CEOs Didn’t Start with Fancy Jobs, And Your Kids Don’t Have to Either

As a former peanut seller, I know how much I learned from hawking those bags of goobers at Atlanta Crackers games as a young boy. I also learned many lessons from being a bag boy, babysitter, gas station attendant and a paper boy.

I think of those days every time I see parents stressing over their children finding the perfect summer job, believing it will be the key to their future success. While I understand their concern, I know the most successful people didn’t start as an intern in a fancy office.

One of my first jobs was selling peanuts at Atlanta Crackers baseball games at the Ponce de Leon Stadium, now replaced with a shopping center. The Sears building in the background is now Ponce City Market.

They were baby sitters, fast food employees and vacuum cleaner salesmen. Like me, Warren Buffett started as a paper boy. In my blog, Want to Be a CEO? Any Job Can Be a Good Start, I wrote about the early jobs of the CEOs of Netflix, Dell and Yahoo. None of them included an office with a desk.

Reading about their first jobs is one of my favorite parts of the interviews with CEOs and founders in “The Corner Office” column in the New York Times on Sundays. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Lisa Gersh, former Chief Executive of Goop: After realizing she wanted more than the $1 an hour she got for babysitting, as a preteen Gersh went to classes and got a degree in umpiring girls’ softball. She blew the whistle during games on girls older than she was for $5 an hour.

Mark Nathan, CEO of Zipari: At the age of 10, he took a wheelbarrow and collected old newspapers. Then he’d tie them into bundles, throw them in the back of a station wagon and take them to an industrial market that recycled newsprint. He got $15 for a load.

Deryl McKissack, CEO of McKissack & McKissack: Descendants of slaves, McKissack’s family owns the oldest African-American architectural firm in the country. Deryl began making architectural drawings when she was six.

Ashton B. Carter, former secretary of defense. Carter worked at a carwash when he was 11, but after complaining that he wasn’t included in the tip distribution, got fired. Then he got a job at a Gulf gas station and also worked as an orderly in a hospital. His duties included taking dead people to the morgue.

Yuchon Lee: CEO and co-founder of Allego. In kindergarten Lee resold fancy stickers his father brought back from Japan. In his later years in elementary school, he sold silkworms.

If your child doesn’t end up with a fancy office job this summer, remember that valuable lessons come from any job. And they may have a great “first job” story to tell in their later years when people ask about their success.

5 Tips for Handling Crises

It made national headlines last week: Atlanta’s I-85 bridge collapsed. A three-mile stretch of highway, carrying 250,000 drivers a day through the middle of the city, was shut down after a massive fire caused a bridge to collapse.

Thousands of business owners were suddenly faced with a huge problem. How do they get their employees to work? What about delivery trucks? What about customers getting to their place of business? Businesses close to the collapse faced a worse crisis as access to their companies was compromised. Several businesses in the area are closed as they figure out what to do.

The I-85 bridge collapse in Atlanta caused a crisis for many metro-area businesses.

There were a lot of unknowns about the situation. But one thing is for certain – a city with massive traffic problems already was about to get a lot worse.

As a CEO or business owner, you may have thought through many contingencies and have a plan for what to do in certain circumstances. Maybe you have a bad-weather plan that covers managing your company for a week or two if conditions prevent people from driving to work. If you did have a plan on how to handle transportation issues in the event of a major artery being closed, congratulations!  You are ahead of the game.

For most people, however, a bridge collapse of this magnitude or some other unpredictable crisis falls into the “Expect the Unexpected” category. Here are a few tips on how to manage your company during a time of crisis.

  1. Don’t panic. Don’t stress yourself by imagining worse-case scenarios. Remind yourself you are capable of leading your company in good times and bad and you’ll figure out a way to manage this one as well. People take their cues from you and it’s important for you to remain calm in the face of any type of crisis. Manage your stress levels. When I deal with CEOS in a crisis situation, teaching them how to manage the stress in their lives is crucial to guiding them through a crisis.
  1. Correspond with employees, vendors and stakeholders as soon as possible. People don’t do well with uncertainty. Even if you don’t yet have a plan, reassure everyone that you are meeting with senior management and will be back in touch with your plan. Reassure them and convey a sense of calmness will let them know you are on top of the situation.
  1. Ask for your employees input. As part of gathering information to formulate a plan, it can be a good idea to ask your employees as well as senior management for any intel they may have about the particular situation. For the bridge collapse, asking for information people may have heard through their neighborhood associations about alternatives or finding out information about their access to public transportation can be helpful.
  1. Get creative. Consider all possibilities in the wake of a crisis. If ever there is a time for out-of-the-box thinking, it can be during a time of crisis. Some Atlanta companies have implemented staggered working hours for employees, added more options for telecommuting and are giving discounts to employees for monthly passes on public transportation. A rental car company that has an empty lot and is cut off from getting new inventory is thinking of sending new renters to the airport and compensating them accordingly.
  1. Pick one plan and stick to it. As I advise in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” when facing a crisis, pick one logical and reasonable plan and stick with it. Align everyone and everything in your company towards this goal and for this plan.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

