Business Leadership Continuity – Up Close and Personal

Crash_Front_End If case the picture above is unclear, it is the front of my car after a head-on crash … in case you are wondering, its replacement is a bright red tank of a vehicle!

As the Founder, President, and CEO of a privately held information technology company for over 30 years, business continuity was always a subject that occupied space in the back of my mind. While this is a well defined process in large companies, I would argue that it is even more important for SMB (Small and Mid-size Business) companies. On January 17, 2015, business leadership continuity ceased becoming an academic exercise for my company.

On Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 8:38am, our business leadership continuity was put to a test. A delivery truck (whose driver was more intent on his phone than his driving) drifted into my lane and struck my car head-on. I spent the next month in a hospital bed and then three and one half months recuperating at home. As I write this, I am in the process of returning to work after a four and one half month unexpected absence.

From the company’s startup in 1982 to the present, I defined my job description by three simple responsibilities:

  • I do what no one else in the company can do
  • I do what no one else in the company wants to do
  • I’m constantly trying to work myself out of a job

Over the years, this means that I have historically done every job in the company, currently do jobs that we do not have the internal staffing to fill, and am constantly trying to “put myself out of a job” by building up my staff. 31 years ago when my business partner and I hired our first employee, after he finished product training I assigned all of the “good projects” to him and did the “scutwork” myself so that he could grow. That leadership precedent continued over time shaped the nucleus for our company’s successful growth in size and leadership developed from within.

Our leadership is more of a network than a hierarchy. People have commensurate well defined levels of responsibilities and accountability. Because our leadership has been grown internally, we have significant overlap in corporate knowledge. I have to smile when I read about the recent management changes at Zappos. They are adapting the leadership strategy that we created a generation ago!

One of our key rules is that we want to ensure that no one employee becomes “the hub of the wheel”. We cannot afford to have any employees who are indispensable. That includes everyone … even me. Other than providing management oversight, my current primary responsibility has been business development to firms within the Motor Vehicle Industry. To me, that is the more long-run task of building and maintaining business relationships with prospects, customers, and complementary firms. A secondary responsibility is ownership of our product development mission.

When times are good, everyone is happy and with the program. The key test is what happens when the SHTF (something bad happens). My organization faced a test. I’m happy to tell you that they passed that test. Here are some insights from their experience that I would like to share with you:

  1. Starting from the top of the organization and descending to the lowest job in the company, leaders need to know the jobs of every one of their people … and what to do if they were suddenly unavailable to the company without notice. The CEO needs to know their specific responsibilities and define a “leadership will” documenting how their responsibilities will be fulfilled in their absence.
  2. As you find / encounter “indispensable individuals”, resolving this situation must be addressed ASAP by your hiring / employee development plans. For small businesses, this is easier said than done but costs of this not being done can potentially be enormous.
  3. In the middle of a crisis, one person must be in charge. At the same time, that person must listen closely to others with different opinions and strive to gain a consensus before moving forward.

I’d like to hear from you how we can continue to improve our process.