Thursday, September 20, 2012

How about a complaints democracy for volunteer organizations?

I am involved in various ways with a few different organizations that are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers.  Most of these volunteers also have day jobs and family responsibilities.  They have taken on the extra, unpaid work because they are passionate about the organization's mission or mandate and because it has an impact on their professional or personal lives.

Not everyone is suited to chair a committee or mobilize a team.  As with paid work, some people are the organizers, some are the planners and others show up to collect the tickets, serve the food or knock on the doors.  Some people don't have the time or inclination to volunteer and that's fine as well.  It's all optional.

Common across all volunteer organizations, are the complainers, questioners and advice-givers.  These are the people who didn't like the hot dogs at the charity BBQ, ask why you send out weekly emails on Thursdays instead of Fridays and helpfully suggest that you use an inordinate amount of your budget to "go green".

Some of these people have voices that are so loud and mannerisms that are so intimidating that even if they're the only person in a group of 20 who holds a particular opinion, no one challenges them.

When you pay an individual or a corporation for a service and that service is not delivered according to your standards, feel free to complain to anyone who will listen and to escalate your complaint until you receive a satisfactory resolution.   When dealing with volunteers, however, I'd like to see people adopt a more democratic process where the squeaky wheel finds no purchase and good enough is actually considered good enough.

The next time you want to offer a suggestion about how a volunteer can "do things better", ask these questions:

Is the volunteer doing something illegal, unethical or otherwise jeopardizing the reputation of the organization? - If the answer is yes, then this is a legitimate complaint that needs to be dealt with at a high level.  If the answer is no, ponder the following questions:

Is my suggestion actually feasible and can it realistically be executed using the current resources and within the existing time frame and regulatory constraints of the organization?  If not, shelf it or suggest a brainstorming session where people can share out-of-the-box ideas for future consideration.

Will my suggestion benefit other members of the organization or am I just airing my personal grievances? Before lodging a complaint, chat with others to see if it's a common problem. If it is, the association will probably appreciate the feedback.  If it's more personal in nature, let it go.  It's not useful.

Is my suggestion an easy fix or am I just adding to the workload of a volunteer who is already stretched too thin?  Most volunteers are open to questions and even complaints but few appreciate suggestions that pile even more work onto their plates.

Am I willing to participate in the solution or do I simply want to complain and let others do the heavy lifting? If you feel really strongly that something needs to be changed, offer to do some of the legwork to make it happen.  It will go a long way.

What do you think?  Should people be allowed to complain about anything they want?  Am I being too harsh? Are there any other questions complainers should ask themselves?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why small business owners should just say no to gurus

When you own a small business, people (clients, employees, accountants, relatives and neighbours) are quick to tell you what you can do better. Some of these ideas have merit but most of them don’t. This doesn’t mean that the people sharing them are not bright or capable; it simply means that they don’t have enough context or perspective on your situation to present viable solutions for your business. They are familiar with the part of the business that they touch, but they don’t know your monthly overhead, the reason you’re keeping that problematic employee, why you walked away from a lucrative client, or the major development you’re working on behind closed doors but can’t yet disclose.

Many of the advice-givers are not small business owners themselves, never have been and likely never will be. They don’t know what it’s like to walk away from relative job security to start something fresh. It’s inconceivable to them that for the first few years, you will not take home the same salary you made as an employee because all of your profits will be reinvested in the company. They can’t imagine the agony of staying awake all night the first time you have to fire an employee or how many hoops you had to jump through to keep paycheques flowing in a recession.

While their advice is unsolicited and maybe annoying, all of these would-be sages can be shrugged off. Their intentions are good and, even if they’re not, they’re harmless.

Less harmless are professional “business gurus”, highly paid experts who rake in a lot of money telling others how to succeed. Their bestselling books promise to take your business to new heights, teach you how to swim with piranhas and show you how to get rich working only a few hours a week. They also take their winning formulas on tour, keynoting conferences and adding their voice to business columns. For the most part, they are well-educated, intelligent, articulate and authoritative and have achieved success in their field. I’m just not sure that qualifies them to give advice to small business owners.

Take Jack Welch for example. He joined GE, already a huge corporation, when he was 25 and worked his way up the ranks till he retired at 65. He was Chairman and CEO for 20 years, during which time, the company’s value rose 4,000 per cent. His personal net worth is estimated at $720 million. He has written countless bestsellers on his management style and is an inspiration to many.

Obviously, he is accomplished.  I’m not disputing his abilities but I do wonder what a small business owner can learn from a person who spent his entire career at one company.  Is a corporate hero qualified to give advice to someone running a small ad agency in Toronto or a metal fabrication shop in Dallas?

Guru is a Sanskrit word meaning teacher or imparter of knowledge. In ancient times, a guru was someone who ‘dispelled the darkness of ignorance’. But what if you’re not ignorant? What if you know what’s best for you and your business? What if you can trust your instincts?

A familiar suggestion from the business gurus is to “get out of your comfort zone”. The underlying premise is that your complacency and resistance to change is holding back your business. This is sound advice for corporate dinosaurs clinging to their glory days but I think it’s flawed advice for small businesses. What’s wrong with your comfort zone? It gave you the courage to strike out on your own, guided you into the right business niche and helped you assemble a team that works well together. The one time I followed this advice and ignored my instincts, the results were disastrous.

I’m not saying that no one has useful advice or that you can’t benefit from discussing business problems with a mentor. I just think you'll learn more from a retired restaurant owner than from someone who rode a corporate wave to fame.

In closing I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote about social media gurus from Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and one of the most cited economists in the world: “A social media guru is a term used to assign imaginary expertise in a nascent communications field to an individual with little to no real world business experience”.