Funny, But True: Give a Second Thought to That Second Chance

You have an employee who makes a big mistake, but comes to you to admit it and offers a solution. So, you forgive him and move on. We all mess up sometimes, and this employee handled it correctly. You give him a second chance.

As Warren Buffett said, “I make plenty of mistakes and I’ll make plenty more mistakes, too. You’ve just got to make sure that the right things overcome the wrong ones.”

But some mistakes aren’t forgivable and employees who make them don’t deserve a second chance.

publishing-scamI once worked with a company whose sales manager was running a scheme. He would sell their widgets to a customer who was a partner in his crime. After the sale, the sales manager would issue a credit, reducing the price of each widget by $1 to that customer. The sales manager and the customer split the extra $1.

The scheme went undetected and over time amassed both the sales manager and the accounts receivable manager a lot of money.

The fraud was only detected because the sales manager accidentally sent a credit to the wrong company, which reported the error. The fraud was uncovered and both managers were fired. But they were not prosecuted for their crimes. (I always advise business owners to prosecute thieves. Read more about that in “Why You Should Always Prosecute Fraud”)

And it turns out the sales manager was actually really good at sales, and once he left, sales declined 25 percent. The CEO couldn’t find a suitable replacement in the following year, so what did he do? He hired back the thieving sales manager.

The CEO’s explanation? While the sales manager never paid any of the money back, he said he was sorry. During that past year, he had found God, repented his sins and begged for forgiveness as a friend and long-term employee.

He lasted six months, until he moved. To jail. Where he was sent for stealing again.

Beyond the obvious lessons of prosecuting fraud and not rehiring people who steal, the other lesson is that some people deserve a second chance and some don’t. As a business owner/CEO you need to know the difference.

 

 

 

5 Tips for Dealing with Toxic People in the Workplace

About a billion people watched a ball drop in Times Square in New York City this past weekend, with around two million hearty souls shivering in the cold to see it in person. The ball is about 12 feet in diameter, made of crystal triangles crafted by artisans in Waterford City, Ireland. Every year, a portion of the triangles are replaced with new ones reflecting the theme for the upcoming year. 2017 was deemed to be the “gift of kindness.”

I’m all for kindness and respect in the world, and in the workplace. But when some employees continually exhibit negative behavior, resulting in lower productivity and dropping morale of your other employees, the time for kindness and good will toward all is over. It’s time to get deal with the toxic employee.

One of the triangles of the New Year's Eve ball made in Waterford City, Ireland.

One of the triangles of the New Year’s Eve ball made in Waterford City, Ireland.

Take time at the start of a new year to deal with any constantly complaining and negative employees who are poisoning the environment for everyone else. The ones who up the drama in the office while lowering the productivity.

Here are a few tips on how to take control of the situation.

  1. Document the behaviors of the employee.

Once you’ve been made aware of the negative behavior, contact the head of HR immediately so they can oversee the process.

Begin to keep track of it of the behaviors. Be specific: rather than recording the employee is frequently late, write down what days the employee was late and by how much. If the employee is spending hours gossiping with co-workers, have their supervisor keep an eye on them and record the time spent not working.

  1. Document efforts by the company to alert them of these behaviors.

Have the supervisor meet with the employee, along with a member of the HR department to review the behaviors. Again, deal with specifics and make it clear the behavior is unacceptable. Keep copies of all written correspondence between the supervisor and the employee about the negative behaviors.

Shockingly, some employees have no idea of the effect of their behavior on their co-workers. When informed of it, they may become defensive and argumentative. Which is actually more proof of their ability to be toxic.

If these behaviors have appeared suddenly in a previously positive and productive employee, try to determine if there has been a precipitating incident. Did something happen in the workplace? There may be a larger issue you need to deal with. Or perhaps there is a problem at home and just calling attention to the change in behavior is enough to cause it to stop.

