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Every Tough Choice Has Management Debt – Are You Accounting For Yours?

There are no easy answers to hard decisions. You might be able to postpone a hard decision, or find a comfortable answer, but the problem will return with a vengeance down the line.

GG van Rooyen

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Tech start-ups love pithy mantras. For Google, it was ‘Don’t be evil’. Apple, of course, has ‘Think different’. With Facebook, it was ‘Move fast and break things’. Of the three, ‘Move fast and break things’ seems the riskiest.

The last thing you want to do when building a company, after all, is to break things. But in the early days of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg and his team believed (correctly) that the importance of moving fast and staying agile outweighed the risk of occasionally breaking a part of the Facebook platform.

For the first few years, the company was small enough to pull this off. It moved at breakneck pace, expanding its offerings, signing up new users and taking risks.

Related: How To Make Better Business Decisions That Drive Productivity And Profits

Move fast, but don’t break things

Sadly, no company can maintain that start-up mindset forever, though. Eventually, the risk of ‘breaking things’ start to outweigh to advantages that come with moving quickly. By 2014, Facebook was no longer a start-up. It was a publicly-traded international tech behemoth with thousands of employees and more than a billion monthly users. When you’re that size, and the stakes are that high, a mantra like ‘Move fast and break things’ becomes problematic.

Shareholders tend to become a tad nervous when they picture a bunch of millennials running around and breaking things as if acting out a scene from Lord of the Flies.

So, Facebook changed its motto to ‘Move fast with stable infrastructure’. Not nearly as edgy or catchy, but also far less risky. Moving fast and breaking things can be great if you’re a young start-up, but it’s important to remember that it comes with something that famous computer programmer Ward Cunningham calls technical debt.

You can save time by writing quick and dirty code, and not worrying about breaking things too much, but there will come a time when you are forced to pay the debt for it. And the quicker you scale, the more this debt can end up being. At a certain stage, the time and energy you save simply no longer outweigh the possible repercussions.

Management debt

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz argues that entrepreneurs are faced with something similar to technical debt, which he calls management debt. Horowitz was the CEO and founder of a tech company called Loudcloud when the tech bubble famously went bust during the early 2000s.

He managed to save his company and his people, and eventually sold the company to Hewlett-Packard for $1,6 billion, but it was a traumatic experience. The psychological toll that the experience took on him was significant, and it inspired him to write The Hard Thing About Hard Things. As its name suggests, the book argues that there are no easy answers to hard problems.

Related: Leaders Who Make Good Decisions Do These 6 Things Constantly

Building a company is difficult, and there is no point in pretending that it’s easy. If you want to be the boss, you need to be willing to do the hard things and make the hard decisions. If you opt to take the easy way out at any point, you incur management debt.

“Like technical debt, management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence. Like technical debt, the trade-off sometimes makes sense, but often does not. More important, if you incur the management debt without accounting for it, then you will eventually go management bankrupt,” writes Horowitz.

Are there two employees in your organisational chart that fit the same spot, but you’re keeping both? Are you overcompensating a key employee because she received another job offer? Are you ignoring performance management because you don’t want your start-up to feel like a ‘big company’? These are difficult situations that need to be resolved, argues Horowitz. The longer you ignore these kinds of issues, the greater the eventual management debt will be.

“Every really good, really experienced CEO I know shares one important characteristic: They tend to opt for the hard answer to organisational issues. If faced with giving everyone the same bonus to make things easy or with sharply rewarding performance and ruffling many feathers, they’ll ruffle the feathers. If given the choice of cutting a popular project today, because it’s not in the long-term plans or you’re keeping it around for morale purposes and to appear consistent, they’ll cut it today. Why? Because they’ve paid the price of management debt, and they would rather not do that again,” says Horowitz.


Can you make the tough choices?

Top CEOs have one thing in common: They make the hard choices, even if they’re not the popular choices.

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

Leading

What A Grade 1 Sticker Business Taught Me About Business

It’s the very fundamentals that are frequently overlooked amid ambition and “blue sky thinking” – yet, these remain the most crucial element of any business.

