I love a good rule of thumb. While other people collect stamps, art or sports memorabilia, I collect rules of thumb. In fact I have far more rules of thumb than I have thumbs. Which, upon further reflection, is not saying much. But I love a good, simple lens through which to view complex issues.
A few years ago when I was looking to hire an Executive Creative Director in Atlanta, I found many interesting candidates. While discussing their various merits, Michael Palma, my headhunter, dropped an interesting rule of thumb into the conversation. He said,
‘I think you always have to ask yourself, is the candidate’s best 5 years in front of them, or behind them.’
Evaluating The Path
I found this to be a startlingly simple way to evaluate a job candidate. Because it boils a career down to trajectory. Is the candidate growing and learning and becoming more capable, more energetic, more inspired, more influential, more well-connected and more wise? Or have they peaked? Have they begun coasting? Have they begun living off of past successes? Are they still seeking out bigger challenges? Are they still hungry and feisty? Are they still showering on a regular basis?
Palma’s rule of thumb isn’t just useful when evaluating job candidates. Its real power is that it is a great way to think about our own careers. And our own lives. I have sought out and surrounded myself with people who maintain an upward trajectory. I am inspired by people who continue to grow and challenge themselves to do, learn and be more.
I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, as part of a personal growth plan. I knew it was the next challenge I needed to maintain my trajectory of growth, passion and impact. As the business continues to grow and expand, it is clear to me that the best 5 years of my career are still ahead.
Take a moment today to look at your own big picture. Are you getting better? Are you pushing yourself? Are you taking on challenges that scare you? Are you maintaining a commitment to life-long learning and self-improvement? Are your interpersonal skills, maturity and accountability improving? If not, it is time for you to spend more time working on you.
I am a naturally positive person. I like to start with the positive. I like to end on the positive. And I like to fill the middle with as much positive as I can. Yet, I don’t claim any responsiblity for my positivity. As Lady Gaga once said, Baby, I was born this way.
On Tuesday mornings I meet with my entire team at The Weaponry, the advertising and idea agency I launched in 2016. I share updates on our clients, people, and growth opportunities. We discuss our long-term vision for the organization and our progress towards that goal. And yes, it is a positive experience.
This Tuesday I gave an update on our latest developments. The headline was:
In the past 3 months we have added 8 new clients in 5 different states.
I walked through the new additions, gave an overview on what we are doing for each of them, and mentioned the people who had either helped us secure the business, or who were already working on the accounts.
After sharing the good news of the week I asked the team to keep looking for the peas under the mattress. I want to make this agency the perfect place to work, and the perfect partner for our clients. The only way you get to that point is by removing the elements that cause discomfort. I want to find the pain points and confusion. I want to know what is causing slowdowns and bottlenecks and head scratching.
Why So Negative?
It is easy to ignore your problems, especially when things are going well. But if we do, we won’t improve our machine. And if we don’t improve our processes, procedures, structure and people, we will never achieve the elusive goal of creating the perfect agency.
The Paradox. (Or is it a Pair of Docks?)
Admittedly, it is a little odd, especially for an optimistic, can-do, positive organization like The Weaponry to focus on the blemishes, weaknesses and flaws. But, Mama, that’s where the fun is.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of growth is eliminating weakness. By shoring up our weakest points the machine gets stronger and stronger. The entire team can feel it when a reoccurring problem goes a way. And when it does, we can then focus on the next issue up. There will always be a next issue up. But just as with technological advances and innovation, as challenges are solved, the new challenges that take their place are smaller and smaller issues.
If you really want to be great, don’t just acknowledge or admit your flaws. Seek them out. Root them out. Mark them in highlighter. Then develop a plan to eliminate them. We use the EOS Rocks system, as outlined in the book Traction by Gino Wickman to take on our issues, gain traction as an organization, and continue on our path of organizational improvement. We are not perfect. But we want to be. And we are committed to getting as close to the dream as we can.
*I’d love to know your thoughts on either of the following questions:
Do you feel that your organization makes a priority of discovering and eliminating your organizational and operational flaws?
Do you try to proactively identify flaws in yourself, your outlook, your processes, your knowledge or your procedures in a quest for self-improvement? Or, do you beat yourself up over your shortcomings?
When you set out to start a new business people give you lots of encouragement, advice, warnings and worried looks. Even so, you don’t really know what lies ahead. You wonder what will be worse than expected, what will be easier than expected and what to expect when you are expecting (unless you already have that baby book).