  1. Develop a turnaround plan with a timeframe and measurable results.

Have the supervisor create a plan for the employee to improve the behaviors. Have the employee agree to the plan and sign it. Pick a date to meet again to review the plan.

  1. Review the results and make a determination about retaining the employee.

If after the allotted timeframe has passed, the employee has not made any changes in their behavior, consider whether you are ready to terminate the employee. As with any termination, follow the advice of your lawyer and HR department.

As Robert Sher of CEO to CEO Inc. puts it, “My mantra is, ‘Repair or replace,’ as flawed team members cannot be left alone. If they are repairable in a short timeframe, it is worth the effort. But this must be a forced march, with a firm timeline for repair. Otherwise plan to make the replacement quickly, as teams with toxicity are more likely to fail to hit their objectives. That hurts the team, the company and damages the reputation of the team leader.”

  1. Terminate the employee.

If all the efforts from you and other senior management have failed, cut your losses and get rid of the employee immediately. There’s no reason to allow them to stay and spread their toxicity. You can’t concern yourself with the amount of time spent training this person and the fact it may have been an error in judgment to hire them in the first place. Cut your losses and move on.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

 

 

Leftover Vacation Days and the Impact on Your Business

Americans did not use 658 million vacation days last year. For the first time ever, more than half of Americans (55%) did not use all of their days off, according to a study done by Project: Time Off. We are becoming the “No Vacation Nation.”

While Americans used to average three weeks of vacation a year in 2000, in 2015 they only took 16.2 days. That represents a loss of almost one week in 15 years.

Why would people essentially volunteer a week of their time every year for their company? The two biggest factors cited in the study were fear they would return to a mountain of work (37%) and that no one else can do their job (30%).

Unlike other developed countries, in the U.S. employers are not required to give employees paid time off. Employees in the European Union get a minimum of 20 days a year.

While a business owner or CEO may appreciate that their employees didn’t take their allotted time off, research shows their productivity may actually be lower when they don’t take breaks.

Studies show that when employees take time off, their productivity increases. “There is a lot of research that says we have a limited pool of cognitive resources. When you are constantly draining your resources, you are not being as productive as you can be. If you get depleted, we see performance decline. You’re able to persist less and have trouble solving tasks,” said Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University in the article “The Secret to Increased Productivity: Taking Time Off.”

In a Wall Street Journal blog, Dr. Kathleen Potempa wrote, “In addition to mental and physical stressors, long periods of work without vacation can lead to reduced productivity, diminished creativity, and strained relationships. Americans seem to believe that logging more hours leads to increased output, but respite deprivation can actually increase mistakes and workplace animosity—in addition to prompting or exacerbating stress-related illnesses.”

CEOs and business owners should look at their own calendars and clear time for vacation as well. Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, takes six weeks a year. “I take a lot of vacation and I’m hoping that certainly sets an example. It is helpful. You often do your best thinking when you’re off hiking in some mountain or something. You get a different perspective on things.”

COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg says she was able to write her best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” because she took all of her vacation days. (I’ve written a book, and would be on the side of people who argue that’s not quite what I’d call a vacation.)

Tony Schwartz, the president/CEO of The Energy Project and author of “Be Excellent at Anything” says at The Energy Project they teach “the greater the performance demand, the greater the need for recovery.” Feeling burnt out one year, he went on vacation and completely disconnected from digital distractions. “By the end of nine days, I felt empowered and enriched. With my brain quieter, I was able to take back control of my attention. In the process, I rediscovered some deeper part of myself.”

Mark Douglas, CEO of the marketing and advertising company SteelHouse, recognized the need for his employees to take vacation and offered them unlimited vacation when he founded the company in 2010. But perhaps due to the reasons stated above, people weren’t taking much.

So he decided to pay them. To take vacation. He pays his employees $2,000 a year to go anywhere in the world. They can split up the money for more than one trip, or use it all at once. Employees who request the money in the form of a bonus are turned down. They must spend it on a vacation.

As a result, his turnover rate is extremely low. Out of 250 employees, only five people left the company in a three-year period, with three of them leaving for reasons unrelated to the job.

So if you are feeling a bit anxious when you see all the empty desks and email vacation notices at your company over the holidays, think of it this way: they are recharging their batteries and will come back more productive than ever.

Take some time off yourself. And enjoy.

