Leadership on the Line

A book I began reading a month ago, Leadership on the Line, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002). is now the first leadership book on my recommended reading list for 2020. Only 236 pages, it is easily read and well annotated. Using stories, including among others, a turnaround at IBM to a Chicago Bulls locker room incident in a crucial NBA finals game, the authors illustrate leadership lessons. The principles of leadership the authors discuss are just as relevant to present leadership challenges -in business, in politics or other less structured organizations. For those who are not looking at this worldwide pandemic as “when we get back to normal”, but recognize change coming and are willing to step up to lead -entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and public servants – they will face resistance but how they communicate, will change everything.

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the fax about business

Entering the military communications security world in the late 1970s, I was told that the “paperless” revolution was upon us. Forty years later, paper is still central to many bureaucracies and the legal system. Though communication systems have been modernized, technology that is older than most working adults is still being used in education and by Government agencies.

Fax machines were developed to convert documents and images for transmission over telephone lines around the globe. While Internet data rates now approach the hundreds of Gigabits (billions of bits) per second, a fax generally transmits a document at 33 thousand bits per second. A single sheet may take thirty seconds to reach its destination once a link is established. When a hundred or more documents must be transmitted back and forth over the course of several hours, poor connections or errors requiring re-transmission, cause a significant impact on an otherwise efficient work day.

One of the reasons fax machines have endured as long as they have, is that digital “signatures” validating the sender of legal documents via the Internet, have not been reliably secure until very recently. Other than representation of a personal signature on legal documents, it is also excellent for imaging pencil marks. To expedite processing volumes of similar information, a 19th Century technology, Optical Mark Recognition (OMR), was adapted and patented by Scantron. Typical uses for such forms are in Federal student aid, voting booths, at the DMV and so forth. Most schools, universities, government entities and testing centers continue to use “scantrons” as a fairly cheap method to administer multiple-choice tests thousands of times per day. A common No. 2 soft-lead wooden pencil, an answer sheet with ovals or squares and a fax machine line to the test clearinghouse, is technology not soon going away.

Owning a niche business which serves test-takers, the expectation is for the fax transmission of tests and reception of pass/fail reports goes smoothly. Sometimes, any number of issues can stall progress. Telephone line quality, an issue with the equipment or line at either end, or an overwhelming volume of calls being processed by the host computer (the test processing center) create a negative perception among test takers. When customers are accustomed to receiving information at the speed of present-day Internet and wireless communications, managing expectations among clients is the key to a successful day. It also is important to earning additional business from the schools whose graduates are the clients being served. When students are satisfied with the test processing, they may recommend more peers to their school. And in turn, the school may feel their students are being properly and efficiently taken care of. Which in turn creates more entrepreneurial opportunity.

As for the testing centers that process all these results? Adoption and fielding of new technology, like the example of the “paperless” world, is a long, long, long process.

Exit, stage left

In the 1960s, Saturday morning cartoons were a favored diversion as I had my bowl of Fruit Loops (or oatmeal, when my mother intervened in my breakfast). The cartoon lion, Snagglepuss, had a trademark saying whenever he faced a challenging situation. ” Exit, stage right” or “Exit stage left, even!” However, I was never one to flee from demanding tasks. I think of Snagglepuss now as a classy way to exit this career and explore some new roads.

I am old enough to remember a simpler time, for kids anyway, when the American work ethic was the envy of the world. Parents, neighbors, and teachers taught me values and work ethic. I already had figured out about hard work, respecting others, and making your own way in the world, since I earned money from before and after-school jobs since I was 14. After a few years in the service, and then four years in college, I went back into the service in 1987 and remained in uniform until 2010. The unit held a great ceremony, gave me a nice party, and a wonderful shadow box of my military memories. I was already working at Viasat, so I had my second career already figured out.

I retired from my second longest career today. Well, technically, my last day is tomorrow, but our division threw me, and a co-worker also retiring in August, a retirement party. This latest career was the closest I have come to the camaraderie I felt in the Navy. And now, what does a two-career veteran do at age sixty?

