Discretion or Open-Book: Is There a Better Approach to Culture?

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The culture of a business emanates directly from its primary leader(s)—the business owner, CEO, or leadership team.

In my work with a variety of companies, I help provide an atmosphere for high performance primarily through improving financial and operating plans, performance driver tracking and accountability. Even though I bring in my own system for making these improvements, my framework needs to fit into the overall culture of the company. I also personally choose to not work for businesses that don’t have a positive, trustworthy and “desire-to-improve” culture.  Beyond those core principles though, I find that companies have cultures that vary.

Two distinct cultures I have noticed are what I call “Trustworthy Open Book” cultures and “Trustworthy Discretion” cultures.

The Trustworthy Discretion Culture

One of my longest-running clients sold her business last year (which turned out to be perfect timing.) She’d been very successful running it, and enjoyed the satisfaction of selling it at a premium.  Her approach to culture was “trustworthy discretion.”

She was very protective of the company’s numbers, even with the top leaders.  The company was primarily blue-collar with a strong family culture.  Everyone trusted her as owner to do what was best for everyone.  When she pulled me in to help (which provided the discretion of a third-party non-employee working with the numbers) we were able to double the size of the company.  It grew to roughtly $80mm with strong EBITDA, thus commanding a premium selling price.

The Trustworthy Open-Book Culture

I have another client who has gone to an open-book format. All numbers are discussed with the teams and we hold a monthly all-hands meeting to discuss monthly results whether they be good, bad, or ugly.  Everyone is seeing everything and all oars are in the water rowing the same direction. Sales and profits are at an all-time high.

Does that mean either culture can work? Yes, provided three things are in play:

  1. The top leader/leaders set the bar of being completely trustworthy.  In both examples above, the leaders were trusted. One for how she ran the company, the other for how open he has been about the state of the company.  Both built trusting relationships with the people who work for them.
  2. The culture remains consistent.  Inconsistencies lead to lack of trust, even if they aren’t intentional. If you have an open-book culture, then shift slowly OR suddenly to hiding more and more information, you are going to break trust with your team. Alternatively, if you suddenly open up, your team may take a while to feel comfortable with the approach or even feel unsettled that there are going to be other major changes to navigate.  Whatever you choose, be consistent.
  3.  The approach is relevant to the type of business.  Some industries lend themselves to open-book more easily than others. If you are manufacturing a proprietary product, your discretion with bookkeeping may be crucial, too.  If you are non-profit needing donations, being transparent about what the money goes for—a more open-book approach— may be appropriate.

Culture is dependent on the CEO and the leadership team. Trust, no matter which type of culture you choose, is the KEY.

 

Inspired to Innovate

Don't Believe Everything You Think

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I get inspired and motivated by working with smart, driven business owners every day.  They have been forced to be innovative to drive their companies and be successful in constantly changing unpredictable times.  Working with them forces ME to be innovative too, which I love.

I don’t like to get too comfortable. I believe we need to be constantly improving and developing our capacity.  Don’t believe everything you currently think.  Sometimes we need to think differently and not do things the same way they’ve always been done anymore.

Some business owners get stuck in their growth path. Maybe it’s the obstacles in the path to progress. Sometimes it’s stubbornness or a desire to stick with the comfortable.

Take a typical organizational structure for example.  As companies grow, the typical structure adds management layers – some which are necessary and important.  We are all very familiar, and often comfortable, with the idea of an org chart.  Don’t forget though that these hierarchical organization charts were developed back in the 1800s as a way to handle the now growing, larger organizations developing from the industrial revolution.  We needed to create more production in factories.  We needed supervisors to make sure the workers were doing their jobs. We needed managers to make sure the supervisors were doing their job. We needed the directors to watch the managers, the VP’s to watch the directors, etc.

Today we need different thinking.  Now, we need to trust our employees and help them develop their capacity to act, which helps improve everyone’s capacity. Equipping our employees doesn’t necessarily mean adding more task-work. Now, it’s more about helping them develop their skills so they can make wise productivity choices.  It’s a different way of thinking that also involves helping our employees understand the culture and environment we want for our organizations. What are our core drivers? Who is our real customer? How can each of us be an important part of a synergistic team?*  We want them to be an active part of moving the company forward, not just respond to a list of tasks daily.

Not only is our thinking changing, but our environments are also.  Many of us had to address re-opening our offices – how to layout the office with proper distancing, adapting smaller meeting rooms, spreading out cubes.  Many companies are still questioning the rationale of returning workers to the office full-time.  I know several business leaders who had been very strongly against remote work who were planning to come back to their office as soon as they could.  Now that they see their business working well (some very well) with employees being more productive, collaborative, and happy working remotely, their growth path has shifted and they are intentionally growing their business with remote teams.

