By Ian Whitworth
Audio Version 6 mins. Howling gale outside, no time to move the gear so enjoy a few door slams.
A soul-killing thing I don’t like doing is interviewing job candidates. I got pulled into group interviews for a prospective CEO for an outfit where I was on the board.
Most of the candidates had held senior positions in business or government. This was for a more modest gig than that, one that would need some serious hands-on activity.
I was interested in what subjects they felt were important. How they’d turn around the finances. How to get the team motivated. How to develop a digital strategy and more importantly bring it into reality.
With the majority of the candidates, I couldn’t get a specific answer on any topic. As the day wore on it became a kind of twisted party game, trying to make them say a single detailed fact, the sort that shows they’ve done the work before.
“If there are cash flow issues, where do you look in the figures to sort it out?”
“Well, I’d look for the key areas of non-performance, and benchmark them against best practice, and implement a robust financial turnaround strategy going forward.”
“Ok yes but what actual P&L items do you look at?”
“Oh, all the important ones, underperformance in any cost or revenue center should be carefully examined for non-compliance with regard to agreed budgetary goals.”
And so on.
What I was looking for was “wages costs” or “is our pricing too low?”. The usual obvious problems in businesses. It’s a bit like the way experienced police investigate murders via the general rule: it’s family or ‘friends’ what done it. It may not be, but it’s far and away the most likely option, and really helps to cut down on unnecessary groundwork.
After an hour of generic waffle from each candidate, it became clear that many of these wannabe CEOs couldn’t read basic financial reports.
Also, they have had everything done for them by underlings for the last decade and so have literally zero practical idea of how any part of a business works. They were just plausible-sounding jargon generators.
“What are your children’s names?”
“They’re among the most popular childrens’ names, very suitable for the character and sex of each of them, and I’ve had good feedback from family and friendship stakeholder groups regarding their appropriateness.”
I asked the candidates about their digital achievements. They said they’d delivered a best-in-class digital revolution in previous gigs, but they couldn’t name a single tool they used to do it. I’m pretty sure they would have had their assistant print out the website for them, fresh off the information superhighway.
Luckily there was a candidate who had a list of basic, necessary things to do. They got hired and did the things. What a relief.
Unless you’re running a major bank, you need to be across how the different areas of your business work. Not at an expert level, but without a basic understanding, it’s really hard to make the right calls.
A large chunk of management is staff bringing you exciting things they would like you to spend money on. They all sound plausible. It might be a great idea. Or it might be overcooked madness from people with a spending fetish.
I used to advise a large national company that was sucked into dire financial trouble by buying the wrong computer system. Much like those CEO interviewees, they yearned to be world class and best-practice. The IT department persuaded them the pathway to greatness was an enterprise-class information system.
It cost a fortune, not just to buy but in ongoing licenses. Oh and they had to bring in a pack of pricey consultants to fine-tune it to their needs, for months on end. That software supplier had America’s Cup campaigns to fund. Carbon fiber and Kiwi yacht mercenaries don’t come cheap.
The platform was engineered for epic growth that never happened, and it ate over 5% of their turnover for years. The CEO, a super-capable turnaround guy brought in to pull the company out of the casualty ward, told me “They bought a Bentley when what we actually needed was a secondhand Toyota Camry.” If any of the management had actually worked at the coalface in that business, they would have worked that out in about ten minutes.
If you own a new business, you have to do a bunch of menial jobs because you can’t afford the help. Rejoice in that because you’re developing skills that will pay off handsomely later on. You’ll give clearer directions, ask the right questions and understand your staff better.
When I set up my marketing agency I did all the books. I learned how to use MYOB. I’d sit up late reconciling bank statements, and chase client payments in the pre-gatekeeper hours of 8am to 8.45. It wasn’t a ton of fun, but neither is study or going to the gym. As the perceived “creative guy” it was important to bulk up the sensible part of the brain that actually gets the sweet cash through the door.
And lame though it sounds, seeing that little zero clock up after a long bank reconciliation ordeal was almost as satisfying as nailing an ad brief. The accountant would tell me the books were in good shape, in the same fashion you compliment your five-year-old on their excellent drawing of a horse.
As the businesses grew I obviously palmed that job off to bookkeepers and accountants, but I can understand what they’re talking about and unless you can do that your business is constantly on the edge of the whirlpool.
So do the website picture edits. Segment your email database. Pack stuff up for shipping. Learn the tax rulings on full-timers vs casuals.
Later on when you have staff doing those things, you can talk to them as someone who gets it, rather than the “hello, young person, tell me what it is you do” Prince Philip style of your clean-hands CEO. Your staff will be happier and do better work for you.
All the people who run our businesses around the country pitch in when things get super-busy. They’ll go and help unload a truck at midnight. And the conversations they have with our people when they’re working side by side are incredibly important for staff morale, and for our understanding of their working lives.
The flip side to all this is working out ways to give those daily admin type tasks up as your business grows. Or you’ll end up old, alone and paranoid, afraid that someone might mess up your precious filing system or pay a penny extra for stationery supplies. But that’s another post.
If you liked this, you might also enjoy Stay Business-Fit In The Gymnasium Of Irritation.
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