Learning to be competent in an incompetent company

This is not a topic they usually teach you in B-school, but it should be! I well remember from years of working in corporate environments (university and industry) how frustrating life could be when dealing with the bureaucracy and committees, the company barons and gatekeepers, and the lack of inter-departmental co-operation that was so detrimental to the customer. And, of course, as work by Bakan, Hare and others confirm, corporations attract all those psychopaths who make your life hell!

Working more with small businesses these days, I see similar problems. After all, problems at work all have the same root causes, people.  But for the small business manager the topic could be better titled as ‘learning to be competent in an incompetent industry.’ For example, what competencies do you need to deal with the supplier who doesn’t have the basic management skills to organize their own production schedules and deliver on the date promised? Or with the buyer from a business customer who doesn’t remember to communicate a change their boss wants in the specification until the day of delivery? Or with the industry ‘standards’ (dysfunctional norms? unwritten rules? abuse of power?) that say that 30-day payment terms for small suppliers actually mean ’90-days or maybe more, depending on whether my section has met its quarterly targets and I have my bonus, and don’t you dare whinge about it or I will never buy from you again‘? Or that an extra ‘fee’ is required to remain as a listed supplier? Or……?

Every industry has its own incompetencies; what are yours?

In addition to whatever job competencies are needed (or bought in) by the small business manager (job technical knowledge, marketing, selling, partnering, operations management, contracting, buying, costing and pricing, financial controls, etc.), the extra personal competencies that are required to deal with industry-wide incompetencies are, in plain English:

  • Resilience and stress-resistance – staying unfazed by problems,  approaching a problem as something to try and solve rather than as a heart attack causing crisis, keeping cool and maintaining perspective and knowing when to accept that you can’t win them all (‘hey, stuff happens’), learning how to switch off and really relax in those few times off that are available to you, etc.
  • Speedy and positive reaction – getting yourself (and other people) energized and positive, and focused on action and solutions rather than on reflection and blame (reflecting should be done but it should be done later), re-prioritising tasks and, if necessary to avoid delays and causing problems elsewhere, putting in the extra hours, etc.
  • Problem anticipation – thinking ahead about what might go wrong (and asking questions of the other people involved to get them to think ahead as they or the systems that regulate them may not be as competent as they should be), working on the basis that the bread can fall butter-side down and building in slack (if possible) and contingencies, learning from problems and recognizing their potential in situations in the future, etc.

underpinned by agile company systems that provide the flexibility to make rapid changes (crisis management teams, key employees on call, computer-based production scheduling system which allows you to switch things around, friendly suppliers and partner companies who can back you up when asked, etc.), by having a customer base that is strong (where the trust is high and you solve problems together) or diverse enough to withstand losing the occasional customer (on those occasions when no amount of personal competence would have solved the problem), and by having financial robustness – yes, those very well known small business bogeys of sound cash-flow, and access to finance, whether you own reserves or to an external funder who will come through quickly when needed.

All these competencies, and the undelying systems, can be developed with good coaching! Find out more at bquest.

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