Becoming your own ringmaster

Ringmasters helped make the circus “The Greatest Show on Earth,” but your business needs a ringmaster too.
0523 Editorialcontent Feat Circus
Photograph by Shawn Harper

This fall, the reborn and reimagined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus — minus the animals — will be back on tour with highwire tricks and soaring trapeze artists. The circus earned its reputation as the “Greatest Show on Earth” not only with highly skilled acrobats, but with attention to detail and efficient, well-rehearsed performances.

However, in terms of organization and management, the circus has been given a bad name. This article will explain why the old putdown, “This place is a circus,” is based on a faulty perception, and the focus will be on project management and buttoned-down planning. We’ll spare you the jokes about the juggler being the person who keeps the books, but business operators are in a very real sense the ringmasters of their own entrepreneurial show, and most of the onus for running a consistently smooth, efficient operation falls on them.

To get some best practices advice, we spoke to several local business ringmasters, including Dr. Moses Altsech, president of Altsech Consulting and a professor in the Top 10-ranked Department of Marketing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Business (pictured left); Mike McKay, managing partner of ActionCOACH Madison; Amy Roberts, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Dale Carnegie Training–Southwest Wisconsin; Justin Hart, president of Capitol Bank; Karl Beckman, owner of Beckman Builders LLC, a home remodeling company in Windsor; and Jake Fellman, founder and animation supervisor of Jake Fellman LLC, a remotely run media production company.

Special thanks for inspiration go to author Scott Greenberg, who wrote an article titled “Stop Running Your Franchise Like a Circus,” for Entrepreneur magazine, only to be admonished by Chris Barltrop, a real-life ringmaster with the Centre for Circus Culture in England. Barltrop took issue with Greenberg for equating circus acts with counterproductive behaviors, and he noted the business excellence and dedication required to put on a circus show, which convinced Greenberg to issue a mea culpa. Consider the following article to be our homage to the circus arts.

Moses’ commandments

According to Altsech, there are informed and uninformed decisions about best practices. Informed decisions start by talking to customers and employees about their pain points, their aspirations, what keeps them up at night, and what puts a spring in their step. It’s also an opportunity to establish a benchmark to determine how steep the climb is to where you aspire to be. The pertinent questions are related to business culture: Do you have passionate, engaged employees who feel like valued members of a world-class team, or staffers who go through the motions? Are your customers delighted loyalists who speak of your brand like uncompensated salespeople, or are they patrons who are up for grabs?

A little research goes a long way to providing answers, Altsech notes, including a sober self-evaluation. When he first taught a college class, he was 22, virtually the same age as his students, so he modeled his teaching style after the professors he admired because they were tough but also fair and approachable. In a similar vein, he noted that we model our business after businesses we love and our leadership style after leaders who’ve inspired us.

The light-hearted Altsech admittedly failed the funny part — according to a student’s evaluation — but it meant he just had to try harder, learn from experience, and keep revising as new information emerged. “Best practices for running a business come from experience, not a manual,” he states. “That doesn’t mean one should try things haphazardly to see what works, but it does mean that best practices evolve over time and are informed by what you’ve done in the past, what competitors are doing, what customers demand, and what your vision for the future is.

“We talk a lot about culture, but it too evolves over time because the people we serve and the people on our team all evolve along the way,” he adds.

In Altsech’s view, business operators must “live the brand, and live the culture,” which means clearly defining it, crafting it, making sure everything you do is aligned with it, and then measuring it to see whether people experience it as intended, and always thinking about what comes next. One of the pitfalls of success is that leaders start to believe that they know the right way to do things and have the results to prove it, which leads to being resistant to others’ ideas and, worse, not seeking novel ideas.

“The notion that a company is self-sufficient and has all the resources it needs is not unlike a country deciding that it needs no exports or imports,” Altsech notes. “Even the richest country in the world would be set for a steep decline.”

Customers benefit from what they don’t see in a business, Altsech adds. They benefit when someone has put together an experienced team without redundancies that would slow a project down and without gaps that would compromise its effectiveness. They benefit from clear, consistent, effective communication that keeps everyone on the same page, and they benefit from thorough planning and attention to detail.

