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Controlling the Controllables

When hard times hit, don’t waste time focusing on the things beyond your control.

Handling the Controllable and Uncontrollable
Illustration by Vitalii Barida/Getty Images.

Running a business is often described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer panic. In those moments it can be hard to keep a cool head when the stress ticks up. One of the key differences between those who can continue to stay the course vs. those who fold up like a lawn chair lies in the understanding that there are elements within and beyond our control. The “beyond” elements (uncontrollables) tend to occupy an outsized place in our psyche though there’s little to nothing we can do about them. The “within” elements (controllable), however, are usually the most effective at righting the ship and deserve most of our attention. One of my mentors calls this focus “controlling the controllables.” I try to keep that front and center in times of stress. Here are a few common controllables and how we approach each one:

  1. Lead Behaviors: Looking at last week’s closed revenue produces one of two results — you either nailed it or failed it. The problem is that last week’s sales began 45 to 60 days ago. Last week’s results (lagging and uncontrollable) are all too commonly used to manage sales teams. It’s a demoralizing slog during a time that could be better utilized talking about leading behaviors like number of consults, networking events, outbound calls, and other activities that can meaningfully impact the results in the coming weeks and months. By shifting from a lagging (uncontrollable) to leading (controllable) mindset, you’ll find that last week’s results start to take a backseat to metrics that can be effectively managed and coached every week. Consider making a change the next time you find yourself crying in your soup about last week’s low sales numbers.
  2. Strategic Planning: Many businesses begin their journeys using the “stream-of-consciousness” method where the initial creative spark or inspiration gives way to offshoots and client-driven ideas for where the business should focus its energy. That works…to a point. Every business eventually reaches critical mass where, without a proper plan, it will no longer grow and begin to stagnate. We take time out each year to sit down and tally up the wins and losses and set our sights on the coming year. Rather than falling prey to shiny object syndrome, this enables us to prioritize 2-3 anchors for the year that guide the rest of the company’s efforts. This year’s strategic plan at Livewire lists two main themes:
    1. Launch Lighting & Electrical Division and grow to $1MM run rate by end of Q4
    2. Grow Commercial Division by diversifying our product offerings and growing our run rate to $3MM by end of Q4.
  3. Labor Forecasting: If you keep selling, that work has to be completed at some point. Instead of waking up in a cold sweat because too many jobs converged at once, consider compiling a forecast each week that highlights the week ahead. This gives you an opportunity to play Tetris as best you can with all your technicians, as well as look at the best-case labor utilization scenario. No matter how well we engineer our labor forecasts, our produced numbers always end up lagging 10% behind. This means our forecasts shoot for a 90% labor utilization while our weekly production results aim for 80%. Before we started forecasting and measuring utilization, our numbers hovered around 50%.
  4. Measuring Happiness: Whether it’s “management by walking around” or using a weekly survey email from platforms like TinyPULSE or Lattice, understanding how your employees are feeling is vital to preserving and enhancing culture. One of our recent surveys uncovered feedback about a manager that was quickly addressed. Another key metric that companies can leverage is managing customer satisfaction using tools like Review Champ or Google to solicit feedback on each and every job (not just the projects where you think the client will award 5 stars). The constant flow of feedback is a fantastic temperature gauge of how clients see your business. Social proof from online reviews is also the lowest cost, highest yield marketing activity a business can engage in.

The next time you’re tempted by the darkness of business issues beyond your control, reach into the fridge for a nice refreshing bottle of controllables. What are you doing to keep a cool head and steady your hand on the tiller?

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.

Also by Henry Clifford: Managing Sales Teams With Bumper Lanes