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An Open Letter To Steve Ballmer

August 26, 2013 2 comments

Dear Steve:

I was saddened to hear about your departure from Microsoft.  Inevitably discussion will turn to your legacy at Microsoft and what meaning you played in the role of the company.   What I think may get overlooked is the impact you and Bill had on the individual.  To make certain that discussion doesn’t get lost in the void, I offer this:

The story arc of Microsoft is the story of my adult life.  Founded in 1975 when I was 11, I was 16 when you joined the company in 1980; I started writing BASIC a year later.  My first IBM machine running DOS came not long after.  Windows 1 was released and improved during my high school and college years, but I could never get a machine running it because I was too broke.   MS-DOS, dBase and Wordstar had to do.  Windows 2.0 arrived right after I left college and was still hacking out my living as an accountant, working for a mortgage company that was systematically defrauding its parents.  The spreadsheets I did using an IBM PC running MS-DOS showed up during the investigation. 

Between 1987 and 1993, you released Windows Windows 3, Windows for Workgroups, Windows NT (32 Bit!), bought SQL Server and release SQLNT.  I moved from accounting to IT and eventually to IT consulting, finally leaving my home town and moving to a new city for new opportunities and new friends.   Since the new friends thing was a little slow in coming, I spent gobs of time with SQLNT.

1995 was the banner year.  Windows 95, Office 95, SQL 6.0, and Great Plains Software ported Dynamics CS+ to SQL 6.0 under beta.  I started my own consulting company helping mid-market businesses convert from DOS and Novell to Windows and NT, using SQL server as a robust data storage platform.   And, I started into the ERP market, a place I remain today having worked with Windows 98, XP (I skipped ME), tons of SQL server versions, Windows 2000, Server, and god knows how many versions of Office, each one getting better.  And, as each one got better my career and life matured in lockstep.

Listen to the press if you wish.  Debate your own inner doubts about whether you left a beneficial legacy.  Have lengthy, late night, wine-fueled discussions with your wife about whether it was worth it.    That behavior is now your privilege – just remember that one guy (and I can tell you from experience I am not alone here) appreciates, without reservation, everything you did, everything you made happen, and everything you built.

Good luck, Steve.  Call me if you want to go fly-fishing.

Dwight

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Are we rewarding our teams the wrong way?

January 17, 2011 3 comments

Almost every Q4, I end up in discussions involving comp plans for line management and consulting staff.  And, in every case, I find myself either saying “Leave it be, it works fine right now” or fending off efforts to finely tune tactical behavior via bonuses.  And, every Q4, I usually find myself on the opposite side of the table from everyone since the standard management mindset logically assumes that if you pay people to do something, they do it.  The problem is I never believed that assumption is valid:  I work hard to please clients, not because I get paid on client satisfaction (which actually is a component of my plan), but because I get intrinsic benefit from doing so (put simply, I like solving problems and being engaged with clients).  And, in my experience, the best consultants (most knowledge, most effective with clients, most revenue) are not trying to maximize billed hours, they are just doing what they think is really cool and they love doing it.  So, the most difficult part of these conversations is never being able to properly, or with adequate support, articulate why I think these “logical” changes don’t make sense.

Well, finally, I have someone else in my corner.

In “Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink outlines his theory of high performance and satisfaction (in life, work, family, etc).  In short, his theory is  1) that we are operating in a paradigm of extrinsic (external, carrot and stick) motivations for performance – he calls this the Type X management and behaviors – and 2) these rewards, which most business spend thousands of hours developing, tuning and managing actually are harmful to the intended effect because they destroy our sense of purpose.  He instead suggests modeling Type I (for intrinsic) management behaviors to allow your team the ability to exercise a sense of autonomy over task, allow them to better develop mastery in their role and, thereby develop a better sense of purpose in what they do.  His theory and book are based on seemingly significant research conducted by various psychologists and behaviorists over the last 80 years.

How would this look in our industry?

First, we’d stop paying on revenue billed or hours billed.   Instead, we’d pay a slightly above  market salary with good benefits.

Second, we’d retool ourselves to set learning goals rather than performance goals.  So, rather than saying “Pass the SQL Admin test” we’d focus our goal on “Develop expertise in SQL Server, inclusive of SSIS, SSAS and SSRS.”  Passing the test may be part of this, but not the end goal.

