I recently completed 12 months as an operations leader at a local startup. After three years out of the workforce because of a mid-career return to law school, it was a pleasure to get back to a real work.
After completing my contract, I thought about how much business today is much the same as it always has been. The same best practices for companies apply to a startup. This is the first of two blogs on best practices.
My first real job was as an auditor in Montreal, and we worked in teams at various companies. After one year as a junior, I wore out my supervisors with my constant questions. But I learned and, more important, stayed on track. Audits were done on a fixed-fee basis. Thus, going over budget was bad practice because the client didn’t pay for excess hours.
In my second year I was given a junior, and what unfolded has stuck with me to this day. The recent graduate, whom we will call Sue, never asked any questions. Not one. Our firm provided audit forms and procedural checklists for Sue to work from, but each client was different, and learning a new client’s business required asking questions.
Each day, I started out with a five-minute review of daily and weekly tasks. This particular client was small, so the meeting included just Sue, another junior and me. Every day I asked for questions and would field queries from the other junior. Not one question from Sue. I tried waiting until the other junior was out of earshot, but I was met with a polite “I’m fine.”
After a week, the juniors handed in their sections for review. Sue’s was incomplete and included illogical test results. When questioned, Sue said she wanted to figure things out on her own and then have my feedback. I tried to explain that asking questions is never a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence, especially when you are starting out. Not only would Sue have benefited from asking questions, but the team would have been better for the additional knowledge.
The audit ended over budget, as did the next few engagements Sue worked on. She soon moved on to another career.
My takeaway: Ask questions. Time is money, and working in a vacuum or heading off on a tangent is a waste of money. If your questions are not received well, rethink your involvement.
Plan or Perish
Planning is underrated and misunderstood in the real world. It takes second place to action. Many top-level executives view strategic planning and visioning exercises as timewasters and often speed through the process.
At my last engagement, an attempt to develop a strategic plan was a failure. It was a rushed, academic exercise. The focus was on a 90-day action plan for the startup, instead of first setting the strategy or vision.
I use the same approach for just about everything – start with what you want at the end, and work backward. The focus on the end game gives the basis for your vision; the next step is developing the strategy to get there.
The final step or plan is not simply a list of tasks. Rather, the end result or vision gives birth to the strategy which gives rise to a list of actions and, projects that allow you to execute.
You do have to get on with execution at some point. However, you must be flexible enough to recognize when you need to change gears and adapt your vision, or even revisit the end game and resulting strategy.
Next: The critical nature of metrics, the need to check your ego at the door, and the importance of being a team player.
Mary Juetten is the founder of Traklight.com, a site that provides inventors, creators, and small businesses with the tools to identify and secure their intellectual property. Juetten also provides IP strategy and education with her partner at InnovaPro Consulting.