HFA Insights: Time is money. Are you using yours wisely?

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Let’s talk about time management. Every family business is unique unto itself. But while there are no two that are alike, that doesn’t mean there are not similarities. When I meet with a family business – whether it‘s a construction company or a furniture store – we end up having the same talk. I bet you’ve had the same talk about your store, or at least you’ve thought about it before. It’s the talk about the need for senior executives in family businesses to redefine their roles and focus on high-payoff executive functions versus the menial task functions that a $15-an-hour employee can do.

But let’s look at the other side of that coin. How do senior leaders hurt their employees’ productivity? Research from Stanford University came up with three ways that executives do this. See if any or (gulp!) all apply to you or another executive at your store.

Assigning tasks

The first is assigning time-consuming tasks. Unless you are overstaffed, most of your employees have a full plate in front of them and are well occupied. A new task might distract them from projects they’ve already started. This opens them up to spreading their skills too thin or losing focus and direction.

There’s always a sense of shifting priorities in small businesses. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “I want you to do this, this and this.” So, the dutiful employee does as requested, only to find the next week that the rules seem to have changed. The executive in charge says, “Forget it. That was last week. That was a different customer. This week, we’re going to do this.”

This goes on for several weeks so that the only constant in the employee’s work life is change. He is asked to do one thing this week and another thing the next week, only to have a third task introduced the week after that. After a few weeks, the employee may not show it on his face, but somewhere deep inside, his eyes are rolling because of the ever-shifting priorities. There’s no clear direction. Sure, you might think there is, but your employees see something else entirely.

One way to cure this is to have a carefully mapped-out plan with big-picture objectives and goals. I understand the nature of small businesses and that in furniture retail you need to shift priorities from time to time. The business is always changing, and you need to change with it, depending on customer needs, weather or the arrival of fresh inventory.

There are all kinds of variables, but having a big, overarching plan aligned with your mission, vision and values is a cure to this problem of shifting priorities.

Watch your words

The second problem is that senior executives don’t always understand the power of their words, even offhand comments. The most famous example of that is when King Henry II of England complained about Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury.

As was usually the case back then, the church and state were bickering about supremacy and who got to make decisions on behalf of England and its people. Henry’s outburst came at Christmas 1170 at the height of his confrontations with Becket. He had just learned that Becket excommunicated several bishops who supported the king. Edward Grim, a witness to Becket’s murder and the later author of the Life of St. Thomas, quoted Henry as saying, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

Henry may have been joking after months of frustration, but four of his loyal knights heard their king’s words and took them to heart by assassinating the archbishop.

It was a purely unintended consequence, according to history, but that phrase is now used to express the idea that a ruler’s wish can be interpreted by subordinates as a command. That doesn’t just happen with kings. That happens in your furniture store when you say things as simple as, “The coffee wasn’t good today,” or “Why don’t we have bagels at our morning meetings?”

You utter a throw-away line where you’re just thinking out loud and people take it as a directive because, after all, they want to appease and please the chief executive.

The cure is to be mindful of what you say. Words have consequences, especially when those words come from the leader’s lips. Make sure that if you’re joking, people know you’re joking, and they don’t rush off and assassinate your priest because you inadvertently said something wrong.

In them you trust

The third potential problem is delegating to your employees and then not trusting them. There’s another word, of course, for this type of managing: micromanaging. It’s a big problem in all businesses but even more so in family businesses. Even worse than micromanaging is second-guessing your employee after you’ve charged him with completing a task.

Think about it: You give the employee the responsibility to decide, and then you come along a week or month later and second-guess the decision by yanking the carpet out from underneath the employee’s feet.

Instead, you should trust the person to whom you’ve given the task. To build that trust, it might be best to let that employee walk before running. Give the employee decision power over something smaller. If that goes well, move on to a bigger project, or an important customer relationship, or a large financial transaction with a vendor.

The point is, you should focus laser-like on your own time-management skills, but you also need to maximize your employees’ productivity. Don’t be a bottleneck in your store when it comes to decisions. Unless you’re paying yourself $10 an hour, you need to delegate to others who are making $15 an hour.

Either you have the right people on your bus, and you can trust and delegate to them, or you don’t. And if you don’t feel you can turn over the simple tasks to your staff, if you find that you can’t trust them, what does that tell you? It tells you maybe you’ve got the wrong people on your bus.

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