2018 has been a year with steep learning curves for me personally and in business. When it comes to net results in annual reports terms the difference from the previous year was marginal with the 7th year of growth in a row, albeit just. From an experience perspective, it feels like we have turned a big corner and are finally reaping the rewards in terms of projects I have been working towards for the last few years.
So here are some of the biggest lessons of 2018 for me:
Stand your ground no matter what size of business you are up against
In business, you will have situations where the balance of power may be against you, whether it is due to size, due to manpower or due to financials or anything else. Accept it is likely to happen more frequently. Have a strategy on how you want to work and stand your ground to look for a workable solution that you can work within.
Very often the smaller player will back down and accept the terms the bigger one imposes or the behaviour the dominant player demonstrates. After having to take a client to task legally for non-payment of a contract they had entered and we had performed on, what I took from is that they hope they would get away with it because I was a woman with a small business. I didn’t recoup all the money owed to us, but I did make it clear that we didn’t just roll over and accept unacceptable behaviour.
It made me realise that sometimes you just have to fight for what you actually bring to the party. Sometimes it is knowledge and expertise, other times it is connections and business. When those contributions are not respected, walk away from the deal or the supplier and negotiate hard at the start to get the conditions you want or can agree on. If payment is late, chase it and take it legal if you have to, we have had to let go of people and freeze work as a result of late or non-payment (even after deposits etc.). I still don’t have the payment structure the way I ultimately want it, but applying my own knowledge to the process is having some positive effect.
Business needs to be win/win for everyone and it is totally right, even as a woman with a small business, to stand up for that.
Successful project delivery is a balancing act
I probably knew this in any case from previous work experience. One trait I think sets me apart from others is the persistence we work with to deliver no matter what. We had a few challenging projects where deadlines, committees, mismatching expectations and standards were core to how things were handled. In one such case, we managed to ultimately finish, in another, we didn’t get the chance to do so, but we would have liked to have done even if it meant an additional number of iterations. Overall out of the 20 or more projects we ran, only two real problem children is a rather positive slanted balance.
When it comes to gamification, we can’t assume people understand first of all what it means. If they do know what it means, their interpretation of what it should look like can be any colour of the rainbow. From an expectation management perspective that is one thing, you have to keep clarifying, no matter how well you think you explained it or they understand it. The other key thing is in these situations to have solid business processes that you can refer to when doubts creep in.
In all things project management, you never have enough communication. Address problems quickly as they pop-up, don’t let them linger or develop into something we don’t need. Always be aware that there may be other politics at play, which you may not know about. Looking for clarification and calling out unacceptable ideas is part and parcel of the work, even if not always comfortable. But then those who expect it to be comfortable may not have done very many projects.
Small tasks as a test for suppliers
In a business, where I rely on several suppliers at any given time from freelancers to platform or technology providers etc. It is vital for project success to know whether you can trust them to deliver when you need them to. In the past, I often handed out a whole piece of work and found out too late it hadn’t been done to our standards if done at all. It caused all sorts of unnecessary stress and complications.
What is working for me now, is to give new suppliers small tasks and test their delivery in this way. These can be small project related tasks or simply documentation in a timely manner. If they fail to deliver, cut them loose quickly. Look for behaviours that can predict success or failure, my red flag list now contains the following: changing goal posts (agree one thing and then look for another), failure to deliver at first hurdle, rogue salespeople (they are indicative of what is tolerated from the rest of the business), excuses and reasons to not-communicate, deliver or other such things, going missing in action. I am pretty sure the list will continue to grow, and learning to cut people loose quickly has been one of the biggest lessons of 2018 even if at times it even hurt a little to have to do so.
Focus on what you can control
I am a strong believer that there are things you can’t always control such as other people, weather, traffic and other more random items. As the CEO however, that still tends to be or become your problem nevertheless. As I learn more and more what works and hasn’t, assuming responsibility can be as simple as working out how to prevent the same from happening again in future. Communicating about problems early once you know they can’t be retrieved has been positive for most.
Having a good sounding board, who has your best business interest at heart is proving to be very helpful for me. I am really thankful to all the sounding boards I have had over the past 12 months, some of you lent an ear when I needed it and others are solidly working with me regularly to keep this show on the road to greatness.
There were moments in the year that I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to turn around the negatives, yet each time I focused in on connecting back with those who had expressed an interest and asked if they wanted to move forward. Each time I did this, new momentum came out of it. If nothing else, this is probably the one behaviour that has given me the most results with the least friction.
Don’t be afraid to scrap something and start afresh
This year we entered an accelerator program called SetSquared and one of the exercises brought out that sometimes being willing to scrap something and start again is a way I have often taken to hit a goal. When we looked at it deeper, in fact, it also explained why some clients, suppliers and collaborators in the past may have been a bad fit.
To some people, this may sound obvious, but to me, this was a bit of an ‘aha moment’. Because I have had to scrap and start over a few times in life, I guess it has become a way of life. Not always the easiest route I may add, but often it has given me exponentially better results. It is also OK that not everyone can work this way, for me it is now clear that those people are not right to be involved in my business.
Travel to listen and learn
When I look at the rhetoric of many political leaders around the world, it is as if they have lost the ability to travel with an open mind and heart. I have travelled to many destinations this year and whilst at times it is exhausting, I have always come away with more insights than I came with. Sometimes they are small observations of how things work differently, other times much more profound stuff.
The one thing I find that connects all of us is that people the world over want to be heard and loved and respected.
Nobody wants inequality, war, unacceptable work practices, etc. and until as leaders, we get that balance right, there will always be work in our field for all the wrong reasons. I would love it to be different, which is why I support UN goals around inclusion and equality and actively work on implementing this in our projects and in our business.
Listening is the starting point always, after that open communication including asking what would maybe be a bit close to the bone or stating the obvious. To make a difference sometimes it is taking small steps to reach a middle ground and then work forward from there. Accept you will make mistakes, which means you have yet another opportunity to learn.
I guess we can conclude on that note, because it sums up nicely why I do what I do, in my mind at least. Knowing that I and my business can make a difference no matter how small sometimes is what makes the steep learning curves exciting, challenging and worthwhile all at the same time. I am looking forward to what 2019 will bring in business and life in any case!