As we focus on a strong finish to Q3 in a very strange year, get ready to look at year-to-date results, re-examine your team, and how you’ve adapted in 2020.  The 2HYBP may need to be freshened up for the fourth quarter to finish strong. Be inspired to innovate!

*By the way – here’s a fantastic book on improving your hiring process so you can get the employees that will respond well to growth.  Who, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street.

Tips for Communication with Outsourced Pros (including the Human Side)

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All CEOs, business owners, and finance execs (CFOs, VP Finance, and controllers) hire and manage outside experts.  Auditors, lawyers, turnaround consultants, IT consultants, HR experts, sales consultants, business consultants, executive coaches and virtual assistants are just some of the roles being filled by independent contractors.  Our current world is opening the door more and more to this type of “gig economy” and the building of virtual teams, some members of which may not be your employees.

In fact, I’m one of those “outside experts” brought in to improve the company’s overall performance. I’ve also worked with hundreds of experts over the years, and I know the importance of working effectively with independent contractors.  For me, it’s all about setting proper expectations and communication – and in today’s world, both are more important than ever.

Having been on all sides, both being hired and doing the hiring for a wide range of projects, I’ve had mostly good experiences, but also a few bumpy ones.

On the good side, an internal control evaluation project I was managing proceeded extremely well.  The project came in on budget, on time and right on scope.  It was a pleasure working with the expert I hired to help with the project.  He was professional, showed up on time, handled the company’s employees well, and delivered a final product that made me look good.

On the bad side, there have been occasions where the professionals I hired didn’t perform anywhere close to where I expected. In one case, they embarrassed me in front of my client’s leadership team.  Then they gave me a bill that blew my socks of, for an incomplete project not even close to what I expected!

I discovered that the most important element for successful projects is clear communication.  I now ensure I have crystal clear objectives with weekly status meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page.  I also continually re-evaluate the situation.  Here are some practical tips to help you navigate your relationship with your outside experts (or manage your relationships with your clients) well:

  1. Start with a clear engagement letter, statement of objectives, or memo of understanding.
  2. Define expectations on all sides so everyone is on the same page.
  3. Conduct a regular review of past, present, future, and future priorities.
  4. Establish a timely invoicing structure. Some outside pros are famous for billing delays which lead to large “lump billings” which can shock a client. (It shouldn’t, but that’s another topic, and even so large billings months later are not best practice.)
  5. Evaluate regularly to make sure the contractor is still adding value, or that you are continuing to add value to the client.  For me, I try to show 10x my fee in better profits for the client. For the virtual executive assistance I contract, we meet almost weekly to discuss objectives and ideas, and she is willing to mention if I’m not making use of a routine service her team is doing for me.  Ensure both sides determine the value and the results and make changes accordingly.

If you’re an outsourced pro, you need to make doing business with you easy and pleasant. You’d want the same from a pro you hire.  Clear expectations and procedures help both sides.

Bonus – since so many of us are working virtually, here are a few additional tips for the human side of communication.

  • Invest time to get to know them your outsourced pro. Start meetings with a bit of chit-chat about how things are in their world.
  • Make them feel part of the team. Ask advice. Include them in team meetings if appropriate.
  • Give feedback on performance – positive or negative, on a regular basis.
  • Understand their other projects. Most outsource pros have more than one client they are serving. Don’t be afraid to show interest and respect to them as a business owner.
  • Pay them market or better – don’t skimp on paying what they’re worth.  You get what you pay for.

You can have extremely successful relationships with outsourced professionals (like me!) if you handle communication intentionally and regularly.

Do you need outsourced CFO help? Contact me!

 

Halftime Report: the Value of Mentoring

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2020 is half over.

For many, it’s a “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” attitude. Filled with so many unexpected, and primarily negative things happening in our country and world, it’s no wonder many of us would like a do-over.  Technically, we DO get a “do-over” multiple times per year. The halfway point of the year (no matter how good or bad it’s been) is a good time to evaluate and reset ourselves in goals, priorities, and values.  Sometimes, it’s particularly helpful to have a mentor involved in that process (or be one.)

I have felt incredibly inspired lately to be able to be a mentor and coach in some capacity to several of my client controllers and finance team members.  It’s our responsibility as leaders and experts to provide a trusting, enthusiastic and continually developing work environment to the new generation.  I’ve enjoyed passing along my experience and ideas to them, hoping to help them avoid mistakes and make decisions with wisdom and trustworthy information.

