By Tamara McLendon –
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a new technique we were using to carve out time to work strategically on our business – we were going to walk away from the business for three weeks. I promised then that I’d write about the lessons learned, so here we are.
It was a terrific trip. We walked through castles and ruins, hunted for fossils on the coast, communed with sheep high on windswept moors, and savored a fair number of pints at the local pub.
Before we left, our management team had conversations about what the sticky spots were going to be and set up some guidelines to ensure that we were all clear on when contact was justified and/or required. We tried to provide a decision-tree that would help the team feel confident that they were making the right call, and help Harvey and I gain some peace of mind that no news really was good news.
The Rules of Engagement
Harvey’s rules were focused on customer service and serious technology outages.
Is the issue Mission Critical? If so, has one of these criteria been met:
- Every known possible remedy has been attempted.
- The duration of the outage is greater than our promised service levels.
- A customer relationship is at risk.
If yes, then the Service Manager should contact Harvey via text message. He will respond with guidance, but will not put his hands on a keyboard. In fact, he didn’t even bring his laptop, and I certainly wasn’t going to loan him mine!
My rules included a list of events that would warrant contact in the areas of HR, legal, payroll, benefits, and finance. Is there a legal problem? Is an employee resigning? Yes, please contact me. If we get a letter from the IRS, for goodness’ sake, tell me! And in all cases, contact should be through our Project Manager, who is also acting as my back-up in areas of administration. I’d already notified our benefits consultant that I’d be away, and gave her the heads-up that our PM had authority to execute on previously made decisions in my absence.
Not a lot of rules, but they were big ones. We assumed that, for the most part, the management team would be able to handle the vast majority of typical events. It was the out-of-the-ordinary that we needed to give some guidance on.
What happened while we were out?
We returned to work to find the company still humming along. The place hadn’t collapsed and, while the team was nice enough to say they missed us, they did just fine in our absence.
On the technical side, things went quite smoothly. Harvey was notified a once or twice of outages and major client issues, but the team worked through it independently. They notified him, but just to keep him in the loop, not to ask for his participation.
Things were a little rougher on the administrative side. We had a data glitch in our financial software due to me trying to do month-end invoicing from abroad. The delay in my regular bookkeeping activities meant that our customer payment portal was out of date. And when the team had to run a customer invoice off of the regular cycle, they had to dig the relevant procedure out of our regular month-end invoicing documentation.
Our Project Manager faced the brunt of these gaps, and he knocked it out of the park. But he shouldn’t have had to. I had a big gap in our finance procedures and documentation.
Identify the Gaps
This was the purpose of the whole exercise. Yes, we wanted a real vacation, which we hadn’t had in a long time, but the goal was to step aside and see what gaps would emerge in our process.
It turns out that the assumption we all made – that the technical side would be where the holes where – was incorrect. Harvey has been delegating and cross-training over the last year, and the result is that he no longer needs to act as an engineer on a daily basis.
To be fair, we did get a little lucky. Almost as soon as we returned, a long-time client had a major outage that Harvey did have to play a role in resolving. He did get hands-on to help with an immediate work-around so that the client was supported, but then he retreated to a position of adviser to the engineering team. And as predicted, they got the job done.
The problems we faced while on the trip itself all lay on the administrative side. My insistence on keeping all of the bookkeeping tasks to myself had caused most of the problems. Message received!
Within a week of returning home, I contacted a highly recommended bookkeeper and set her to the task. I’m no longer responsible for the day-to-day bookkeeping tasks (logging receipts and deposits, matching up expenses with accounts, etc.). My job now is to feed the raw data to the bookkeeper as it comes in. I still pay the bills and set up payroll. And as CFO, I’ll review the reports she sends me and take any necessary actions.
We also learned that we need to tighten up our admin and finance SOPs, so that’s on my actions list for the coming weeks.
Backfilling with Strategic Focus
The reassignment of these day-to-day tasks has freed up a couple of hours a day for both Harvey and me.
Harvey’s been reading voraciously about product development, sales best practices, marketing, and M&A. He’s owning his position as CEO in away that he’s never had the bandwidth to in the past. He’s working with the service team to recast his Rules of Engagement to meet the needs of the company now that he’s back at work, but not returning to an an engineering role.
I’m working with our new bookkeeper to streamline our data flow and communication, and with our Project Manager to fill our documentation gaps. I’ve always been a big reader of business books, but I’m revisiting topics that will help me step up my game. This morning, the topic was financial projections. Tomorrow, I’ll be asking for input on dashboards and metrics. Thursday, writing documentation is on my to-do list.
Thanks to this freedom to refocus on the big picture, I’ll also take a moment to revisit our functional org chart, which I also wrote about in the previous blog post.
Right now, that org chart says that I expect to spend 25 hours per week in my combined role as President & CFO, and then another 15 on Marketing, Bookkeeping, and HR. But I frequently overspent time on the Bookkeeping side. At this point, I feel confident that I can leave just 5 hours total in Bookkeeping and HR, and reassign the other 10 to my executive functions and to ramp up my Marketing work.
Harvey has 15 hours booked on the org chart as a Systems Engineer (which he always overshot, so it was more like 20 to 25 hours in practice), which he’ll be able to reallocate to his role as CEO.
The result of stepping away from our business for three weeks was that we shook loose the several lingering gaps in our processes, and identified the next steps to help us grow as an organization, a team, and as executives. We reset our own expectations, and that of the team, for our roles within the company, and were able to write new job descriptions that emphasize the big picture and the long-term.
And, not for nothin’, we were able to take our kids on a three-week trip to the UK! How is that a thing we even got to do? It’s crazy! And it’s entirely thanks to this amazing team we have. They’re the reason the trip could happen, and why the business is successful, and why our customers are happy.
I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that no matter what happens with any individual — me and Harvey included — the business will continue doing its good work and providing a good quality of life for those involved. It has a life of it’s own now, and Harvey and I are just contributors. That’s a very comforting thought.