A Philosopher and A Businessman

Musings on Business and Philosophy.

The Small Business Manager

At last! Business is booming. Orders are flowing, the bank balance is finally climbing and everyone is happy! Not quite. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep on top of selling, invoicing, hiring, delivering projects, handling issues. It’s time to get some help. It’s time to hire a professional manager. And what better place to hire one from than the breeding ground of middle management - the large corporate. They know how to organise people, keep on top of projects, hire in new staff, manage budgets and so on. How could we possibly go wrong?

We’ll get to that shortly. First a story.

Imagine, for a moment, Captain Arthur Phillip (AP) and the First Fleet arriving in Botany Bay, Australia in 1788. There’s trouble brewing with some of the convicts so he calls the powers that be in London on his sat phone and gets them to fly over some law enforcement help. (Yes, I know there are certain timing flaws with this story, but bear with me.)

The help arrives in the form of Chief Inspector Barnaby Sidebottom. Let’s just call him Barnaby. Barnaby is a solid chap. He’s been with the police force for over 30 years, knows how it works and knows how to get things done. He tells AP about all the wonderful things he’s done enforcing the rules back in Blighty. Horse and Cart theft is at an all time low. A large sugar and spice smuggling ring was dismantled much to the delight of the East India Company. AP is mighty impressed. It looks like all his woes are about to be sorted.

Time to introduce Barnaby to the local law enforcement team. That doesn’t take long. There are two of them. “Right”, says AP, “You’ve met the team. Let’s start sorting out this convict mess.”

Barnaby replies “Excellent idea. When are you available for our convict raucousness inhibition strategy plan (CRISP) session.”

AP: “Ummmm. Really? Well tomorrow is ok, I guess?”

Barnaby: “We can’t do it tomorrow. I spent a full 24 hours on the plane over so I think I’m entitled to a day-off-in-lieu tomorrow. And anyway, a strategy planning session needs an objective facilitator.”

AP: “An objective facilitator. What’s one of those? Can’t we just use a blackboard?”

Barnaby: “Are you serious? Do you want this done properly or not? Don’t worry, I’ve already organised one to be flown over from London. They are from a company called McK-Centure - very well known and respected. All the best run colonies use them. They are only four guineas a day, plus expenses.”

AP: “Four guineas a day!!! Our total budget for the year is 250 guineas. Where are we going to find four guineas a day? I hope they’re flying over in economy.”

Barnaby: “No, no, no. You want them fresh when they arrive, don’t you? They’re flying at the front of the plane”

AP: “Ok, ok. We’ve blown our budget. Please try to keep a lid on any further costs. So how long is all this going to take?”

Barnaby: “Not long. We should have the strategy done within 3 months, change management plan within another 3 months and we should be able to start training the team in the new methods straight after that. Within a year we should see the first arrests made.”

AP: “OMG* Jeepers Hellfire. We’ll be broke, overrun and slaughtered by then.”

This is, in essence, the experience of a founder with no corporate experience hiring a corporate manager with no small business experience. A highly competent corporate manager with the best intentions in the world can trash a small business. In the corporate world the biggest issues for a manager are often gaining agreement and changing behaviour of a large team. In small business it’s often about juggling many roles, staying responsive to the customer, fighting fires and operating on a shoestring budget.

Under a corporate trained manager big business policies start to creep in. Expensive travel policies, detailed time tracking, corporate credit cards for all, the latest brand new ergonomic furniture in architect designed offices, salary packaging and on it goes. All of which have their place. Just not in a small, cash starved business. The focus shifts to policies, rules and “what’s in it for me” while the founders’ vision to change the world fades into the background.

So how can a small business owner avoid this?

Hire smart. Some corporate background is fine, and often desirable. But small business background is essential. Dig into their understanding of cashflow pain. Understand how they act when systems are less than perfect, or non-existent. Quiz them on how they get things done when they don’t have a full team. Get them to spell out examples of when and how they’ve done this in the past.

It takes time. Plan for 15-20 interviews. The first 5 will probably be written off as you figure out what the role actually is and what questions to ask. But you owe it to yourself, your vision and the team to get it right.

* Exclaiming “OMG” was considered highly inappropriate in general western society back then, but apparently enslaving others was not.

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