But you can’t just immediately jump into a mentor/mentee relationship without developing trust. It’s a process that goes both directions – me with them, them with me. It involves doing what you say, being transparent and honest, delivering results, and confronting some harsh realities.  You have to be willing to establish clear expectations and hold each other accountable. Sometimes that involves having difficult conversations.

I have set weekly meetings with several of my key client controllers to insure I set clear expectations for the immediate,  and quarterly meetings to focus more on the long-term.  The quarterly meetings are where we dive deeper and I provide bi-lateral candid feedback, using a simple checklist to help me help them review both theirs—and MY leadership and management.  The process is remarkably effective to build trust and accountabilty. I’m also working on my listening skills so I can better understand the other person’s perspective.

Mentoring and coaching is about leadership and guidance.  I find sometimes the teacher becomes the student and I’m loving it.

How about you? As you make a halftime report to yourself, can you consider getting involved in a mentor/mentee relationship to help you grow in your leadership skills the second half of 2020?

Our Changing World – Strange Days Indeed

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The world has changed.  Your world and the economy as you know it has totally changed – and not for the better in the short-term.  We must face facts. The next two quarters will be brutal.  But this is the time to stay focused because we will all get through this.  When you’re in hell, you keep going.

But sometimes, in a crisis, we decide to be honest about our situation (even if it’s not fun), consider the worst-case scenarios (which may not become the case for our business), determine the actual facts of the situation in relation to our unique business (without panic), consider all resources (we may have more than we realize), cut out spending (which isn’t a bad idea even in healthy times) and take appropriate action (that’s what you are in leadership for.)

For many, part of this process will be to take advantage of the Federal Coronavirus Relief Bill.  Work with your CPA, lawyer, and banker now!  See some summary pieces and the simple applications here.

Thoughts On Remote Work

All my clients are now working remotely.  Some companies were progressive and pushed for being ready; others were in denial until the state governors issued stay at home orders.

I’ve been working remotely for the last 15 years as a trusted business advisor and virtual CFO to businesses around the country.  Now everyone is working remotely (or WFH – work from home).  I am lucky to have a great office space above my detached garage.  It’s interesting, with such an increase in video calls, to see how else is using their remote/home space.  Interacting with and leading remote teams is much different for some, where it’s business as usual for those who have been working virtually for years.

Many of my clients are using (and loving) Microsoft Team. I like it too (though I prefer NOZBE Teams.)  Many other tools are now becoming well-known such as Zoom, Asana, Basecamp, and more.

The tool you pick is important, but what’s more important is how you use it.  Try to mirror some of the same standards, schedules, and communication guidelines that would be in place in the on-location office. These virtual tools help you be able to carry on in a similar way … yet do understand that your team is going through a major change that is likely affecting (sometimes deeply) their personal lives, level of distraction, and emotions. Show some grace for a while, while keeping some standards and routines that will provide structure and even, respite, from the onslaught of information and fear.

Let me know if I can be of help to your team during this scary but also potentially beneficial (in some ways) time.  Contact me here.

The Importance of Checklists and Forms

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We all need checklists in our life. It sucks, but for most of us it’s the only way to stay consistent. Yet I know very few people who use them.

I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the details I have to manage without checklists. I have a morning routine checklist a work start-up and shutdown checklist, a Monday checklist for each client, one for daily workouts, etc.

I might need a checklist for my checklists!

You might laugh, but checklists do two valuable things for me:

  1. Do what I have planned for the week
  2. Push me to stay consistent.

We can randomly travel through life without a plan, but that tends to lead to speculation of “Where did the time go?” or “I thought I’d be in a different place in life/health/etc. at this point.”

Being intentional is critical in every area of life. Your house wasn’t built without a plan. Your car was checked numerous times in production. Hopefully, your medical practitioners have a checklist for procedures – even ones they do daily.

One of my clients is a start-up company and I am helping them develop processes and procedures. We are putting together checklists to make sure we don’t miss anything. It’s really a brilliant thing to do early on in a business. Now we have repeatable steps for training, and the ability to brainstorm and maximize the 80/20 rule for maximum efficiency. Taking the thinking out of basic, recurring tasks reduces mental fatigue. By documenting workflow, it helps any employee who takes on that responsibility to develop consistency. It helps if they go on vacation — their sub can keep the ball rolling. And the work is done in a recognizable way.  As we build these procedures, we are creating screen-cast recordings as a training and reference tool.

How about you? Do you have your everyday/every week/ every month processes written down into checklists? Don’t let the idea of it being too elementary keep you from doing it. It’s actually the opposite–it elevates your business in a way that will make it stand out from those who just “go with the flow.”

