December 2007 Archives

Succeeding in Business

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"Can I succeed in business?"

Worded one way or another, this is a very common question we get on the Spirit Lake Forum small business section. Obviously, it is impossible for me to say whether an individual person will succeed or not, especially not someone I have never met. There are thousands of books, articles and websites on what makes one succeed or fail in business. If any of them had the "one, true answer", the author would be a billionaire, everyone else would be following his/her plan and there would be no more failed attempts.
emptyroom.jpgThere are a few suggestions I can make, have made, in our Courageous Leadership workshop. These include taking a good hard look at whether anyone would pay you for whatever product or service you intend to provide.

I sometimes read the Idea Cafe website for small business. It is a very interesting site, visited by some very knowledgeable people and some who really don't have a clue.  I would recommend  people interested in starting a business go there for a couple of reasons. One is that they have some genuinely good articles and good advice. The other reason, though, is that you will read ideas for businesses that make you wonder,
"What were they thinking?!"

It's a very nice site and no one ever says,
"Are you out of your mind? No one is going to buy knitted sweaters for turtles?"
"Life coach? What qualifications do you have to tell other people what to do with their lives?  You worked as a clerk for twenty years, lost your job and now you are going to give other people advice?"

Nope, no one says that. They say nice things about what an original idea knit caps for turtles is or assure the person that she sounds so nice and enthusiastic that, of course they are sure she will be successful in her business of offering life coaching seminars. Next thing you know, nice person # 2 is posting on the same site about her difficulty finding customers and asking for marketing advice. What I learned back in business school in the 1970's (yes, I am that old) was that the first rule of marketing is to have a good product.

It is possible to succeed in business despite ignoring a lot of the basics, like having a business plan, monitoring your cash flow and so on, although it is not the way to place your bets. I suppose the individual who posted on our website was looking for something more original than that. So, here is my two cents worth:
  1. Make sure you have something people are willing to part with their money to get.
  2. Learn from the failures of others. That is one reason I recommended the Idea Cafe website.
Here is one more thought to consider.... maybe those small business 'failures' really are not. Next time I will post about an alternative view of small business 'failures'.

Incompetence and Ethics

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Are incompetent workers more likely to be unethical?

In my experience, the answer is an unqualified, "Yes."

Years ago, a very dear friend of mine had a very good-paying job at a major corporation. He found out that the company was engaged in fraud involving government contracts and it went all the way up to the vice-president, who had always been a mentor to him. When he confronted his boss about it, he was told to keep his mouth shut. Faced with a dilemma between going along with what he knew were unethical and illegal activities and losing a very good-paying job, he took off his company badge, threw it at the vice-president and walked out.
A week later, he had a better job.

That last line is key. For someone who knows he can find another job within the week, it is not such a soul-searching dilemma to challenge unethical behavior.

"What if I expose the number of people using using tribal property for their own benefit, charging for time they never worked and hiring their relatives who never come to work either?"

Well, what if? If you are one of those people who is excellent at their job, who is responsible and reliable, it means that you will be working at a different job next week. That may be uncomfortable or inconvenient but it is certainly not the end of your life as you know it.

On the other hand, what if you really don't know how to do that high-paying job? What if you were appointed because you were related to someone who no longer holds office, and you are just being tolerated in that job because people don't want to rock the boat? What if you pretended to have experience or skills you did not really have, as a counselor, a manager or a grant writer? You really would not want to rock the boat because if you lost that job your chances of getting another like it are not good.

You need courage to be ethical because otherwise you will only be ethical when there is no risk. As Aristotle said, Courage is the virtue upon which all others are based.

When we were writing our on-line ethics course and discussing Marianne Jennings'  Seven Signs of Moral and Ethical Collapse, one of those I thought did not apply was 'Young 'uns and a larger than life CEO. Now that I think more about it, I am not so sure.

Yes, we don't see so many very young managers on the reservation and I don't see a lot of larger-than-life CEOs like the heads of Enron, although there have been some. However, what there is in common is people who get into jobs over their heads and don't speak up because they are afraid of 'being found out' or afraid that they will lose their jobs and not be able to get another one like it. So, they go along and our atmosphere of fear and silence grows.

The next time you ask,
"So what if Ernie's brother really isn't the best person for the job. All right, let's be honest, he can't even SPELL the name of this department, but Ernie is an important person to us, and really, what is the harm?"

According to the responses on our Ethical Questions forum, there can be lots of harm and an increasing likelihood of unethical behavior is just a start.

Since I am working on the final report on our Disability Access: Computer-integrated training project, I thought I would browse around the Internet and see how other on-line training is received.