A topic that everyone warned me about when I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, was cash flow. The basic issue is that you get paid for your work, and you have to pay bills, like salaries, rent and insurance. The problem is that you don’t always have an equal amount of money coming in as you have going out. Which means that you must have enough cash on hand to cover slow payments, slow months of work, or larger-than-usual expenses.
What I’ve learned
Cash flow challenges aren’t necessarily a result of a customer being delinquent in paying invoices. The challenges can simply be a matter of timing. Your projects, or deals, may take longer to complete, so it takes longer to bill, and thus longer to get paid. If you are delayed in sending out your invoices, that can funk up your cash flow too.
Avoid At All Costs
But regardless of the reason, running out of cash on hand is a common cause of death for businesses of all sizes. It is a lot like humans running out of oxygen, or blood. Which I’ve never done. But I know some people who have, and they wanted me to tell you to avoid it at all costs.
If you are thinking about starting a business, or already have a business and could use some advice, here are a few tips to keep the cash flowing and your business going.
5 Cash Flow Tips
Don’t quit your job until you absolutely have to. A salaried job helps the cash flow in your startup in two ways. 1. It ensures that cash keeps coming into your world. 2. It decreases or eliminates the need to draw a salary from the business in order to pay yourself. This enables cash to build in your business. Like water behind a dam baby!
Start with more cash on hand than you think you need. Don’t start a business without a reserve. Inevitably you will need it. And if you can’t float an expense because you don’t have the cash around, you clients, suppliers, partners or employees will question your business-hood. And you don’t want your business-hood questioned.
Send your invoices as soon as the work is complete. Entrepreneurs have a lot of demand on their time. So it can be easy to let your invoicing slide while putting out fires and keeping plates spinning. But you have to keep your invoices flowing if you want cash to flow into your business. A good bookkeeper, aka God’s Gift To Entrepreneurs, and a repeatable invoicing process can help ensure that you don’t fall behind on this process.
Delay adding salaried employees until you have a 3-month runway. We began The Weaponry with a freelance workforce. I wanted to be able to see 3 months of sustainable work ahead in each discipline before I committed to hiring a full-time, salaried employees for that role. The 3-month rule has been a very good guide for us. For other businesses the timing may vary. Regardless, develop your own rule of thumb, and enforce it.
Keep 3 months worth of salary in reserve at all times. You never know when the demand for your product or service will go dormant. It doesn’t mean it won’t come back. But you have to be able to weather the winter in order to be around when the demand springs up again. Having the cash reserve on hand is like a squirrel storing nuts. A three-month reserve is good. A six-month reserve is better. A billion-month reserve is best.
Starting your own business is extremely rewarding. But to keep the rewards coming, you have to keep the cash flowing. It is important to understand that cash flow isn’t just a part of the entrepreneurial game. It is the game itself.
*To learn more of what I have learned through my entrepreneurial journey, please consider subscribing to this blog.
I come from a large family. Actually, I come from two large families. My Dad is one of twelve children. My Mom is one of nine. Both sides of my family have made family a priority. Not only have they committed to a lot of procreating, they have committed to a lot of recreating too. Both The Albrechts and The Spraus have made pilgrimages to the Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado, which has been rated as the #1 location in America for family reunions. Although how one mountain in Colorado is known as Snow Mountain confounds me. Don’t all of Colorado’s mountains have snow?
Bonding and Building
Family bonding and team building are the focus (or is that foci) of our reunions. We stay in large family cabins that house 40 to 80 people each. We play together, eat together, and enjoy general togetherness together.
On one of the days at each reunion we participate in organized team building exercises. The ranch offers a wide variety of activities that require you to learn how to work with a partner, or an entire team, in order complete a challenge.
The Cable Walk
One of my favorite challenges is the partner cable walk. In this challenge two partners stand on separate cables suspended 18 inches off the ground. Facing each other, the partners have to move as far along the cable as possible without falling off. The kicker is that the cables are arranged in a V-shape, so they spread farther and farther apart as you walk.
When we took on this challenge several years ago with my Mom’s family, I sat back and observed the other pairs as they navigated the cables. I studied what worked and what didn’t. The best performance (farthest distance traveled) was from my brother-in-law Uriah, and my cousin Jacci’s husband, Mike. If you laid Uriah and Mike end-to-end (which to my knowledge we have never done) they would be close to 13 feet long. All things being equal, height was a major advantage.