Start my own business, or more accurately, support my spouse who started a business. I am sure the Senior Chief or the Engineering technician can tackle just about any business issue.

the fog of war, and other business problems

One of the most basic issues in business that causes inefficiency or worse, confusion, is miscommunication. And as things get more technology-dependent, communication stubbornly remains an obstacle to be overcome. Communication difficulties between people or now, also between machines, can be more than an irritant. With various militaries, it contributes to lacking situational awareness and can wreak havoc in wartime.

How does this relate to your or my business venture? Everyone has, at least once, experienced a presentation to prospective clients, current clients and co-workers “hang” for a sound issue, a wireless network password mismatch, or in certain situations, restricted or “secure” computer channels failing to connect due to out-dated “digital certificates”. Being able to handle the various unexpected situations that involve either the work site, the clients, problems with technology, or bureaucracy, is part of a successful entrepreneur’s skills.

Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other. Bill Gates

https://www.brainyquote.com

Anyone over age forty has at least heard of, if not actually used a fax machine. We use ‘analog” transmission (if you have ever misdialed a telephone number and heard a long series of tones or chirps- that’s fax) to transmit and receive client tests/reports. So it was that my business submits examinations via a fax to an nationally-recognized agency that scores and reports back in short order whether a prospective healthcare worker has passed or failed the exam.

What can possibly go wrong with that? Well, either with the human, the machine, or the medium being used! With experience, our management team recognizes when the scoring or report cover sheet is missing data “bubbles”. Or someone misses the instructions about using a pencil – and a specific one. at that. (We carry dozens to meet a need.) Anyone who has taken a multiple choice exam filled in with a No. 2 lead pencil might remember that “stray marks”, multiple “bubbles”, or incompletely-darkened ovals can be misinterpreted. Or in certain specific situations, a device with an internal battery was not charged prior to being needed. Or the communication system may be plagued with “poor line conditions” generally at the distant end we all agree , or equipment power issues. Sometimes, in an age of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), that is, phone running within the Internet, we have experienced a lack of connectivity before the “fax” transmits or receives.

fax machines
not a musical instrument nor a museum piece

In these situations, a successful business person should try to mitigate the embarrassment and irritation we all might feel. Take a moment to relax. Breathe deeply. Remain calm. And then, to quote a recent client, and entrepreneur who is a retired military man, in this situation, one only needs to “adapt and overcome”.

your Mission Statement

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What is a “mission statement”? I recall the first time I understood what it was, without hearing the actual term used, was in the Navy. “America’s Navy: a Global Force for Good”. A decade later, I was committee member in our local church determining a “mission statement” to capture what our specific purpose. Christian churches, as a matter of Whom we serve, are about the purpose of introducing people to the spiritual essence of the life of Christ, and creating followers of Christ. I think we started with, “To glorify God, Love and teach people, and build His church”. But the “mission statement” we were crafting that month was a little more “how” to implement that in post-millennium America.

While you may operate a long time without a common focus or purpose simply by hiring skilled people, it is the most successful enterprises that have a common vision. Everyone from CEO to the custodian knows, and embraces, their company mission statement. When my wife and I began a new venture this year, together, to administer state certification exams for Nursing Assistants in California, we brought individual skill, personal values, and organizational ideas. We were fairly fortunate in that we meshed fairly quickly. But how to capture our particular enterprise in a short “elevator” speech to potential employees, vendors and clients? It was actually almost a month in business, as we were wrapping up a test day with a new client, that the idea gelled. The client and I were chatting as I waited for the last candidates’ results to be transmitted back to me, that I mentioned what we do.

“We bring Integrity, 
are focused on Quality, 
and deliver Results”

“That sounds like a ‘mission statement’ to me”, the school director remarked. “It does, doesn’t it, ” I smiled.

Wild Bill, ain’t no fighting City Hall

If I’ve got any authority in Hays, Mrs. Lake isn’t going to pay this town a cent of license for showing, and if any man attempts to stop this show, then just put it down that he’s got me to fight.

Wild Bill Hickok, http://www.brainyquote.com

Some may wonder which came first, shaping stones and bone into spearpoints and arrowheads, or the village council that decided Mog and Og needed approval, licenses and regular inspections of their enterprise.