Grant Field

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When I was a kid, my father believed that instead of getting pocket money, my brothers and I should learn how to make money. Stickers were the school craze when I was in Grade 1, and we wanted a collection for ourselves, so Dad said if we wanted to buy the stickers, we needed to make the money. So, logically, we started a sticker trading business. Dad gave us the start-up money and took us through the basics of business.

We had a cash float for purchases, and learnt about cost price, mark-up and selling price – very basic accounting. We kept recycling that money, making extra and using it to buy more stickers. Then we worked out that if we increased the mark-up, we’d make a bigger profit – so why not make the mark-up as big as possible? The obvious happened. Our prices were too high, and we lost customers.

Valuable business lesson learnt, we came back down to a mark-up that other kids were willing to pay for.

More lessons to learn

Then people came to us and asked if they could take a sticker today and pay us tomorrow. We saw no reason not to trust them. Guess what? They didn’t pay us back. We had bad debt on our hands. When we sold out of stickers, we had cash-flow issues and couldn’t buy more stock. Dad was there to help us out, though, so we received another capital injection to get back off the ground. And this time, if we did extend credit, we loaded it for the privilege of “buy now, pay later” – another lesson learnt.

We ran a proper ledger for the business, tracking our inventory, sales and profit. Even if our “bank” account was a piggy bank, we had a clear record of what was going on. When I look back on it, none of what I learnt was irrelevant.

Today, I run a leading financial services company with billions of rand running through our bank accounts. Even though the finances of the business are run on a much larger scale, the principles of business – those basic principles that we learnt trading stickers – still power our company. And when I see entrepreneurial ventures failing, or when friends come to me for advice because their business is struggling, it’s almost always because they haven’t got these basics right.

Related: Successful SA Entreps Share Their Most Valuable Business Advice Ever Received

Clarity

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that if you don’t fully understand how the money is being made, walk away. Whether you are dealing with stickers or financial services, the business principles should be straightforward: money coming in, money going out, and profitability.

Every day, I look at an Excel statement of my company’s forty bank accounts. Every day, I look at the cashflow, and unusual big-ticket items get a note so I know what’s going on. It’s just like that Grade 1 business, only on a bigger scale.

Entrepreneur, thwarted

Once the other kids saw the success of our sticker business, they started to want to get in on the action, so they came to market with their own competing products. At first, we were able to innovate as the competition squeezed our margins and started to impact on our profits. Eventually, the whole situation got completely out of hand and the school banned sticker trading for profit.

While I didn’t become a sticker magnate, the lessons I learnt in Grade 1 remain central to every business I am involved with – get the basics right.

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How To Handle A Director Who Always Says No

Diverse opinions on a board is a good thing — but is it boosting your business, or hindering growth and decisions?

Carl Bates

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Do you have that director on your board who always says ‘no’? Regardless of what the issue is, regardless of the context, who raises it or whether or not it is indeed a good idea, their response is either a simple ‘no’ or an elongated perspective on why they disagree? It can even feel at times that they are actively working against the company and against the board. Although they obviously do not see it that way.

Experienced directors will have multiple war stories related to this subject. Aspiring directors should be aware of how to approach these situations when they arise and how to avoid becoming the subject of such stories.

Develop a culture of trust, candour and professionalism

A board’s conduct must be characterised by trust, respect, candour, professionalism, accountability, diligence and commitment. It is the board’s collective responsibility to build this culture and to engage with one another in a productive and effective way.

Dissent should be welcomed when it is constructive and engaging. The idea of being the ‘devil’s advocate’ for the sake of it however, is not the best way to approach this. Dissent should be based on a real belief that the issue has not been fully debated or creates a real challenge for the company going forward.

If you have a director who genuinely believes a different path is right for the company, hear them out and engage in the discussion. In my experience, this often opens up an issue or changes a detail that when taken as part of the whole, improves the decision-making outcome for the board and the company.

Related: Contributing In The Boardroom

Remove the politics from the boardroom

At the heart of this issue is often politics. Politics between directors, who are also shareholders or executives. Politics between the ‘new guard’ and the ‘old.’ Regardless of the genesis, politics really do not have a place in the boardroom and directors who engage in it should be called out by the chairman or another senior director.

