None of them are easy but you’ll thank yourself for doing them.
As an entrepreneur or business leader one of the most important and often difficult things that you need to do is to protect your people, your culture and business.
There are parts of this that are easy and parts of this that are really difficult.
As leaders we have an obligation to protect the greater good while at the same time being sensitive to individual needs of everyone and sometimes these two things can be at odds with each other.
At Nona we care deeply about our people and we also have very high standards. Sometimes we need to do difficult things in order to keep these standards and to protect the amazing people that make us the company that we are and allow us to deliver the quality that we do for our clients.
I wanted to share some learnings that we have had doing the hard things in order to protect the people that work so hard to make us who we are.
Firing bad clients.
Firstly we needed to identify what a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ client fit is.
A bad client to us might well be a good fit for another business with a different set of values and a different offering.
We have spent a long time working on refining out target market and this is as much about who has the problems that we are well positioned to solve as it our values and how they align to them.
Beyond the commercials, the best clients for us are the ones that:
- Resonate with our values.
- Come to us as experts in our field and allow us to guide them through or over their challenges, fears and obstacles.
These are powerful indicators for us to measure and act on.
If there is a bad value fit it is almost certain that the mutual experience will be poor and that the people that we have invested so heavily in will be unhappy. Business is personal, it’s all about people and having the best team that you possibly can is in my experience more important that anything else.
When there is a bad value fit the experience will almost always be terrible even if it is profitable and it is your responsibility to work actively to be able to let that client go as quickly as you responsibly can.
This is often not possible in the short term because of financial constraints and when that is the case, it needs to become a priority to work deliberately towards a place where you can respectively and responsibly part ways with an unhealthy client.
If you are able to do this, your team will feel supported and valued and that is gold.
Hire slowly and fire fast.
These can be equally as difficult but for very different reasons.
If I look back over the many hires that I have made across different businesses over years, there is a correlation between the the speed and thoroughness through which someone was hired and the likelihood of success of that relationship.
Almost every time a hire was rushed and pushed through for the wrong reasons it didn’t go well.
Similarly, when we followed a very thorough interview process and took our time, those hires that made it through and still wanted to work with us after the process have been, in general great hires.
A lesson that I have learned here is to take the time to develop a strong and thorough process through which every potential hire needs to go through. It can feel laborious but you’ll thank yourself for it. The right hires will value it because they will know that they are joining a business that invests heavily in people from before they are even onboard.
On the other side of the coin is when you need to make a call to remove someone from the business for whatever reason. This can be extremely difficult and emotional especially when it is someone that is a great culture fit and that everyone loves but that simply isn’t performing despite all efforts.
As a leader in a business it is the tough decisions like these that you are signing up for. This is the part that nobody likes but that needs to be done in order to protect the rest of the team and the business at large. In most cases when I have made the tough call to remove someone from the business for justified reasons I have had some team members come and thank me for taking the hard decisions and that they actually feel supported, valued and safer for it. It never gets easier but hopefully if you are reading this and can relate you non longer feel alone in this.
People need to know and feel that you as a leader are prepared to do the difficult things that need to be done in order to protect the greater good, even if it is going to make you unpopular.
In every situation it has been far better to act quickly and with as much compassion as possible but never to let it fester and drag on because of the fear of confronting the situation.
This part of leadership sucks and it never gets easy but it is a major part of building high performance and strong cultures.
Give everyone in your business platforms to give honest and candid feedback often.
If you get this right, it can be very uncomfortable. However, getting this right and being able to accept the discomfort can drive much better decision making in your business both for performance and people happiness.
We spend so much time, effort and money on getting the best possible people that we can into Nona, it would be wasteful and ill advised then not to listen to as much as what they have to say as possible.
Here are 2 examples of how we ask for feedback and contribution from everyone at Nona.
Start, Stop, Continue forms.
About a month before our quarterly planning session I send out a form to everyone in the business. Filling out this form is compulsory and always requires a few nudges before everyone submits it.
This form has the following questions:
What Should we start doing at Nona?
What should we stop doing at Nona?
What should we continue doing at Nona?
Rate your level of engagement (1–10) over the past 3 months.
Would you recommend Nona as a great place to work (1–10).
If there was one thing that you could change about Nona what would it be?
Anything else you want to share.
In the beginning it’s likely you will get very light and largely meaningless answers from most people. Things like ‘Nothing’, ‘all good’ and ‘I can’t think of anything right now’. But as you continue this process and actually respond to answers that you get you will begin to build trust and safety for people to be more honest and unfiltered and that’s where the (sometimes uncomfortable) magic happens.
If you do this consistently and sincerely you will begin to get a massive amount of very useful and thoughtful feedback about your business, your culture, your leadership style and your clients that you otherwise would not have gotten and this is very valuable.
This can be very uncomfortable because it will often take the form of criticism of your leadership, strategy or tactics but as a leader you need to be able to take this feedback on without agenda and evaluate whether it is useful or not. If you are taking the effort to get great people on to your team, the chances are that the feedback will be very useful and this will drive positive change.
While I still battle with this sometimes, on the whole it has been a massive net positive and some of the biggest blindspots have been caught through this process.
Open Session at the offsite.
*This has changed to be fully remote and quite a different structure because of Covid but I’ll speak here about how it looks when we are able to travel and be together.
Every quarter, I fly to Cape Town to spend two weeks with the Nona team. During this trip, our leadership team goes away for 3 days to do our quarterly planning. We pick a quiet, usually secluded and beautiful location so that we can really unplug from the day to day and dial in to the quarterly review, planning and connection process. This has become the rhythm through which we run the business.
As part of this offsite, on the second day, we open up a 2.5 hour session to the whole business. This is not compulsory but on average more than half the business elects to join.
This session is about opening up some strategic discussion to the entire team. We spend so much time, effort and money on getting the best people that we possibly can into our businesses, it only makes sense to invite their input and opinions on the important decisions and directions in your business.
We have had some really tough issues raised in these sessions and often it’s not been easy to hear but these sessions have also resulted in us catching blindspots and taking action which have made Nona a better, more resilient organisation.
Leadership has got real highs and real lows and sometimes the right leadership and doing the right things can be really difficult, uncomfortable and make you a lot less popular. But that’s the thing about leadership, it’s not about you, it’s about the people and the organisation that you have been entrusted to lead.
I am the CEO and co-founder of Nona. We work with funded businesses to accelerate their software projects.