The Big Stick - Thoughts from Our CEO

Dave Goerlich
Big stick

After reading this article titled Big Sticks, some key points really stuck with me because of my own experiences owning a business for almost 20 years.

As with many small business owners, my role has transitioned as the team has grown from working full-time in the delivery of our services to primarily one of leadership and management. While my technology skills and knowledge often provide opportunities to work as a peer with my team members, I’ve learned that it is impossible to separate myself from the reality that I own the company and am the one who signs the paychecks. I’ll never be just a peer to them, even if that’s how I see my role on any particular project.

I have experienced what the author describes in that article; I’ve inadvertently wielded the “big stick” in communication with my team. In doing so, I’ve initiated more than a few occasions where my team has felt obligated to go against the processes they’ve been instructed to work within to satisfy something I’ve needed or asked for. I’ve caused team members to have to have awkward conversations with their direct supervisors for not sticking to the script.

Thankfully I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’ve put to use a few key things to help:

  1. Know the rules and stick to them. I do my best to always work within my team’s standard procedures. Before I start a conversation with one of the Client Services team members, I start with their Project Manager. That way I can have a better understanding of their current workload and pressing deadlines before I add “one more thing” to the mix.
  2. Be clear about priority and expectations. I explicitly set the expectations on priority AND scope during my initial request: "Don't prioritize this over client project work - but I have this idea.... Could you kick it around and tell me what you think? A paragraph or so in an email is totally fine, or we can jump on a call if you prefer." I try my best to also set proper expectations for when I need an answer - “by the end of next week” through “whenever you have time”.
  3. Avoid the cryptic outreach. I don't leave room for fear to take hold - and this is especially true in today's Slack-dominated work communication. "Hey, have a minute?" is NOT the message to send - this isn't some home improvement show that needs a big reveal. "Hey, do you have a minute? I have a question about XYZ I'd like your input on." I also never drop a meeting invite blindly on someone - and NEVER without a reasonable title / description. Random, nameless meetings are how people get fired - there’s no need to create undue stress.
  4. Set the appropriate tone. Our company culture allows me to leverage a bit of self-deprecation to help set the tone for the less critical topics. "Could you help the old man out?" Absolutely helps separate the day to day, operational stuff from the truly "We need to talk" moments.
  5. Remain consistent. Being consistent with #3 also allows me to ask genuine, “small talk” type questions without a team member waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Welcome back! How was your PTO?” has a whole different meaning when the recipient is expecting some kind of, “Yeah, I’m going to have to ask you to come in on Saturday.” to follow.

Like I said, I know I can never be, “just one of the team” because of the responsibilities I hold and the “stick” I carry if you will. But what I can do is be self-aware about that and ensure the way I treat the team is reflective of my awareness of the weight a conversation with me could carry for someone. I need to be clear but kind in how I communicate with the team, for their sake and for mine. The processes we’ve put in place are there to help the company run better and so I, like everyone else, need to follow them to keep things moving forward in a smart direction.

This post was last updated on: Jul 13, 2022.