Q&A for entrepreneurs, Part II.

December 2020


Starting Forisk Consulting was not part of a long-term goal to build a business. Rather, it came together serendipitously. When the phone started ringing with questions relevant to my forestry research, the two ingredients required for starting a business presented themselves: a product or service to offer and clients willing to pay for it. 

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about managing. I also absorbed more about insurance, taxes and postage meters than a person needs to know for the afterlife. In this second essay on entrepreneurship, I summarize lessons on managing a business and teams.

In your opinion, what is required to manage a business or lead a team? 

Successful managers are willing to do what is required to take care of their team and meet the core objectives of the business in ways consistent with their values. In my shop, this means helping each other and supporting clients, even if, at times, we have late nights or weekend work. 

Much of what we accomplish with teams comes from having mutually trusting and respectful relationships while providing a sense of stability and direction. Communicate a plan, provide the resources and training to implement it, and adjust as things change. 

How do you get everyone on the same page as a manager or business owner?

Managers and employees must have a shared understanding of values and of what success looks like. My Dad taught me the importance of “shared expectations” by showing my brother and me how to rake leaves in the yard to his satisfaction. Jerry Papac, a manager early in my career who supervised forest operations, did the same by specifying the difference between “good” and “bad” logging jobs. My college baseball coach, Fran O’Brien, reinforced the importance of running out ground balls and pop flies. 

When you hire someone, you get their standard of performance, so it’s the role of the manager to sit with each person and clarify expectations. The recipe is straightforward. 

  • First, define success.
  • Second, agree on what success looks like when it is delivered.
  • Third, confirm how it will be measured and when.

This seems easier said than done. How do you think about accountability?

Managing can be hard, no doubt about it. But, as a manager, you get the performance you deserve. At Forisk, we prioritize five values that reinforce trust and accountability. Without clear values or a sense for what you’re trying to achieve, you cannot manage effectively. I review these values quarterly with the entire team and when issues arise.[i]

  1. Stay curious. In our business, we do research and figure out how things work to support clients. Curiosity is fundamental to our particular mission and work. 
  2. Think and act like an owner on behalf of Forisk and clients. Treat company resources like your own and think about what’s best for the client. Walk a mile in their shoes.
  3. No surprises. While surprises are fun when you’re seven years old, at work they sow doubt and uncertainty. “No surprises” means communicate. Flag errors early so you can adjust. Communicate successes so you can celebrate. This builds trust.
  4. Care about others. We’re in this together. We look out for each other. Caring about others also requires self-awareness about how our actions affect others.
  5. Enjoy yourself. Life is short. Work is important but it’s not everything. Enjoy the moment. Our successes are sweeter when we take the time to appreciate them.

I truly believe most people want to know what’s expected and prefer order. Who likes people that cut in line, show up late or throw trash on the ground? Good employees appreciate it when managers hold people accountable. When Coach O’Brien benched people for failing to hustle, that left a mark on us and reinforced the values of the team.

How do you give feedback?

Focus on the actions and not the person. Be direct and polite about how the action was inconsistent with the expectation or our values. With feedback, the goal is to keep the stakes low. That’s why we provide continuous feedback. Don’t wait until it becomes a “special” issue. Think about the rapid feedback loops in sports and investing. You make or miss the shot. You make or lose money. People need to know how they’re doing. 

Frankly, in my role as the CEO, I find that, at times, the act of simply having a direct and unfiltered conversation with me solves the issue.

How do you decide when it’s time to make a change?

Underperforming employees can be good at making excuses and managers can be good at delaying or talking themselves out of hard decisions. This is where shared expectations and timely feedback help. Feedback delayed is feedback denied.

If you specify performance issues as they occur and provide the resources and training required, and things still fall apart, you need to make a change. The job either meets expectation, or it doesn’t. My team understands this. And if you perform well, we reward you. 

Moving someone off the team is hard, but my body often signals to me there’s a problem. I get an uncomfortable feeling when delegating work to someone that, I recognize later, lost the trust of the team. I will ask myself two questions: Would I be sorry if this person left? Would I hire this person again if they applied for a position today? If I cannot answer “yes” to both questions, I have an initial decision.

I test my decision by using a technique picked up from a former Sony executive. I go to bed pretending that the decision has been made to fire this person. Then, when I wake up in the morning, I see how I feel. My body and mind will basically beg the question or confirm it and say, “yes, do this.” 

Not only are your employees the best people you have, they’re the only people you have. Live in the real world and make it work. If it’s not working, make a change.

What do you wished you had learned or known earlier?

Expectations are insufficient; they require reinforcement. Feedback not only corrects behavior, it motivates the rest of the team. They feel you are looking out for them, too. 

The best manager is a good teacher. In business, you need a team with complementary skills aligned around common values and goals. Good managers have the skills of a great coach matched to those of an outstanding high school teacher. 

Do not take things personally. Most people don’t care about you or your worries. They care about themselves. Relationships, common interests and mutual respect go a long way to getting things done. Do not get bent out of shape on minor slights. Pick up the phone and make it right.

Managers must also communicate between themselves.

Get involved. One lesson I’ve taken from committed advocates, entrepreneurs, clients, clergy, coaches and teachers is that we can make the “system” a little more responsive by making calls, writing letters and showing up. As individuals on our team develop, we actively look for ways in which they can serve the forest industry and help others.  

How do you handle situations where you feel frustrated or angry?

Life offers a slew of situations that you could use to justify anger. If mad, I go walk or do something else to cool off. I avoid expressing anger in the moment, because it rarely accomplishes much, and I usually regret it. Then, I focus on the issue, if there is one. A strong emotional response is often my attributing a motive or story that isn’t there. If my feeling is motivated by a performance issue, I talk with the person, focus on the action, and move on. Anger and frustration are poor advisors.

What advice might you offer a young manager?

Stay positive. A lot of communication is non-verbal. My team knows if I’m distracted or irritated. So does yours. Be self-aware. Understand your impact on the team and office.

You’ll work with people that have different points of views or ways of doing things. However, if you have an issue with an employee or vendor or client, and you hash it out, and they respond and correct the situation, you should forgive and forget. Just make sure getting involved will make a positive difference. If not, let it go.

You have more power and influence than you think. If you can do your job better than anyone else, if you have special skills or experiences, if you communicate well and if clients trust you, you have my attention and support. I will get you resources and opportunities. However, the opposite is true, too. If you talk about how much you care but I don’t see it in the deliverables, then you’re hurting the team and losing my trust.

Final thoughts?

Peoples view of you will change over time. So be comfortable in your skin. Your job is not to make everyone happy, but to make decisions. Know the numbers. Know your team and clients. And know yourself. Get the space you need to rest and think. Your “CEO” or “manager” title puts you front and center; everyone notices what you do and say. Understand the power of the position and the opportunity to lead by example.  

[i] We also apply these values when hiring and evaluating candidates.

My thanks to Steve Mendell for his ideas and suggestions on improving an earlier version of this essay.