Eight thousand years later, an enterprising small business person who ventures into performing a service or providing a product, is supporting a community. She has not just her own family’s living to support, but an entire “industry” of bureaucrats, at the local, state and federal levels of Government. And in California particularly, as a businessperson, earning a living that minimizes the costly regulations that have environment, employment practices, taxes, fees and so forth, driving small businesses under.

Deciding to start one’s own enterprise, in California, and certainly elsewhere, requires a great deal of capital up front, a niche market, and establishing quickly an efficient organization. Mentors, business seminars and other resources can provide training and encouragement, but skilled and dedicated owners and employees find, serve and retain clients. Many, like myself, who have decades of employee experience, soon realize the challenge of one’s own business to balance investment, expenses, and fees against recurring income to make a decent return in the first and succeeding years. It takes planning, and frequent tweaking of the business model. The bureaucracy is another thing entirely.

After filing the regulatory paperwork with the State, including forming a Limited Liability Company, we loaned the business personal funds for the contractual and mandated types of insurances, paying filing fees, and notarizing documents, setting up business banking, bookkeeping, and a Google GSuite of Cloud-based calendar, business email and document storage. Since we were still working for our respective employers, tax considerations of incorporation or forming and LLC were and remain an important issue. Prior to earning a cent, our Liabilities were looking to be a very big motivator to getting our business moving forward.

As a residence-based service business, our enterprise does not operate in an office building, nor manufacture products, nor maintain an inventory. Operating out of a residence located in an unincorporated area, I learned that reporting the actual physical location – separate from the mailing address – in business organization documents would mitigate municipal taxes, inspections and other recurring fees. (The mailing address bears the nearby municipality name.)

But there are other concerns as well. Operating a business, even one that travels to a customer site as our business does, is required to file for a business license. The “gray area” that no municipal clerk whose job it is issuing business licenses and collecting fees, would likely err on the side of the entrepreneur – is whether a license to do business in every municipality that one performs a service – is required. Of course, every municipality’s City Hall will state categorically that a license is required by a business according to a list of industry types. Some types require fees and inspections from safety professionals, zoning and building code enforcement officials. Business coaches I have spoken with, concur that paying fees willy-nilly can quickly eat away an enterprise’s bottom line. While membership in associations that help small entrepreneurs may be a necessary expense, I am considering that expertise gained in those associations may help steer a small business toward profitability.

At least, one of my prospective clients is a State agency, so there is an opportunity, however slight, that money coming out of my pocket, might eventually trickle somewhat back to me. And while I might appreciate a Wild Bill Hickok helping me fight City Hall, I think even he might be outgunned, particularly if he has not paid the required 2019 firearm licensing and entertainment business fees.

pure faxing magic

I got a chain letter by fax. It’s very simple. You just fax a dollar bill to everybody on the list.

Steven Wright, comedian http://www.brainyquote.com/

My at-odds relationship with technology, like copiers and fax machines is very likely material for a Steven Wright comedy bit.

Pure Faxing Magic

I have spent nearly forty years employed in the technology sector. Beginning with vacuum tube systems and basic electronics, by the later years of my career, I would assemble, program and debug very complicated encryption devices.

Nevertheless, copiers, the collating, multiple paper-size, scanners-with-email, touch-selection types have me looking like a kindergarten kid with paper,crayons and glue. I make a call to my ‘work wife’, our senior department Admin for assistance – or I avoid everything but printing.

In the Navy, I was first introduced to facsimile machines in the late 1980s. Who knew that these would be part of my job description with my new business. Between the drum life “nearing the end” messages (what is a drum?), a Mode button (one must select to actually RECEIVE the fax transmission!), and what to do when either the power or the telephone line drops out, I have learned how to respond appropriately. I do not get exasperated.

fax machines
not a musical instrument nor a museum piece

I learned steps from my IT point of contact at our customer sites (somehow nursing instructors always seem to fill in for technical experts on staff):

  1. Wait.
  2. Hit the “Mode” button.
  3. Cycle the “power” button.
  4. Call the “Help Desk” or the site administrator’s assistant.

the value of you

Too many people spend money they earned..to buy things they don’t want..to impress people that they don’t like. —Will Rogers

https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertberger/2014/04/30/top-100-money-quotes-of-all-time/#7be817564998

Talking with another entrepreneurial co-worker my age, most working people are in one of two situations. Either there is not sufficient income to meet needs like housing, transportation, medical coverage, and school-age children’s support, or the opposite extreme, too little income to pay for the ego-boosting debts of expensive homes, cars, boats, entertainment and $1000 IPhones.

