Saturday, May 14, 2011

Boat Anchors

I own a sailboat, although currently it resembles an anchor, having sat in the same place for almost three years.  That is what an anchor is supposed to do, keep you in one place.  On a boat, if you forget to retrieve the anchor the engine can be roaring, the bow high, and if you move at all it'll be really slow. Some employees can be like that too.

It is amazing how an anchor weighing just a few pounds could hold back a boat weighing thousands of pounds.  The same thing happens in many businesses.   A single boat anchor can hold back a whole company too.  Like the anchor on the boat, sometimes you are able to drag them along, which when looking at the shore, it look like you are making progress. However you need only look at other businesses, to realize that they are passing you by.  I am ashamed to admit it, but once took me 7 years to recognize a boat anchor and deal with him!

Boat anchors come in many forms.  Some can appear to be good loyal employees that always look out for the company's best interest.  All the ones I've ever met were very friendly too.  Outside of work they are often fun people to be around.  So how do you recognize one? The most common way is that these are invariably the people you need to actually manage, as opposed to those that simply need direction.

In the case above I finally saw what was going on when I realized that literally all the rules in the employee handbook were written to control just one employee!  It didn't really matter what the rule was about, starting time, sick days, lunch time etc.  He always skated over the edge, seemingly just to test the rule.  Of course to be 'fair' I had to apply these rules to everyone. That meant that the guy with a family problem who sometimes came in late, but always made it up and then some, was now a management problem.

It finally ended with "This just isn't working for me anymore, here is your paycheck!"  What caught me by surprise was the big sigh of relief from the other six employees.  They said "What took you so long to fire that turkey?"  I had no idea that they felt so strongly that he was holding them all back.  When I asked them why they had never complained to me about him, they responded that they thought I must have a good reason for putting up with it!

Another form of boat anchor is the person who always plays devil's advocate in every meeting. It often comes off as concern for the company not making a mistake.  For every plan of action they find a scenario where the plan will fail.  That of course is true of every plan, there is always a scenario where it will fail.  However business is a lot like baseball.  You don't win by batting 1000.  You win by batting 400 when everyone else is batting 350.  If your meetings are endless, and every meeting ends with a plan to look further and have another meeting then maybe you have a boat anchor on board.

A boat anchor can also be be a valued employee.  Growing companies often outgrow the skills of the people working in them.  If those people are in management positions you have a tough problem.  Often the skills required as a company grows are different than the skills needed when the company started.  To really grow, you must have the right people in the right seats, especially at the management level.  There is no tougher job in business than telling a valued employee that her skills are no longer up to the task.  They probably got in this position precisely because they were good at their job.  Yet not taking action has serious consequences too. You risk losing other good people at all levels.  People working under a poor manager often quit in frustration, or do poor work.  People who would be better in this position quit because they can see the anchor isn't going any place soon, so they are held back too.  Of course you have had this discussion already, and you watch closely for signs of change.  They do seem to be getting a little better.  So you give it another month, year, decade, my how time flies!

Cut the anchor loose, move them into a position they are good at, help them find another job, do it today!  The sudden acceleration towards your goals will shock you!  The anchor I cut loose?  We're still friends and I helped him get a job at one of our customers, where they love him.