Situation: Start-ups and early-stage enterprises are typically both resource and talent constrained. The CEO of a start-up asks how others successfully outsourced infrastructure cost effectively and when they were early-stage so that they could focus on critical success factors and improve their opportunity to succeed. How do small companies outsource infrastructure?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the early stages of company development, outsource everything possible and focus our efforts only on the key functions.
In order to focus on the most important things first, decide what must be accomplished and when. Set priorities, establish key milestones and create a timeline to measure achievement. Celebrate your successes!
Identify the most important strategic foci within your business model and outsource everything else.
For example, use outside data centers instead of developing these yourself.
With the increase in Cloud-based options, early stage companies can do without the IT infrastructure that they used to need. Just be careful to safeguard your intellectual property!
Attend relevant meetings and functions to learn about existing and available capabilities. Look for local networking opportunities relevant to your market.
Incubator sites have developed in a number of high tech centers. These are designed to cover infrastructure needs at a reasonable cost so that founders can focus on product and service development.
Hire a virtual assistant – you can find these locally using a Google search.
Take advantage of lower cost labor and enlist younger, less experienced labor to manage databases and clean records.
Set up a wiki for information. This exchange is free and you can tailor it to your needs. It is permission-based; you can find it at pbwiki.com.
Situation: A company needs a strong pool of engineers in their market niche to stay ahead of the competition. Their niche is specialized with little transferability from other engineering specialties. They struggle to find local talent and relocation expenses are high. How have you recruited hard-to-find talent?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you want a mix of fresh and experienced talent and need to add 3 to 5 new engineers per year to keep up with growth and turnover, you will be hiring a new engineer every 2-3 months so you need a standardized, repeatable process that is ongoing. If you don’t have either in-house or reliable outsourced HR capabilities, you need to secure this as soon as possible.
Consider establishing a satellite office in a geographic area which has an available talent pool.
Look for areas with a top university engineering program in your field.
Look at your key competitors’ locations and see whether they are in areas with both the educational and industrial-technology base to be a candidate location.
As you develop a new geography, forge strong relationships with the university programs that can feed you the younger talent that you need. This is a win-win relationship, because universities are focused on their placement statistics and corporate support.
Get to know the professors in your specialty and explore establishing a center of study or excellence within the engineering programs.
One company works closely with Santa Clara University and developed a program that offers financial rewards for the best technical papers produced by students in their specialty. This has created a buzz around the company, helped to establish a study program in their specialty, and enables them to attract the best and brightest graduates.
As you establish a reputation for attracting the best younger talent, this can help you to attract seasoned talent that wants to work with the brightest young talent in the field.
Another option is to find 2-3 key experienced engineers who are willing to relocate for the opportunity to build a new team.
Interview with Anju Bajaj, CEO, Zuna Infotech, Inc.
Situation: The US economy is slowly trying to get back on its feet, but many potential obstacles remain. In the mid-west, there is good talent with deep enterprise-level IT experience, and lots of new young talent looking for positions. How can private business help to retool the workforce and boost employment?
Advice from Anju Bajaj:
Working in IT services to provide end-to-end technology solutions, we have found highly skilled talent in the American Midwest. In recent years, many seasoned IT professionals have lost their jobs as Midwestern companies downsized. These individuals have deep enterprise level IT skills, but may not be up to speed with the latest technologies. There are also many brilliant young people available who have good web-based technology skills, but no experience in legacy systems or the working of complex enterprises. Our focus is on cross-training both groups as they collaborate to build IT solutions for our customers.
We have found that by organizing these two groups into small teams, guided by a lead who knows both web-based and legacy systems, we can leverage their individual strengths to cross-train each other. It turns out that both sets of workers are smart, capable and, in live project settings, collaborate and acquire technical skills and domain knowledge relatively quickly.
The bigger and more subtle challenge is teaching younger workers about business processes. Each process must fit the workflow so that a process change in one area doesn’t produce difficulties in other areas. For this, you need to have people with deep expertise in functional and domain disciplines as well as technical experts. By teaming talent, we can produce functional experts who understand all areas. We have found that in three to six months of working together, about 25% of team members reach almost guru status; while the remaining 75% have become quite skilled.
Like most leading service providers, we at Zuna Infotech also build capability through our Centers of Excellence. We focus on developing practices within different industry verticals. With this comes knowledge and structure which we can then pass on through train-the-trainer programs.
We have been inspired by the desire to help keep US workers working while retooling their skills. The results that we’ve found to date have been very encouraging. We hope that this can provide a model for other companies.
Situation: A company wants to grow by acquiring companies in similar verticals that have different but complimentary offerings. The targets will most likely be boutique operations. How should they target and prospect candidates?
Advice from the CEOs:
Before you think about either targeting or prospecting an acquisition do your internal homework. Establish your strategic plan, including strategic capabilities that you want to develop. Look for synergies within your plan, and assure that any new capabilities complement these synergies.
Will current customers be interested in the new strategic capabilities, or will you have to build or buy access to new customer segments?
