How to drive the company car: Tips for keeping all of your business gears in motion
Race cars and small businesses both have a lot of moving parts. When the gears all work together and the tires are all inflated and the steering is tight and the track ahead is clear, you can accelerate for days. And man does it feel good. (I’ve been in both situations and they’re equally awesome.)
When things aren’t vibing, though, it can feel more like killing the engine again because you’re terrible at driving a stick. If this scenario is the one that feels more realistic, it’s because many business leaders only know how to operate in one of two ways: smashing hard on the gas or pounding on the brakes.
So if you are the type who thinks the solution to every problem is to either throw more resources at solving it or bring the process to a halt for months of “What the hell is going on?” meetings … this one is for you.
Maybe consider this article your refresher course in business driver’s ed.
If You’re Slamming on the Gas, You’re Doing It Wrong
I once had a brilliant idea. My team was falling behind on solving problems for our customers. Each problem was a ticket, and we had way too many of them to solve efficiently. This was my (wrong) solution: a rule that if we had more than 100 tickets in the queue at 5 p.m., then everybody had to work one hour of mandatory overtime to close more tickets!
I patted myself on the back for my brilliance. I saw a problem and I solved it the way I knew how: I slammed on the gas for the company. (There’s a problem? Throw resources at it until it goes away!)
You may be shocked to learn this did not work. At all. Employees were very not happy about the unstable schedule, and the number of tickets in the queue didn’t move an inch. In fact, the only number that made any movement was the cost of overtime, which skyrocketed.
The dangerous belief I held was that more results, faster equals stomp on the gas pedal and peel out. Throw all your funding at a project, hire more people, spend more money, and put everything else on the back burner.
This is dangerous even when everyone is on board and is even worse when companies forget that brakes exist.
Here’s another example:
A client of mine was opening retail stores at a rapid pace. COVID came along and the CFO said, “Whoa there! I think funding is going to dry up, we should slow down!” The CEO said, “Absolutely not! This is our chance to get ready for the end of the pandemic to come out screaming!”
The CFO was right. Funding did dry up, and the company went bankrupt soon after lockdowns were lifted with many unfinished stores in the pipeline.
If You’re Slamming on the Brakes, You’re Also Doing It Wrong
During the 2008 market crash, one of my IT services clients said, “We’re putting a freeze on all IT spending until we see how things go in the economy.” This client was already way behind the technology curve, and would’ve benefited significantly from the upgrades and efficiency improvements we proposed to their network.
They refused to budge.
The consequence? When the economy did rebound faster than expected and their business surged, their network couldn’t keep up with it. They suddenly had crashes and lag that upset customers and killed employee morale.
“Pumping the brakes” translates to slashing the budget, firing the client, halting a project completely, or reducing staff and forcing the ones remaining to still complete the work with half the resources. When this becomes a leader’s M.O., they think the solution to every problem is to slow it down or bring it to a halt. They stop evaluating which ideas are good and just stop all of them.
But is it smart business to treat every department equally and hope it works out? This happens a lot when sales slow down and companies decide to cut budgets across the board instead of considering which parts of the budget make sense to cut. Instead of 10% across the board, however, a smarter decision might be 15% of one department and 5% of another.
Here’s How To Do It Right
To wear out the rubber on this racing analogy, here’s the bottom line: In order to fine-tune your business, consider each decision individually – should I be accelerating or slowing down, and how much? When you drive, you rarely smash a pedal. Instead, you try for a smooth, easy ride down the highway. Apply a little gas here and a little brake there as you roll around the corner and see traffic slowing ahead.
As the business leader, your job is to get the people who report to you to understand when they’re in panic mode and resetting to their default mode, gas or brakes.
If your CFO is trying desperately to control a bleeding budget, and your sales lead is promising Hawaiian vacations to anyone who makes their stretch goal, you’ve got to be the voice of reason who helps them figure out the smooth path. They’re both working on the same goal – fix the company’s financial picture – but one is on the brakes and one is on the gas.
You know what happens to your car if you do both of those at once? You blow out the engine. It makes a terrible noise as it dies, too.
Or maybe your operations manager is pushing for a big upgrade to their technology so they can support future business growth, but your sales leader sees a big reduction in leads so they want to make cuts in the call center.
Who’s right? Is it brake time or gas time?
In either situation, what you end up with is interdepartmental bickering, potentially precarious vendor or client situations, and employees who have a lot of questions. So how do you find that delicate balance? There are no easy answers, but there are some ways to ensure your small business runs smoothly.
- Think about the other path
- Be brave with your silos
- Watch out for pressing both pedals
- Explain yourself to your company
Each of us orients toward gas or brake. Every CEO I know prefers one or the other, so the first step is to know which one is you. When I was writing examples for this blog post, I had *tons* of examples of how I am a gas pusher and very few of me pushing the brakes.
It may seem elementary, but simply knowing who you are and which perspective you’re likely to miss can make a huge difference.
One way a business gets in trouble is by separating itself into silos. And while it may not seem important that marketing knows what accounting is up to or whether operations has its finger on the pulse of IT, every department is a gear that makes the whole gadget run.
From a gas or brake perspective, it’s tempting to make decisions that affect every silo equally. Nobody can get mad at you if everyone gets a 10% cut – right?
In reality, that’s almost never the right choice for your business. So be ready to *lead* and make the right choices for the moment of who gets extra and who gets less … and why.
Do you know what each of your leaders is thinking right now? You’d be surprised how many times IT goes through (almost) the entire procurement process for choosing a product or service, only to take it to accounting and find out their budget is about a quarter of what they assumed.
One way to avoid this type of miscommunication is to, well, communicate. Schedule standing meetings where the department heads give status updates; announce upcoming projects, goals, or initiatives; read from their diaries; and basically lay everything out on the table.
Have you ever been in a situation as “not the boss” when the company makes a seemingly idiotic decision to press the gas on one project or slam on the brakes on another? It can be bewildering – especially if the team is midstream when everything abruptly ends. If they don’t understand why all their hard work will not, indeed, pay off, you could find yourself trying to work with a team who decides they won’t be so invested the next time around (and, no, a pizza party won’t help).
Of course, there are some things that require confidentiality – a potential new client deal, for example – but as the leader, the more transparent you can be about the whys behind your decisions, the easier it will be to get people to go with the flow. Conversely, if you see someone on your team making a questionable decision, they need to come clean about what’s going on, too.
If your company understands your choices and why you made them – even if they disagree – they feel better.
(There’s a pun here somewhere about waving the checkered flag and crossing the finish line, but our race car jokes are out of gas.)