 

Resources:

I recommend the books The E-myth Revisited and The Checklist Manifesto. 

My resource page.

Suggested checklists:

  • A basic meeting checklist for most meetings
  • Month-end financial statement closing checklist
  • New project/idea checklist
  • New hire and onboarding checklist
  • Sales meeting checklist
  • Annual strategy planning checklist
  • New Habit checklist – (I love the app Habit List – although I didn’t make it a habit to use it :)

 

The Shoemaker’s Son …

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You know the old saying, “The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot?”

Some time ago, as I prepared the books for MY consulting company tax return, I quickly noticed how long it had been since I did a ‘hard-close’ on my own books.  Irony.

I harp on my clients–“Keep your books and records 100% up-to-date.” Most of them using a formal checklist process every month.  Me? I have no excuse really. It came back home to me how important these seemingly tedious and unimportant routine tasks really are. To catch up,  I had to trace back several months, update the bank feeds, reconcile all my accounts to the bank statements to get everything 100% up-to-date. It would have been FAR easier if I’d just taken care of the basics every month!

One of my colleagues doesn’t feel like numbers are her strongest thing, but she has a small business and has to keep up with them. She faithfully updates accounts, invoicing, and records, reconciling her accounts nearly every week. She’s come to terms that those two hours or so a week provide a sort of audit and help her catch the items that don’t add up.  Reconciling every week may sound like overkill, but for her, it’s providing peace of mind–bills are paid, potential missing items are found, duplicates avoided–that regular routine works for her.

At least every month, all businesses, big and small, should go through a hard close with the following in place:

  • All accounts are reconciled.
  • The three GAAP financial statements are up-to-date.
  • Simple historical information with key graphs are current.
  • A checklist is kept, with items updated, in a document that can be referred to each month. I look at companies all the time who have bad record keeping.  And – they never look at the basic financial statements.  Or if they do, they have no idea what they’re looking at.  I give them them a simple month-end checklist process with hard deadlines and process to fully understand the financial results and predict future outcomes.  The value of this basic process can be incredible to drive profitability and cash flow.  Looking at my own info revealed 2 significant issues that needed to be addressed which I won’t discuss – but both effected my profitability over time and short term cash flow improvement.

Done.

I look at companies all the time who have bad record-keeping habits.  In addition, they never look at the basic financial statements!  Or if they do, they have no idea what they’re looking at.  To help, I give them them a simple month-end checklist process with hard deadlines and a repeatable process to fully understand the financial results and predict future outcomes.  The value of this basic process can be incredible to drive profitability and cash flow.  When I (finally) looked at my own info, I found two significant issues that needed to be addressed which both affected my profitability over time and short term cash flow improvement.

I preach consistent timely reporting of key indicators – revenue, profit, cash flow, other relative key indicators. Yet, as a solopreneur, I struggle keeping up with own bookkeeping on a consistent basis.

If it seems I’m better seeing every else’s problems, it makes sense.  Many of us do that. There are mechanics who postpone repairs on their cars. Fitness center workers not taking time to workout. Housekeepers not cleaning their own house. Insurance agents not purchasing the best policies for their own families.  And yes, CFO’s not keeping their books up-to-date.  But I learned that I don’t want to continue with that habit. My first client needs to be ME.

 

Finish Strong!

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It’s late in the fourth quarter, and 2017 is almost in the history book.  With very few days left in the year, we need to continue to be committed and passionate to push hard to finish our year strong.

I generally compete in several running events and triathlons each year all over New York State.  Though I’ve gotten much slower in the last few years, my race day mantra (which seems successful to me) is always similar – get up early, be prepared, start steady, and finish the second half of the race strong.

As my friend JB says – Finish Strong!  Same in our businesses.

This year for the first time, I focused on reviewing my goals almost daily in my morning routine throughout the year.  The process of reviewing my annual and quarterly goals for 10 minutes a day really helped me to focus on important things and accomplish much more this year.  Even so, some of my goals are way off track.

The key for me is not to get discouraged.  As the year ends, we need to finish strong and focus on an even stronger year next year.  I am always amazed on how little seems to get accomplished in one year and how much seems gets accomplished in five years.  The continual improvement over time makes huge gains in our businesses and our lives.

This is a great time of the year to step back, finish the last couple of weeks strong, and plan for next year’s huge gains.

Here are a couple tips I’ve been using this year as I step back to set my course for next year.  I like to have my goals documented by the end of the year.