But there is a third option. Establishing a plan (earlier in adult life, the better) that develops skills and experience with a disciplined savings and investment strategy. Some reputable standout entrepreneurs I know began that way; building a great reputation among friends, employers, customers and peers, they had entrepreneurial ambitions, and were willing to risk failure.

Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value. Albert Einstein

https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/albert_einstein_131187

In our industrial society, age instead of financial stability, is a commonly-held benchmark for “retirement”. Instead, I support the notion that a disciplined approach to provide that stability at a self-determined age is the foundation. And an entrepreneurial venture providing a valued service, personal challenge and some material reward, is a valued “retirement”.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants. —Epictetus

https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertberger/2014/04/30/top-100-money-quotes-of-all-time/#7be817564998

enterprising observations

A woman who has been running a business for some time offered me some insight tonight. In the military, particularly as an enlisted person, there is a tendency to wait to be “told” what to do next; to follow a “plan of the day” and be somewhat inflexible. While carrying out the “mission” that someone else lays out may be one aspect of a past military career, other experiences may be valuable to an entrepreneur. Overcoming the odds. Quick analysis and problem-solving in highly stressful situations. Seeing past all the bureaucracy to zero in on the objective. Developing camaraderie with team mates while also being very disciplined and accountable.

For someone who has equal ambition to that enlisted person. the lack of such boundaries, may be somewhat a blessing. In your own business, there are many things to learn and to adapt to, including not only the processes that are required just to set up a business legally. There is a need to learn marketing; developing a keen eye and skilled listening – not simply ‘pitching’ – to solving others problem, is probably that most important aspect.

And getting advice and mentoring from a neutral business expert or experts on an ongoing basis really helps. To which I also understand, interpreting a particularly resonating bible lesson tonight, an enterprise may not be without pitfalls, but as long as one trusts in God and perseveres, it will either succeed or be a lesson for future success.

Finding a niche

Doing research yesterday for a business venture, I stumbled upon an idea that may have some merit as an opportunity.

Taking out all the politics of immigration, in California as elsewhere, there are many people who seek employment with rudimentary skills in English if any at all. And some find opportunities to get skilled training for in-demand jobs. Assuming that people are legal residents when seeking job training or employment, what avenues are there for people, entry-level, working people to become functional in the so-called ‘native tongue’?

I witnessed people struggling with written English. While I know that many high school graduates in the United States, even college-bound Seniors, struggle with grammar and vocabulary, it is even more dire for the adult-learner who is foreign-born.

And thus, there is a demand for Teachers of English as a Second Language. And particularly teaching for jobs with a technical jargon that is difficult to grasp. The next step is to determine the investment necessary to find others with the necessary skill, certification, or degree. And then to do a costs-benefits analysis for your enterprise.

first lessons:

a business mindset

I tried and failed at business ventures three times before. With a couple years of technical training, I tried earning a second income as a small appliance and home electronics repairman. It was cheaper to buy new than repair “old”. The next venture was selling solar-heated hot water systems. People could just as easily put garden hoses on their roof (it was southern Arizona) and save the expense of a metal system up there. And then, last year, I saw how my father-in-law’s young relative was making six figures in a health-focused business. She has Amazon- and Facebook- founders-level intensity which produces her ongoing results (building over the past 8 years). I was not interested, youth-focused, or charismatic enough to do what it takes. My prior ventures were great personally, just not rewarding financially for me.

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the importance of a “niche”

This year, my wife and I found a “niche” business. A “niche” is a product or service need, that is not widely available, nor really has much awareness outside of the profession. But is necessary nonetheless. With a lot of support, name recognition, and professional experience, my wife one evening reported to me that a business opportunity was offered to her – that she wanted to do. This was due to pending retirement of the principal operators in the niche market. The business requires unimpeachable ethics, scrupulous attention to detail, military-like precision with clients and retaining or bringing on skilled employees (or contractors).

do not quit your “day job”

A mistake of many new entrepreneurs, is to launch a business enterprise with little financial resources. They then have few options when mistakes are made or customers are slow to provide payment. Then there is even more emotional and physical stress learning the “do’s” and the “don’t”s of operating a business. In just the few weeks after initially deciding to engage in this business, the guts required to seriously and diligently apply ourselves to learning,- particularly with family and job requirements always keeping you busy, is challenging.

