaders emerge as a part of the execution strategy. The emphasis is on actually getting things done to meet common objectives sans a hierarchy within the organization. Well, it may work to an extent in smaller organizations but flat structures are not scalable for growth. As organizations grow, flexibility & controls need to be established using the hierarchy model. And, in every mid to large organization, there are numerous rungs on the corporate ladders. Then, what is the optimal strategy for ensuring that the focus of every employee is truly on corporate goals and not hijacked by personal corporate politics? A strong HR policy propagated by a strong HR team with the support of top management can achieve this to an extent but in a complex business environment, it is difficult to altogether do away with it. Again, having an HR team that functions independently is a difficult thing to achieve in an organization. The HR team too falls on the corporate ladder. There will always be employees serving bosses for various reasons. Although, not completely healthy, this is a true fact in the corporate world and should be managed to optimize it.

When faced with such a predicament, employees who find it detrimental to their principles & career might look for other opportunities so as not to sacrifice their potential & aspirations catering to the whims of an overbearing, self-serving boss. There are also employees who do the boss’s bidding and focus on keeping the boss happy in order to safeguard their jobs. In both cases, it’s detrimental to the corporation, whether through the loss of productive employees for the wrong reasons or by having unproductive employees stay just managing their supervisors. But, at the same time, such bosses are a more serious predicament since their influence and its effect tends to be on a larger scale. It’s the prerogative of every organization to take this issue seriously and work through its channels to monitor and minimize such situations, if not totally eradicate them to ensure optimal productivity of the employee base. Much of it comes from encouraging true transparency throughout the organization irrespective of reporting relationships. And such transparency can be propagated through frequent top-down-top communication, more objective 360 degree performance appraisals, employee reviews as well as supervisor reviews, career pathing, ensuring employees with the right skills are not in wrong jobs etc.

That’s a starter list of ways to nurture healthy employee-work dynamics within organizations. I look forward to see you add to it.