But all things were not equal. I quickly spotted what I thought people were doing wrong. All of the pairs who went before me held hands and started inching down the cables. While holding on to each other seemed like a good strategy, I could tell it was not the best strategy. And eventually it became a limiting strategy.
Finally, using the insights from our observations, my wife Dawn and I took our turn. Unlike everyone else, we didn’t hold on to each other. Instead, we leaned against each other. As we started, we looked as if we were doing standing push ups against each other. Or maybe we looked like we got caught playing Patty Cake with crazy glue on our palms.
As we made our way along the v-shaped cables we became a human hinge, with our hands forming the connection point. As the cables formed a large and expanding V-shape, Dawn and I also formed a V-shape that allowed us to match the angle of the cables. This made all the difference. In fact, our lean-on-me technique enabled Dawn and I to travel twice as far as any other pair. Or pear. Or Pierre.
It is easy to think we are teaming with others when we are in the same office, or on the same court or field. But proximity and contact are not enough. You have to reorient yourself to rely on your partners or teammates to do their jobs. You have to sacrifice your individual posture in order to create an even stronger team, machine, company or partnership.
Applying This At Work
As we grow the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I know we need to continue building and operating as an interdependent team. In order to thrive we need to create a scalable organization that gets larger and broader and deeper to accommodate the increase in demand. Which means that each of our members must do what is best for the entire team. And each of us must be able to trust our teammates to do their jobs, without handholding. It is the only way to achieve our ambitious goals.
In order for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, we can’t simply hold on to each other. We must lean on each other. We must trust that our teammates will lean back on us. By creating this dynamic, we create a structure of support that can produce much greater results than we could ever create on our own. This is true at work, in athletics and in families. It is certainly true within our marriages. 18 years ago today Dawn and I had our very first date. Ever since then, we have been leaning on each other, and accomplishing more together than we ever could have on our own. Just like we did on the partner cable walk at the family reunion in Colorado.
I am in the middle of a major research project on life. While the research is ongoing, I have discovered, after collecting more than four decades worth of evidence, that life is hard. My study reveals that life is hard at work, at home, in your relationships, and even on vacation. No one is immune. And there is no cure (except that 80’s band with Robert Smith).
Things go wrong all the time. Disappointment shows up repeatedly without an appointment. Things break. Bills pile up. Bills lose Super Bowls. And just when you think you are in the clear, something happens to remind you that you are clearly not in the clear.
I started my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, two years ago. And I have faced a constant stream of challenges, requirements, setbacks and surprises. As an entrepreneur, you have to be ready for whatever craziness comes your way. Because it will come, and it will be crazy. Like marrying-a-Kardashian-crazy .
A Common Trait
Since starting my entrepreneurial journey I have surrounded myself with other entrepreneurs. I have noticed that the rock stars have a special trait that enables them to be successful in the face of the constant barrage of adversity and the WTF-ity they will inevitably face. And it just may be the most valuable asset in their organizations.
A Helium Attitude.
Helium is perhaps the most magical element on Earth. Because it floats! In fact, you can fill a balloon with helium and the balloon floats too! Had Sir Issac Newton seen a helium balloon float skyward as he saw that apple fall earth-ward, he would have had a much tougher time discovering the laws of gravity. Because helium always rises above the gravity of a situation. Your attitude can too. If you let your attitude get sunk by setbacks, then your attitude is not an asset.
I don’t think about having a good attitude. Because I don’t know what that means. I think about having a helium attitude. Which is a mindset, an approach and an interpretation of the facts that rises above the circumstances. A helium attitude remains up, even when your plans fall down. Thus it always provides the perspective that things will get better. This is an entrepreneurial imperative.
The helium attitude helps lift others too. Someone needs to rise above the disappointment and frustration that we all inevitably face. The helium attitude bounces back quickly, and offers other people a high point to focus on as they navigate forward. Which is why it is important for parents, leaders, teachers and preachers to fill their attitudes with as much helium as they can get (#highandfunnyvoices).
Life is unpredictable. One moment you feel like you are on top of the world. The next moment, you feel like the world is on top of you. But a helium attitude rises anyway. Don’t let setbacks, curveballs, and negative people drag you down. Do what helium does, and just keep rising. Your attitude is everything in life. Make sure you fill it with the right fuel.
I love track and field. I first got involved in the sport as a freshman in high school, mostly because I was terrible at baseball. But also because it was co-ed. And, I thought the fact that it was a no-cut sport significantly improved my chances of actually making the team.