Third, we’d develop a culture that supports mastery of knowledge and application thereof, including public respect and acclaim, rather than just picking out for reward the highest billers.

Fourth, we’d find time, each month, to let everyone take one day to explore something of interest to them.  Work related, of course, but not directed to a specific project, customer, billing code, etc.  Basically, we’d let them play with cool ideas to whatever extent they wanted for that day (by the way, Google and several other very successful companies already do this).

Finally, we’d focus ourselves as consulting leaders on attention to the people on our team rather than just focusing exclusively on billed revenue or hours.

Read the book for more details – if you just look at this post, you won’t get the full impact of Pink’s book.  For the rest of this first half of the year, I’m going to talk to consulting staff about this and see what their take is on it.

Measuring Client Satisfaction

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

In an earlier post, I discussed in some detail how to measure and report on Client Satisfaction.   I just dropped a new posting over at the IBIS Corporate Blog on the results from our own survey process.  A bit of shameless promotion never hurts, but I thought seeing the end result of the techniques I wrote about might be interesting to the 8 or 9 people outside my family that read this blog.

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Consulting Excellence: Objective Internal Measures

August 27, 2009 3 comments

In a previous post, I briefly mention performance and promised more discussion around objective targets.  So, I am going to write a four part series on how to objectively measure the performance of individual team members in a consultancy.  The four areas I will cover are:

  1. Financial Performance
  2. Client Satisfaction
  3. Knowledge
  4. Contribution to the Team

In my opinion, no other valid, meaningful measures exist outside of the above, with valid and meaningful being defined as those that create value for the client or the organization.

Each posting will address the definition of the measure group; provide specific calculations and benchmarks; and discuss methods for collecting and reporting on the data. 

Whining, Complaining and Grousing

July 6, 2009 1 comment

Its been a little over 4 months since my last post, mostly due to a) the birth of the newest member of the Specht clan and b) the management team and I practicing what I preached in the last three posts.  I can report, with great happiness, that our efforts (home and work) are paying off – my newest child is wonderful and our clients continue to be generous with work, even beyond my fondest hopes.

The stresses of the economy still exist. In both my own company and many for whom I consult, I’m hearing frequent and ongoing complaints about clients (who are cheap because they won’t buy), sales team (who are lazy because they can’t close business), consultants (who are prima donnas that don’t appreciate how hard it is to close business), managers (who are morons because they need to [fill in the blank] faster, better, more often etc.), and employees (who are ungrateful because they don’t appreciate how hard it is to make payroll and health insurance payments).  Put another way, everyone seems to be complaining about everyone else.   So, for those modest few that care about my opinion, I offer this:

First, everyone take a deep breath, relax and develop a sense of empathy.  Those around you are doing their best in tough times, just like you.  Our clients are afraid for their jobs and trying to save money when they can.  Our sales teams are hearing disheartening “no-s” more often then enthusiastic “yes-s”.  Out consultants feel extraordinary realization and utilization pressure AND get the onsite impact of the client’s fear. Our managers, god bless ‘em, are trying to do the best they can with short staff, short budgets and long hours.  And every employee in every consultancy is wondering when a layoff is going to take their job away. 

Second, strap on a pair and man up.  This is a hard business played out on a complex field of complex products, high expectations and difficult business problems.  If you can’t deal with that, get out and send your clients and best staff to us and I’ll see they are welcomed and well cared for. Until then, see the preceding paragraph.

Lastly, of my relatively small group of close friends, I am the only one still employed.  I see the effect of layoffs in a very direct and personal fashion.  Among my professional network, close to 1/3 are looking for new jobs.  As a result, I spend significant time doing referrals, networking and writing letters of recommendation.  So, if anyone reading this is looking for truly awesome Microsoft technology professionals almost anywhere in the country, please drop me a note with what skills you need and I’ll be happy to make introductions.

Managing in a Downturn – Part II – Staff Turnover

February 18, 2009 2 comments

So, because you recognize my astonishing genius, you’ve taken my advice and developed an effective client management program that increased your revenue pull from existing clients and lowered your cost of sales.  However, its still not enough to meet your profitability targets.  So what do you do next?  As I mentioned in my introductory post to this series, consulting is very simple:  if you manage your opex, its either about top line revenue or personnel costs.  In this post, we are going to look at the cost issue. 