  1. Recognized accomplishments and failures over the last year.  What went great; what went terribly.  Don’t dwell on the failures – they happened, they’re behind us, and we can learn from them.  We need to address them, autopsy them, then put them behind us.
  2. Understand and believe in abundance, positive thinking, and limitless possibilities.  I see the enemy and he is me.  Think Elon Musk.  We need commitment and believe in a great future of possibilities.  I need to think more abundance versus scarcity.
  3. Write down 7-10 goals.  We are much more likely to complete goals that are written down.  The simple fact of just writing them down will greatly improve your performance.  We all know it; no one does it.  Have the top 3 for the upcoming quarter – again, written down.
  4. Rekindle passion and commitment to all projects and goals.  Staying with some of your projects and goals is sometimes too much.  This is why we quit.  We lose sight of the key motivations that we initially had.  The Why.  Understand your ‘why’ on each one of your goals.  If the goal isn’t a hell yes! – it’s a no.
  5. Stretch and be uncomfortable with goals.  This is where the growth and development come from.  Ask any high performer – they are rarely in their comfort zone.  Set stretch goals.

And keep yourself accountable.  I use Evernote and Nozbe (arguably the two best apps ever) and check my goals and progress weekly with a formal weekly review.  It is important to keep your goals in front of you and yourself accountable to action moving them forward.

Happy Holidays everyone – enjoy this time of the year.  I find this a great time to contemplate the past year, be grateful for simple things, enjoy our families, and set out a written plan for next year.

Let’s all finish strong together and go long in 2018!

/jon

 

Flying Solo

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It’s a love/hate scenario.  The client I’ve worked with for the last 16 months is finally ready to get back on his own. Goals have been met and the company is in great shape. So, it’s time for me to go. I love it because this has been a successful relationship and the improvements we set out to do have been accomplished.  I hate the idea because I love working with this company and yes, leaving will hurt my income.

When we started working together, our goal was to turn his company around.  It had some major problems at the time and the books were in bad shape. Over those 16 months, we developed an operating plan, did the weekly cash flow updates and re-forecasted cash, developed a month-end close, worked on the inventory costing system, and many more processes.

The client did a fantastic job of making changes. He worked diligently with sales, the production staff, and customers.  The company went from a retained deficit to consistent profitability and $2+MM EBITDA (Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) with very little capital injection. I loved working with the controller and the finance team. They went the extra mile to implement the processes for the necessary improvements. It truly is a great success story.  But as we wind up the CPA audit and the second quarter, it’s time for the bird to fly on its own. I believe the company is ready to soar, despite my mixed feelings on leaving.

However, I will stay involved on a quarterly basis and the company may have some specific project work, but the day-to-day assistance will end. It will be good to still have a connection and get to witness growth and success as the company moves ahead. After all, a fractional CFO comes in to create the foundation and educate owners on how to be his or her own CFO. That is exciting work and personally rewarding as processes are put in place that makes that goal happen. The reality is when the owner is ready to fly solo, they are ready to fly solo and I move on to help the next client realize his or her business success.

How can I help your company soar? Contact me and schedule a call.

 

Vital vs. Trivial: Becoming More Effective

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I get obsessed with 80/20 thinking. You’re probably familiar with the Pareto 80/20 theory that was named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. It’s the doctrine of the vital few vs. the trivial many. The theory was based on his research that 80% of the effects came from 20% of the causes. Simple thinking that has been proven time and time again in organizations. An examination of where your sales are being generated will likely reveal that 80% of sales are coming from 20% of the same customers.

In the arena of time management the application of 80/20 thinking can direct us to be more effective. Here are a few basic bullet points that reveal the workings of the doctrine of the vital few and the trivial many from the book 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch:

  • There are only a few things that ever produce important results.
  • Most efforts do not realize their intended results.
  • What you see is generally not what you get: there are subterranean forces at work.
  • It is usually too complicated and too wearisome to work out what is happening. It’s also unnecessary. All you need to know is whether something is working or not and change the mix until it is; then keep the mix constant until it stops working.
  • Most good events happened because of a small minority of highly productive forces; most bad things happen because of a small minority of highly destructive forces.
  • The majority of activities, en masse and individually are actually a waste of time. They will not contribute materially to the desired results.

I love the idea here, but it’s easy to lose sight and get focused on the trivial many. We high achievers give ourselves credit for accomplishing so much. But we’re not always getting the right stuff done. We need to continually keep this in mind. I’ve built an 80/20 segment into my morning routine checklist. Yes, it may sound crazy, but it helps me remember the doctrine of the vital few and the trivial many in all areas of my life—my business, my clients’ businesses, my health and fitness, my family life, and my happiness. Intentionally focusing on the vital few keeps me from wasting time and effort on the trivial many which easily diverts my attention.

Need help determining what’s vital to your business? Contact me.