I graduated from my MBA in 2008. This was the start of the “professional” phase of my career.
- I’ve worked with organizations ranging from the thousands in annual revenue to those generating billions in annual revenue.
- I’ve worked with solopreneurs, small teams, and large teams.
- I’ve mostly worked as a consultant from the outside but occasionally made my way inside of companies either as a de facto team member or one actually on the payroll.
After 13 years, the thing that I find most surprising is how many companies are pretending that they have their shit together.
Everything is fine
Most companies, are just getting by (see: Pandemic 2020), trapped in a situation where the only option is to run at full speed in a constant race for survival.
In many cases, one or two clients leaving is all it would take to bring the whole company down.
Losing one or two key team members is all it would take before a junior team member is dropped into the role and told to “figure it out” while the client still pays the same rate for premium talent.
Fake it until you make it is the standard, not the exception.
Everything is fine…really.
It’s funny because coming out of my MBA, I thought every business would have all sorts of structure in place. I thought they’d have income statements and balance sheets, a marketing budget, and a comprehensive sales strategy.
Yet, after more than 10 years of client services, I get blank stares more often than not when I ask about a marketing budget…as if they’re baffled about how one would even go about creating one.
Recently, I remarked that out of dozens of examples, only one or two times have I seen a company with a functioning CRM that people are actively using. However, so many companies are quick to tell you about how they’re “getting Salesforce soon.”
I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve dealt with over the last 10 years that have very little idea about what they’re doing. Believe me, as a strategist, I ask questions for a living…
- Who is your customer?
- I dunno. Not really sure.
- What makes you different?
- I dunno. Price?
- Show me your sales materials?
- Our what? We don’t have those.
- How do you generate leads?
- We pretty much rely on one person. Or they just kind of show up. Website…I think?
- How long could you survive if you lost your big client?
- Honestly, not long. Not without letting go a lot of people.
- How are your people doing?
- They’re great. We have a great culture.
- Narrator (Ron Howard): They’re not. They don’t.
It goes on and on.
Here’s what I’ve picked up in my experience and from what I gather from countless other business owners and leaders. Business, it turns out, is mostly a house of cards. We’re holding the entire thing together with duct tape.
Don’t believe me? Ask a business owner or leader “how’s it going?” I’ll bet you a shiny nickel they look at you with tired eyes and a weary spirit to say “living the dream.”
That’s not a rallying cry, it’s a cry for help.
I have friends who are entrepreneurs, small business owners, consultants, employees at mid sized firms, and multiple friends at Fortune 500 companies. Without exception, they all have war stories of gross ineptitude, smoke in mirrors, and culture nightmares. Teams are understaffed, employees are overworked, and managers are forced to make important decisions they are ill-equipped to make.
Everything is fine, just keep going
My suspicion that something was wrong had been growing over time but it was the pandemic that brought the whole situation to the forefront.
Businesses just up and closed within a month or two of the shut down. Turns out, all of the advice about saving for a rainy day didn’t apply to businesses OR it simply wasn’t possible in the first place. Companies laid people off to cut costs almost immediately. So much for “our people are our most important assets.”
The pandemic laid it all out there and what we found was that people aren’t paid enough, no one was all that prepared for even the slightest interruption, and most things just aren’t that important.
It turns out, businesses are pretty much just Jason Statham from the movie Crank. If you don’t get that reference it’s a movie where the lead character is poisoned and must keep his adrenaline flowing constantly in order to keep himself alive.
So, that’s business: keep going and try to stay alive until tomorrow.
Everything is not fine: an observation
I do not have a solution to this. There’s no uplifting ending to this post. There’s no advice.
All I can offer is a glimpse behind the curtain: more people than you’d like to admit, within those you interact with, whether they own a company, have a leadership position at a company, or occupy a rank and file position at a company, are not ok. They may keep moving forward, but the whole machine they are running or riding in is held together with duct tape.
I believe that simply acknowledging this is our first step in moving toward a solution.
The problem we need to solve is not “how do we stop businesses from closing?” It’s not “how do we ensure all businesses have their act together?” It’s not “how do we reopen and get people back to work already?”
It’s “how do we make changes in society so that regardless of whether a businesses is held together by duct tape, we don’t risk people losing their homes, their income, their healthcare, and their sanity?” We’re collectively walking a tight rope without a net. We’ll never be free to practice and fall until we get a net.
We’ve been operating under the assumption that work is our path to freedom, and yet the truth is, few people will emerge from this pandemic unscathed except for the ultra-wealthy. Meanwhile countless people have suffered the brunt of the business world being ill-equipped to handle the needs of society in the wake of crisis.
We can do better.