Why look at cutting personnel costs before finding new revenue sources?  After all, firing people exposes you to legal risk, emotional angst and long term reputation risk (I’ll discuss these in detail in another post).  Three reasons exist for looking at this first:

  1. Its faster:  You can reduce personnel faster than convincing clients to buy new services from you.
  2. Cost has to be productive:  If you are not getting revenue production out of your investment in staff, now is the time to make the hard decisions.
  3. Earn your salary: You should have a system that measures and evaluates performance as part of running a PSO. If you haven’t shame on you.  Get it done now.

So, how do you do this:

  1. Establish your targets and your plan
  2. Go after management first
  3. Communicate clearly and often

Establish Targets

Before you do anything, understand (based on your revenue forecast) what your personnel cost has to be to hit your target margins.  Assume you have a $1M revenue forecast with target gross margin of 45%.  That means, you need personnel costs (don’t forget to load it with taxes, insurance, 401K, non-billable travel, salaries, etc – all the direct costs of having someone working for you) of no more than $550K ($1M *(1-.45)).  If current costs are $700K, you need to cut $150,000 in costs.  If the average cost of an employee (fully loaded with direct costs) is $125K, you’ll need to layoff at least one, perhaps two people. 

However, before you consider layoffs, think about some other ideas.  Is your team sufficiently tight knit that everyone would consider reducing the variable comp to save the $125K rather than seeing someone leave?  Could you get savings from canceling non-bill travel activities?  Can you reduce salaries but still keep everyone together?  This subject was pretty well covered in a New York Times article so I won’t cover the same ground.

Once letting someone go is the option, what to do next?

Go After Management First

I’m in management, so don’t take this as a call for proletariat revolt.  My rational is pretty straightforward: 

  1. Management runs the company and gets a premium for doing so.  If they weren’t able to position the company correctly, they should be penalized by losing their jobs first.
  2. Management jobs cost you more.  You can get bigger economic gains from getting rid of fewer managers.
  3. Consulting staff has the knowledge of your products and customers.  They will lead you out of the downturn because they’ll be there to do the work as clients need it done.  They can survive without a manager; you can’t survive without them.

Any reduction in staff is painful, so how to you keep everyone positive?

Act Fast/Communicate Clearly, Early and Often

Once a decision is made to layoff staff (regardless of level), make the decision, then execute.  Don’t wait days or weeks – do it quickly.  The longer you wait, the more likely everyone will begin to find out.  Don’t delay because someone is key to a sales cycle or project – if they really are key, you shouldn’t be letting them go.  Just get it done.  This subject (how to conduct a layoff) is covered in a bunch of different forums.  One I liked recently can be found here.

Once you execute,  give the remaining team lots of well targeted information as early, and as often, as possible including how you made the layoff decision and who got let go.  Good communication is especially important in troubled economic times as, in the absence of clear information, people will make up their own stories (always negative) of what’s really going on.

With respect communicating to staff, I have two ways I like to see this covered:

  1. When times are clearly worsening, do a comprehensive meeting, email, etc that discusses:
  • Current company financial state:  Cover the good and bad. Be clear about your forecasts and the conditions on which they are based
  • Discuss the alternatives you are considering
  • Talk about what you’ve already done
  • Talk about the timeline for the next set of changes

Update this periodically in a similarly comprehensive fashion by comparing what was predicted, what you promised you’d do and what you actually did.

Then, periodically, send updates on:

  1. Sales pipe
  2. Staff performance (UTE, Realization, Goal) at the individual, group and corporate level. Include sales team progress against quota.
  3. Progress against overall goals

Remember:  you can’t over communicate.  Use email, blogs, text or whatever technology works best for you to get the message out frequently.  If you can, do company-wide meetings or phone calls as often as is feasible.  Also, don’t forget that a couple of lunch meetings a month with staff, where you connect personally, goes a long way to helping the message you want take hold in the way you want it to.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at finding new revenue sources to vector revenue up rather than down in a bad economy.

Five Things Stupid Leaders Do

August 25, 2008 1 comment

That’s a pretty rough title, but, in this case, true.  Just saw this (Five Great Ways to Drive Your Best Workers Out the Door – CIO.com) CIO.com and thought it applies very, very nicely to an MS consultancy.

If I had to summarize, the article says “Pay attention to the impact of your actions on those around you”.  Truly, most of our best management skills may have been taught in kindergarten.

 

Dwight

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