One source full of supporters and detractors was Dave Taylor's Intuitive Business Blog, where many, many people weighed in on the University of Phoenix. It sounds as if, like with any institution, there are some good instructors and some bad ones. From the comments overall, the administration sounds terrible. Of course, the fact that they were fined twice by the Department of Education, once for $9.8 million and once for $4.4 million has got to make you think twice about their credibility.

I reviewed a number of sites and articles on on-line learning and distance education. I understand the profit motive, after all, WE are a for-profit corporation, but still, the bias in some of the research by people who surely no better was troubling. After a while, I could almost tell what the results of the 'research' were going to be by looking at the advertisers on the site.

It always irritates me when people say, "You can show anything with statistics."

What you ought to show is the truth, as close as you can get to it. Instead, we have people who say "there is no difference with on-line education" and then measure variables that have no difference. So far, most people really don't want to talk about drop-out rates.

It appears to me that there are significant differences in favor of classroom-based instruction for student drop-out rates. For those students who do persist and complete courses, there seems to be no substantial difference in how much they learn as measured by most types of assessment. 

Still, for both students in classrooms and on-line, the number who DON'T complete courses is far, far too high. That is the  problem Spirit Lake Consulting  is  aiming to address next.
For anyone beginning a website, whether it is to deliver on-line training as a web-based business or have a home page for your son's Boy Scout Troop, the major mistake is usually the same. That is, failing to consider the time needed to maintain it. Over the years, I have been involved with several organizations - my children's schools, sports teams, grant-funded projects - and have created a website for them, either working as a volunteer on my own time or as an added service thrown into a contract. Some of these websites were done back when the idea of having a presence on the Internet was a fairly new concept.

Regardless of the year written, type of organization and topic, most of these sites have one thing in common. They are in the exact same condition as the day I left the organization.

I am not alone. It is very common to run across websites for small organizations that have not been updated in years, listing events or topics "of the week" when the week they were referencing ended June 12, 1999. For larger entities - corporations, colleges and some multi-million dollar non-profits, their websites are updated far more frequently than the little guys, so it is not so glaringly obvious that maintenance is a problem. You won't find a home page with sales prices from 2003.

What you may find, however,  is an increasing number of links that don't work or documents that you download that turn out to be hopelessly out of date.

Key lesson we have learned with every web-based course or project: budget in money for maintenance. Life changes. If it cost you $60,000 in hours paid to your staff to write the content, even if you estimate only 10% of the material will change each year, that still means $6,000 per year just to keep your site up to date, never mind expanding it.

If the website was done free by a volunteer, when he or she leaves, someone will need to be found to update changes to your calendar, planned events, board of directors, contact information and anything else that might be subject to change. That "anything else" includes almost every aspect of your operation.

We are working on a new grant right now and I intend to budget about 20% for maintenance after our final draft. I am hoping that will keep us on track for at least the first two years.
beach-palm-trees.jpgThese last several days are the longest I have ever gone without posting here. No, I have not quit working and become a beach bum, spending my days drinking Pina Coladas and my nights sleeping in the sand. As my lovely children commonly say,
"Dude, don't I wish!"
The sad truth is far more boring than that. We finished the final draft of the Ethics Course. That has taken a fair bit of work. Erich (a.k.a. Dr. Longie) has been working his - well, his something - off teaching workshops on every reservation in sight, snow storms or no. He has collected almost all of the data needed on the on-site version of the workshop, so, if you want to attend, you will need to go to our on-line version and enroll. It is still free until the end of January. Erich has also been going to points far and wide teaching our workshop on Special Education Rights. I think he just heard one too many stories about children not getting the services they needed or school districts not listening to parents, because he has been from one reservation to the next meeting with parents and school staff explaining to them exactly what rights children have under the law.

With Erich off fighting the good fight and collecting data at the beginning and end of each workshop to boot (the government is smarter than you think - no, I am serious - and they insist on data to show we are making a difference) - well, I have been back at the office analyzing all that data, creating a PowerPoint presentation for our webcast on December 14, analyzing the data for our final report on the Disability Access project (now renamed to the Family Life Series) and other research in progress.

I am also  working on  our next grant for the Tribal Leaders with Character project (Phase II) and doing a lot of minor and major changes on our website. Does it ever drive you crazy when you click on a link and it comes up "not found"? Yeah, me too. So, my helpful assistant, Jenn, found a few that I fixed. I am also working (slowly) on adding media features, especially video, to our virtual library and adding better menus to the disability-specific section of the virtual library. Okay, well, honestly, we don't have any menus for that section right now, so anything at all will be better.

With the end of the year approaching, we are winding down data collection and training a little, which allows me to get caught up. Then next year starts up with the grant due by the first week in February and I will be tearing my hair out again.

Oh well, at least there is never a dull moment around here.