My book “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” is now available as an ebook.

 

Funny, But True: When Employees are Naughty, Not Nice

The popular song may claim this as the most wonderful time of the year and the hap-happiest season of all. December is also the least productive, as many workers take time off for the holidays and when they are in the office, they are distracted. And possibly doing their gift shopping online.

Having employees take adequate vacation is important and critical to the well-being of your business. I encourage every company I work with to encourage employees to take time off, and in fact to mandate the CFO take two consecutive weeks off every year. No, I’m not playing Santa Claus here. It’s about uncovering fraud.

In addition to the benefits of having an employee come back refreshed and rested, vacation is the time companies uncover naughty things some employees may have been up to.

Take the example of dear Aunt Tess. She was a payroll clerk at a company I was working with. She was a loyal and dedicated employee of 25 years, who had never missed one single payroll. Not even less than 24 hours after she had her appendix out. See any red flags yet?

I did, and after a bit of investigation, found dear Aunt Tess had been paying fake employees for 25 years, diverting their income to herself, to the tune of $75,000 to $100,000 a year. She had stolen millions of dollars.

So, I may sound a bit Grinch-like, but when your employees take time off during the holidays, make a list of who has access to your books and do a little checking it twice.

Next week, why did Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused last year, and what impact does not taking those vacation days have on your employees?

What Business Are You Really In?

 

He started as a book salesman in the late 1880s. To entice people to buy his books, David H. McConnell gave away free perfume samples. Those proved so popular, he abandoned the books and founded the California Perfume Company in 1886. That company eventually changed its name to Avon in honor of Shakespeare’s hometown. Last year, Avon’s revenue was $1.6 billion.

That’s just one example of successful companies that were founded with one business model, then pivoted to a different business. They thought they were in one business, but the market led them to change their business, either by choice or because their potential for increasing market share vanished.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland.

Twitter is an example of a forced pivot. It started as Odeo, a network for people to find podcasts. It was a bad day for Odeo when iTunes announced it would include a built-in platform for podcasts in every one of its iPods, pretty much obliterating their business overnight. So, the company got to work, hosting hackathons to come up with a new idea. The concept for a microblogging platform was hatched, and Twitter was created in 2006. It’s now worth over $10 billion.

One of my favorite pivot stories is about the American food company Wrigley. William Wrigley Jr’s father was a soap manufacturer, so as a teenager William became a soap salesman. To encourage shop owners to stock his soap on their shelves, William offered free gifts. Baking powder was the most popular, so he dropped selling the soap to focus on that. In 1892, as an incentive, he began offering two packages of free chewing gum with each can of baking powder. Once again, the giveaway was more popular than the actual product he was selling, and he moved to selling chewing gum. Wrigley sold to Mars in 2008 for $23 billion.

Did you know Nokia started as a paper mill in Finland in 1865? It moved to creating rubber goods and telecommunications devices, and a mobile phone in 1992. That year the company sold off all its other divisions to focus on mobile devices. Sadly, it failed to make a successful transition to the smartphone industry, and sold its devices and services division to Microsoft in 2013.

We associate the name Nintendo with Super Mario Bros, Game Boy and Wii. The company was founded in 1889 in Japan by Fusajiro Yamauchi to sell playing cards. Unsuccessful expansion attempts by his great-grandson in the 1960s included getting in the taxi business and “love hotels.” Then one of their engineers began developing electronic toys, which led to video game development, and its large market share of the mobile gaming space. While profits had been in decline, Nintendo seems to be on the upswing based on the potential of the value of its intellectual property.

In addition to knowing how to maximize profits for your company, knowing what business you are actually in allows you to expand and grow in the right direction.

When you aren’t clear what business you are in, efforts to innovate and expand can go astray. As Ty Montague writes in inc.com, “The lion’s share of innovation mistakes still come from companies funneling their efforts into extending the life of some existing platform, instead of spending time getting clear on what business they are really in and then constantly looking for opportunities to apply that definition to new technologies and new markets. Companies that do this will grow robust businesses that can be hard to describe in conventional terms.”

An example he gives is Tesla, which he says isn’t in the car business, but rather in the electric mobility business, so in addition to building cars, it builds infrastructure to support the mobility of electric vehicles.

Every business goes through a metamorphosis of product lines in response to marketplace pressure and technology, and a smart CEO needs to continue to monitor that so he can remain in business by moving forward.

Take a step back and think about your own business. What business are you really in?