I have competed in a wide variety of track and field events. My resume includes the 100 meters, 400 meters, 1600 meters, high jump, long jump, shot put, discus, javelin, hammer, 35-pound weight, 110 meter hurdles, 4×100 meter relay, 4×400 meter relay, and, yes, even the pole vault (which I approached more like the high jump with a stick).
I liked every event I ever competed in. I love the energy and atmosphere at track meets. But you know when track and field becomes really fun?
The Second Meet.
The second meet is the most important and impactful event in a track athlete’s career. In your first meet you are just setting a baseline. But once you get to your second meet you walk in with a time, distance or height to beat. And most of the time, the results in the second meet are a rewarding step forward from the first meet.
In track and field, every result is measured in minutes and seconds, or feet and inches. Which means that your linear progression is clear and quantifiable. Your undeniable improvement in the second meet gets you thinking about the third meet. It makes you think about practicing more, training harder, lifting weights, warming up smarter and getting some better hype music. You start wondering just how much better you can get. The seeds of self-improvement are planted, fertilized and watered in that second meet.
The Broader Lesson
This is not just a track and field thing. This is a life thing. The same principle applies to our careers, our relationships, our responsibilities and our hobbies. Our first attempts simply set a baseline. The second time we do anything we start the improvement process. We recognize that as we pour more energy, time and focus into any activity we get better and better. This is true of presenting a closing argument in court, hiring good employees and folding fitted sheets (although my wife, Dawn is so good at the fitted sheet thing that I focus on the closing arguments in court instead).
Don’t be afraid to try something new because you think you will be bad at it. You will be bad at it. Or at least you will be the worst you will ever be. But that first attempt creates a starting point. The climb from there is both exciting and rewarding. As you improve, remember that first attempt. Recognize how far you have come since you first started. It is one of the most rewarding reflections in life.
*To see if these posts improve over time, please consider subscribing to this blog. Like the measurements of my track and field days, I now track follows, likes and comments to see if I am getting better. And like track and field, I am happy blogging is a no-cut sport.
My daughter Ava is a good student. She just finished 6th grade and her report cards always look like they have my initials all over them. She is a self-starter and a self-finisher. Which means that while I would like to be more involved with her academics, she usually doesn’t need my help.
Her final science project of the year finally gave me a chance to get involved. The assignment was to build a Rube Goldberg Machine that incorporated at least four simple machines (#physicstalk).
For those of you who aren’t down with RGM, a Rube Goldberg Machine is a machine, device or thingy that uses a chain reaction to perform a very simple task in a very complicated way. I love this kind of project. It combines science, creativity and whimsy (Did I mention that in college I majored in whimsy?)
The Big Question
The project was a mixture of problem solving fun and you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me frustration. But helping Ava with her RGM set off a series of linked thoughts in my head. My Father Brain nudged my Business-Owner Brain which produced the question:
Are organizations unintentionally creating Rube Goldberg Machines to do what should be done easily?
It shouldn’t be that hard.
Most organizations develop processes and procedures, whether officially or by default, that are way too complicated. What should take a one person a few minutes to complete turns into a complicated chain of events, with too many sign-offs, too many check-ins, too much standing in line, too much discussing and not enough doing.
Check yourself before your wreck yourself.
Chances are that you have an RGM in your organization. But instead of being whimsical and entertaining, it wastes time, adds costs and has a negative impact on customer service.
If you notice an overly complicated process within your organization, or in your interactions with your partners, vendors or clients, let them know. Businesses need this kind of feedback. Because it is really easy to make an easy task difficult.
Taking a fresh look.
When I started the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I reveled in the opportunity to make our processes simple. I also have a long-term vision of the business that should help us avoid unnecessary complexities. But we are not perfect. We will also require regular evaluations and feedback from our team, partners and clients to make sure we are not complicating what should not be complicated.
Rube Goldberg Machines offer good opportunities to teach children about physics. They offer great entertainment. In fact, I would subscribe to The Rube Goldberg Machine channel if such a thing existed. But within organizations, let’s not overcomplicate. Let’s always look for ways to de-complicate our processes and procedures to make sure we are not wasting time or money.
In case you were wondering…
*I envisioned Ava creating a small contraption on a table in our basement. But that’s not Ava’s style. She created a large machine in our driveway, despite the fact that she would have to set it all up and take it all down every day until she completed the project. She finally completed a successful run at 8pm on my birthday. Which meant that my birthday was spent doing a lot more tweaking of components than celebrating me. But that’s what parents do.