Putting Out Fires

By Thomas Houck

“Another sleepless night,” said Sid, who had been in business for six long and hard years. “The stress from running this business and trying to keep everyone happy is killing me. I haven’t taken a day off in three freaking months and I’m completely exhausted. What the heck going on?”

The entrepreneur continued:  “My friend Art is in the same business as me, and he takes the weekends off, coaches his kids’ football team in the evenings, and isn’t the least bit stressed out. How does he do it? My business is getting more difficult as each day passes, and I don’t know how to get my arms around it.”

The most valuable asset any business owner has is his or her time. The most successful entrepreneurs have the best time management skills, and develop a system to prioritize the things that they must do in their businesses and personal lives. They know that if they don’t work on the important things, the important things won’t get done.

Sid was at his wit’s end. Two of his three biggest clients had left him in the last 30 days, and he was in a panic. When he asked them why they were leaving, they both said that they felt as if he had forgotten about them. Sid was shocked, because he thought that he had good relationships with these clients.   His thinking was simple:  He never heard from them; therefore, he had assumed that everything was fine.

Sid was guilty of the same mistake that many entrepreneurs make—namely, management by crisis. Those who screamed the loudest got his attention. The flaw in this “putting out the fires” method of operating is that fires beget more fires. What’s more, sooner or later, those who are quiet start screaming if no one pays attention to them.

Practical business assistance: Sid saw his business crumbling around him, but he had no idea how to stop it. Knowing that he needed help, he turned to a business consultant who had guided his friend, Art, back on the road to sanity. Together, they examined how Sid scheduled his week, and immediately the problem became clear: Sid’s first order of business on Monday mornings was to check the answering machine. Whoever sounded the most upset got Sid’s attention. That’s hardly a recipe for providing a quality customer experience.

The business pro then taught Sid a “Calendar Care™” system. This strategy required Sid to mark each day for the coming month on his calendar with a symbol, depending on what his priorities would be for that day. The symbols were:

$ for days when Sid would work in his business doing things related to current and future cash flows.

for big picture days, when Sid would spend time working on his business to make it more effective in the future.

for days off, when Sid would do no business-related activities.

It was a revelation for Sid to learn that the most important days were the off days, because they kept him fresh and focused for his workdays.

Enlightened communication: Next, the consultant asked Sid to examine the meetings he held with his staff, so they could examine how he communicated. “What meetings?” Sid asked his advisor, “Everyone’s supposed to know what he’s doing.”  It was painfully obvious that Sid needed to learn how to keep the entire staff focused, and keep the most important things in the forefront of their attention. This strategy is what the consultant called the “Monday Morning Focus Meeting™.”

To utilize this technique, each Monday, Sid gathered all relevant team members together first thing, in an uninterrupted meeting. There they’d discuss and write out the following:

  • Any outstanding items from the previous week that had to be addressed.

  • The top 10 current cash flow items. These would be projects they were working on that needed to be completed so that they could get paid for them.

  • The top 10 future cash flow items. This would include potential customers who were close to hiring the company, as well as marketing and sales efforts to generate new customers to add to the pipeline.

  • The top three big picture items that they were working on to make the company operate more smoothly in the future. These might be things like implementing new technology, expanding into new product or service areas, or hiring new staff.

Once these items were written out, one of the team members would take responsibility for it, and move it forward by week’s end. The team members and Sid would then schedule these tasks into their weekly calendars, so that the most important matters could be worked on. This gave Sid a method of knowing who was doing what so that he could make sure it was getting done.

After filling his calendar with work-related items, Sid’s next step was to prioritize. First, he’d list the three most important personal things he needed to get done for the week. Then, he added these things to his calendar, as well. This helped him balance the professional and personal parts of his life.

Sid couldn’t wait to begin using this new system. He immediately saw the benefits, but he knew it would take a month or two to work out the bugs and get his team members on board.

Sid successfully implemented these techniques into his business. After returning from a fabulous two-week vacation with his family, two years after first meeting with his consultant, he called the business pro to thank him. “I must admit that I was a little worried that I’d be coming home to a disaster at the office, but everything went fine without me,” Sid confided. “I can point to our work together as the turning point in my business. The fires are out, so I sleep well, have happy customers and, most importantly, get to spend time with my wife and see my kids grow up.”

Read other articles and learn more about Thomas E. Houck.

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