Determine the leveraging factors. How much incremental business can you expect to gain compared to current business? Look at both top and bottom line impact.
Do a build/buy analysis to determine whether the capability is more effectively built using your own resources or purchased.
Leverage both internal and external resources to develop a target list. Ask what current employees may be knowledgeable of potential candidates.
Use your industry network to identify and gather information about candidates.
Retain a firm to assist you in identifying candidates. They can approach candidates from a neutral position to assess interest in acquisition.
It is critical to negotiate a deal that retains key talent. Founders and key staff of the acquired company must see the combination as a means to facilitate and expand their own vision. In many successful acquisitions you will see the following traits.
The acquiring company did not change management, accounting methods, or operational procedures of the acquired company.
They acted as a bank to facilitate pursuit of the acquired company’s dreams and already successful strategies.
They took a “hands-off” approach with the acquired company and did not try to force cultural change.
Interview with Greg Hartwell, CEO and Managing Director, Homecare California, Inc.
Situation: Fast growing companies find it difficult to manage consistency and reliability of service as they scale to their next level of growth. They need to systematize what works and leverage technology to enjoy the benefits of scale. How do you build consistency and reliability as you scale up?
Advice from Greg Hartwell:
Invest time and effort to build an experienced management team. As a small company building a new service delivery model, it is helpful for the founders to know all roles so that you have a sense of what’s needed for each role.
Be open to hiring people from other industries. This brings a fresh perspective and broadens the pool of talent. There’s value in industry experience, but attitude and cultural fit are key.
The split between tactical and strategic skills is 80 / 20. Basic skills are necessary, but specialized knowledge can be learned.
Institutionalize how you recruit, screen, hire, train and retain. How do you do it like Disney – attracting and hiring the best of the best?
Know your market and the personality of those who will excel. This greatly simplifies the screening process.
Work hard on training. Our customer-focus starts with our employees. We complement natural talent with training that focuses on soft skills, and on consistency and reliability of service.
Find great advisors who can help build a training and retention system that works for you.
Minimize turnover by compensating people well, and treating them even better. Build a culture of recognition and shared experience that emphasizes the importance of the team and its members.
Embrace technology which enhances your ability to scale.
Don’t wait for something bad to happen and then rush to fix it. Anticipate and prevent mishaps.
Leverage communication technologies to tighten the bond between client and provider agency. Provide added services that are valuable and affordable.
Hand-held device technology is developing rapidly. Leverage this to increase consistency and reliability of service, enhance case reporting, reduce human error, reduce the ratio of supervisors to caregivers, and increase productivity. Be at the head of your industry class!
Situation: A company has been seeking additional engineers. Unexpectedly, three excellent candidates independently approached the company seeking employment. This opens the door to expand the department and also to create an additional layer of management consistent with the company’s growth objectives. Currently, in this small company all engineers report directly to the CEO. What are best practices adding a layer of management to the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Remember that aspiration does not equal talent. There is a big difference between good individual contributors and good managers. The best predictor of managerial success is past successful experience.
You have a number of senior engineers who have been with you for a long time. Have any expressed an interest in management responsibility? Do any of them have a track record successfully managing teams? Similarly, evaluate your new candidates both in terms of both their ability to contribute as engineers and their prior management experience.
If you hire one or more of the candidates, start them at the senior engineer level. Let the company and the rest of your engineering team get used to them and observe the quality of their contribution.
Once you are ready to create a new level of management, make this an open process. Announce your plans to the engineering team, and ask them to approach you individually if they are interested. See who steps up.
When the time comes to make the promotion, how do you communicate this to the group?
If you’ve used an open process to evaluate one or more candidates for management, the group will already be prepared when you announce the new structure and promotion.
An important part of the message is that the company is growing and that there will be ongoing opportunities for talented engineers to earn promotions to management.
For those interested, start with small steps as leads in team projects. Who if effective at guiding their team? Who is a positive source of energy for the team? Who is helpful and goes above and beyond for other team members and for customers? How do they respond to team obstacles? Observe and coach them along the way.
Interview with Doug Merritt, President & CEO, Baynote
Situation: A company has a proven technology and satisfied customers. To achieve their goals, they need delivery on sales and service to ramp revenue. At the same time, new opportunities arise daily. How do you keep the team focused on execution and delivery?
Advice from Doug Merritt:
The first thing to focus on is focus itself. Most of us don’t suffer from lack of opportunities, but from an inability to make hard choices and diligently pursue the few critical or high pay-off options. To tell the difference between gold nuggets and distracting bright shiny objects, you must have a clear strategy and priorities on customers and channels you want to develop. It is critical to choose the right opportunities that will optimize achievement of the strategic plan and to say not to those that don’t. This must be constantly reaffirmed through a simple set of metrics around your optimal customer set, revenue ramp, and quality of services delivered.