In local government I have heard stories of councillors who always vote ‘no,’ so that whenever something goes wrong, they can say “I told you so,” and show the public why they should be re-elected. But that is indeed politics. The boardroom is a very different space. It is private and discussions should be confidential.

Board rotation, a simple solution

While the removal of an errant director should never just be left to resolve itself, there is a simple solution that can support the easy removal of the most difficult directors. The challenge is that it requires forward planning prior to the appointment of any new director.

Directors should only ever be appointed for a predefined term, with automatic rotation at the end of that term. This does not stop you from reappointing a director for a further period. It is, however, always easier to ask someone to consider a further term than it is to tell them that their time has come and they should resign from the board.

Having a predefined term for a director essentially ensures an automatic resignation period. A simple rotation policy for directors is not just good governance, it is a practical step you can take to provide a way out of a sticky relationship.

Ultimately the board as a whole must address issues that detract from the board fulfilling its function as and when they arise. A rotation policy might provide an effective backstop. A high-performance board is one that will tackle the issue head-on.

Read next: How Diversity Drives Board Performance

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Leading

The Power Pose: Using Body Language To Lead

Use the way you move and stand and interact with others to become a better entrepreneur and leader.

Howard Feldman

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In 2012, the power pose became a global sensation. A Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy hit a staggering 46 million views and became the second most popular Ted Talk in history. The premise was simple – hold a powerful pose and it will not only affect the way you behave but it will even change your body chemistry. Since the talk, the power pose has met with heavy criticism and been labelled as nothing more than pseudoscience. Fortunately for believers, they were proven right. Amy Cuddy released further research this year and it fundamentally proves that this bold stance works exactly how she said it did back in 2012.

The power pose isn’t something that you’d adopt in a meeting or around the office but the science behind it shows how important it is to pay attention to your body language as it can fundamentally change how you are perceived.

Notice how you are noticed

People spend a lot of time reading one another’s body language and the way a person stands or holds their hands or moves can influence how others see them. It’s very natural to judge someone else’s posture, but what about the way they are judging yours? Few people look at how their body language is affecting the way people engage with them.

Related: [Quiz] How Good Are You At Reading Others In Business?

So, what are you supposed to do?

Fake it until you make it

Want to know how can you adapt to become a better leader? You can fake it.

The power pose isn’t the only way to change your mood. Research has shown that whether you laugh naturally or put on a smile and make yourself laugh, your body still releases the same levels of serotonin.

Whether you are really laughing or just pretending to laugh doesn’t matter – they both have the same impact on your demeanour.

Change how others see you

Think about the pose that every athlete adopts when they win a race or achieve something that’s been physically taxing. They hold their hands outstretched in the air. Even blind athletes hold the same pose. It’s big, it’s bold and it’s a physical manifestation of success.

Now consider the defensive pose. The tight hunched shoulders or inward curve of the spine. These poses immediately make a person look nervous, afraid and lacking in confidence. Like the porcupine curling in on itself for protection.

The same ideas apply to daily business life. While the power pose and the athlete pose are not necessarily a team activity, ensuring that you hold your body upright and with confidence means that you’re conveying an attitude of strength. You come across as confident and capable and positive. You are ready to take on anything and overcome the odds.

By contrast, if you are hunched and withdrawn, you come across as nervous and lacking in confidence and these are not the qualities you want associated with you as an entrepreneur and a leader.

Related: (Slideshow) 5 TED Talks That May Change Your Perspective on Life

Body language for entrepreneurs

  • Shake hands like a hero. The way you shake hands with someone is very significant in terms of establishing equality. Be even, be firm but don’t pull people towards you or turn their hands under your own. This makes them feel like you are trying to establish dominance.
  • Create an atmosphere of openness. Maintain eye contact, say hello to people with warmth while holding a strong posture. A warm and open greeting is essential to establishing trust.
  • Do the power pose for two minutes before any meeting or interview. This will get those chemicals stirring and make you feel confident and in charge.

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