In the United States, working for yourself, with the intent to make a profit – to separate your enterprise from what the taxman (the IRS) would label a “hobby” – requires record-keeping, talent, and effort. Depending on the venture, every business has local, state and federal tax statutes regarding individual, partnership, and incorporation to stay within the law. Similarly, there are permits, licenses, and fees with all the aforementioned, to conduct business.

With certain businesses, providing products or services, there are many regulations, certifications, and insurance to purchase and renew yearly. While trying to classify whether there were workers considered by statute as employees to consider, we need general business and professional liability insurance. And probably, workmen’s compensation insurance: California is very strict on business operations. If you are still determined, you have done homework on your competition in the niche market, and calculated the profit versus expense projections before the first customer dollar is received – there is one consideration you may miss. You may find that your business needs to be funded almost entirely from your own “primary” income for a time. One of the first “rules” I have learned is to avoid going into debt while learning the “ropes”. Do not quit your day job before it sustains you.

seeking advice from experienced mentors

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I have only just started to explore the business banking relationships we will need for our venture. We will explore and weigh options on credit, payment processing, and loans. Similarly, I have only attended one seminar run by the small business education group, SCORE, (there are chapters in most communities) taught by people with decades of experience in all aspects of business. But for the entrepreneur, anywhere you find someone to help with the pitfalls to avoid, is great. One can then make all new mistakes to learn and develop as a business person.

your “why” has to be bigger than your fear

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After a career in the military, another in private industry, and still looking for challenge (and change), our own business will prove to be well worth it. After many years of doing without asking why and making someone else’s careers and dreams possible, you also can make your dreams, as well as those of your clients, become reality. But it takes ethics, drive, humility, implementing what others can teach and eagerness to keep pressing on to the goal.

fourteen

What was your biggest accomplishment when you were a teenager?
When I was fourteen, I was responsible enough to arrive at my assigned work at 4:45 AM daily, load a hay wagon, and then feed 80 horses. And in the late afternoon, repeat it all again. I was determined to trade labor for horseback riding lessons. That was on a dude ranch in Arizona where I learned responsibility, animal psychology, ranch operations, and customer service. That was forty years ago. Every generation hears how their predecessors “walked uphill in the snow, both ways, to school and back”. In an age where many are fixated on social media, feel subject to hardship and discrimination without government mandates, and may be emotionally scarred because of others’ contrary views, it is not universal. It may only be a minority opinion.

Becoming an entrepreneur at the age of ten, Noa Mintz, at age sixteen founded a New York City childcare agency, (vetting nannies)and was among those entrepreneurs under age 18 featured in Fortune magazine (2016). Eugenie de Silva, starting at the University of Leicester (UK) in 2015, graduated age 16, from Harvard, through distance learning, with a Masters in Liberal Arts. A pilot, Mason Andrews, completed a circumnavigation of the globe in 2018, as the youngest to do so – at age 18.

And then there is the young Dutch woman, Laura Dekker, who at 14 set off in a sailboat to circumnavigate -solo- the world in 2011. She had been born to a sailing family, and had been dreaming of sailing the world since the age of ten. She had the support of her parents, but had to fight the Dutch authorities in court to be permitted to get underway. For more than five hundred days she navigated and explored the places along her route. A film produced by National Geographic presents her video record of her travels.

film trailer at http://www.maidentrip.com

And finally, there is Jordan Romero, who at age 13, with his father, reached the summit of Mount Everest, in 2009, and by the age of 15 years, 5 months , became the youngest person to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peaks in each of the seven continents).

From circumnavigating the globe, climbing mountain peaks, graduating from a most prestigious university, or becoming a successful entrepreneur, children who attempt the difficult, and refuse to have their dreams quashed, demonstrate that if you have a dream and are determined to succeed, you can. Leave the participation trophy to others.