The second thing is attracting the right talent. A small and rapidly growing company has little time and resources to effectively train fresh talent. If scale is the issue, it’s important to identify and attract experienced individuals – those who have proven their ability to deliver and who bring along a high quality, proven, loyal following. Top talent that can open the purse strings of your target customers. This means hiring rock stars who do this better than you can! The challenge for the CEO is remembering that success almost always comes from hiring people who can do their jobs much better than you ever could. The CEO’s unique talent isn’t being the smartest person in the room – it’s your ability to build and guide an organization that will achieve more than you can alone.
Third is to keep the team focused on the most important priorities. The CEO needs to generate a crisp vision and to distribute information that maintains focus on that vision. Most “Type A” overachievers want to do lots of things well. The key is doing the right things well. You do this by measuring, and by creating transparency around the few key levers that drive the strategy. It helps your cause to say no to a visible and enticing “bright shiny object” that, in the past, the team would have reluctantly accepted. Finally, it also helps to create a few large and non-negotiable milestones that get the company to focus, as a unit, on achievement. Ultimately, the CEO needs to coach and guide their team to do the right things right.
Situation: Sales at a small company have grown rapidly. They need to expand staff to keep up with demand and fulfillment. There are two options: expanding current functional teams in sales and service or adding a back office operations function. Based on your experience, which of these two options makes more sense for a company of fewer than 20 people?
Advice from the CEOs:
Since the company is planning to grow from 10 to 20 people, create an organizational chart for what the company will look like with 20 people. From this back into what it looks like with 15, and then 10 people.
Look at how the positions work, and what talents you want to see in each position. Assess how well your current staff fills both current and anticipated talent needs.
The company’s key market differentiation is and will continue to be exceptional client service. Here are some of the questions to ask:
Are the back office needs of the sales and service teams similar or different?
If there is enough overlap, can one person, and eventually a team, supply the operational needs of both your client services and sales functions?
If there is little overlap, what specific needs are currently unfulfilled by each team? Is there enough work to justify adding more than one person so that each team manages their own operations?
One option is a matrix organizational structure which can work well in a firm of 10 to 20 people. Key factors include:
Establishing a company culture to compliment your strategy and objectives.
Establishing clear expectations of accountability and expectations to govern the model.
Matrix structures don’t always succeed. Ask whether your current people and culture are suited to a matrix organization.
Situation: A company has hired a new employee with excellent skills who reports to a Director. This person is a self starter who prefers little supervision. Friction is starting to develop between the new employee and the Director. How do you resolve this conflict?
Advice from the CEOs:
This person was hired for their talent. However a successful hire takes account of talent, but also role, cultural fit, organizational placement and the needs of the company.
For example, if this person is strong in operations but they are now in client services, is this the right role?
Similarly, if the culture of the office emphasizes teamwork, collaboration and support, is this the right culture for this individual?
Be cautious before tweaking the org chart to create a new role for this person..
Consider both your current staff and the new person. You may be creating additional conflict if your actions appear as favoritism.
The dominant factor is YOUR plan. If the employee is wrong, replace the employee.
If an employee can’t get along with others it is a difficult situation to repair.
When you meet with the employee what should be said?
First, don’t try to solve the situation before you have a clear strategy.
Question and listen. “You’ve been with us a short time, and I want to check in with you. What do you think of your role?” Let the employee talk, probe for clarification of what is said. Take note of what is said. Acknowledge any requests but indicate that you will put them under advisement.
Do the same in discussion with the Director.
The key is that you are in control. Look at your objectives, and where you fit resources best within the org chart. Once you have your plan, communicate it.
Situation: The environment has become more complex for leaders. Not only must leaders perform classic roles, they must also deal with increased uncertainty and change. How do you build a new leadership paradigm to address ongoing change?
Jorge Titinger’s Advice:
There are three challenges facing leaders today.
First, given that change is constant, what does the next likely settling point look like in your environment look like and how is this different from past settling points?
Everything starts with the people.
Once you determine the likely next settling point, do a capability inventory within your leadership team to determine whether you have the right people to handle the new reality.
Can current members be trained?
Do you need to bring in new talent?
Second, are your processes limiting or enhancing your flexibility?
Do current processes encourage adaptability and cross-functional connection and communication?
If not how will you change them?
Deconstruct/reconstruct all critical processes to make them more agile.
Third, how are you linking desired outcomes with rewards and incentives within the company?
Growth in the past focused on building up infrastructure – adding more people and capacity.
Knowledge management focused on tools and processes to make people more effective. Individualized assessment and reward structures became an obstacle and had to be shifted to emphasize the importance of collaborative versus individualized performance.
Agile leadership and management focuses on reaching outside the boundaries of your own company. To deliver differentiated value suppliers and customers must be included in the exercise. We must reinvent how we engage with suppliers and customers so that they are part of the collaboration.
The agile paradigm focuses on the unspoken needs of suppliers and customers. This takes the conversation beyond the transaction and includes quality, on-time delivery, and other differentiators that are mutually important. It can include competing for your competitors’ suppliers by being a better customer!