Processes are not meant to be static, he reiterated. Even when something works well, competitors are trying to devise a better mousetrap, technology continues to advance, and the client’s needs change. Therefore, even the most seasoned project manager, not unlike an experienced ring­master, understands that continuous improvement is part of their job description. “Too often, I’ve heard from business leaders that ‘we have a process that works, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” Altsech says, noting that it’s both bad English and bad advice. He admires business operators who understand they don’t know everything, no matter how experienced they are, and who always are open to new ideas and reinventing processes — even those that work well.

Justin time

Since becoming president of Capitol Bank last October, Justin Hart has been immersed in project management. The bank’s new strategic plan has him managing upwards of two dozen projects, most of which have codependencies, long implementation schedules, and challenging paths due to third-party vendors. Most require a cultural shift to be successful, and of all the moving pieces, the cultural component could be the most challenging.

The projects are centered on objectives in technology, talent, leadership, and customer service in an era when customers want the “Amazon effect” when it comes to speedy service. There always are work­flows, automation, and security processes that can be improved upon, but for Hart, maintaining a culture that makes an organization successful is non-negotiable. That doesn’t argue for cultural inertia, but making adjustments that add rather than subtract.

“From our customer surveys and engagement pieces, time and time again they’ve come back to valuing the person on the other end of the line,” Hart says. “When people are dealing with their money, they want to make sure they have a trusted advisor, and so every initiative is about let’s keep the things that our bankers love to do and our customers love to receive.”

How do you implement a cultural shift, and manage projects that require a cultural shift, at the same time? First, understand that the change is not due to the recent leadership transition to Hart and Executive Vice President Ami Myrland (Ken Thompson is still CEO), it’s more about the emerging strategic plan. The scalable 3- to 5-year plan will guide the bank’s path forward, and employee engagement is not being left to chance. “We’re dovetailing out of that plan multiple times a week, and that’s been pretty positive,” Hart says. “There has been a lot of engagement as we’re doing surveys, we’re having first line and second line leaders checking in to make sure people watch those videos, ask questions, interact, and do fun team exercises to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind. If we leave them behind, then the status quo is going to derail our plans in the long term.”

Juggling several project balls in the air at once requires a designated executive sponsor and a project team leader — someone who is accountable to ensure tasks are on track, meetings are held, that Gantt charts and workflow maps are transparent, and that communication is maintained. “It’s OK to say we’ve been delayed because the vendor can’t get us in for two weeks, but it’s not OK to hide that,” Hart notes.

Including everyone from entry-level employees to executive management, and defining their respective roles within each project, gives everyone a stake and encourages buy-in. It’s also important to have key leaders engaged and attending every meeting, especially when there are codependencies. “What we’ve found is, between Ami and myself, if we can be in most meetings, we can pick up on alignment in different projects and say, ‘OK, let’s take a pause. This other work group also needs that information to be successful,’ or ‘You brought up something really interesting that this other work group would find beneficial in their rollout.”

Coachable companies

Mike McKay says his organization (ActionCOACH Madison) bases almost every part of the leadership process and project management on business culture, which he defines as a set of observable behaviors. If business operators don’t have the right behaviors defined and the right people running their circus, nobody has a guiding star to follow. Most of the behaviors are “motherhood and apple pie things,” McKay says, but ActionCOACH teaches 15 points of culture that when followed, allow a business to be run without excessive intervention from the leadership team.

“If you think about the circus, and business is kind of a five-ring circus — sales, marketing, operations, finance, and administration — if the sales team never knows what to do, the ringmaster always has to run over to the sales ring and teach people working in the sales function their job time and time again,” McKay explains. “If the company has a culture of systems that it’s following, the ringmaster helps draw the right sales process from the sales team and then the sales team is, and I don’t want to use the word self-directed, but it has made the commitment to follow the system they created.”

Every business has a culture, McKay notes. It could be a project-management culture, a highly disciplined culture, or an anything-goes culture. The 15 points include several that speak to culture: commitment (giving 100%); ownership (accountability); integrity (always telling the truth); excellence (good enough isn’t good enough); communication (speaking positively about associates, customers, and company); success (focusing on the desired outcome); education (learn from mistakes, master tasks); teamwork (being a team player and leader); balance (life-work balance, not the other way around); consistency (establishing trust); gratitude (showing appreciation); and abundance (everyone shares in success).

To illustrate how violating one of these points can harm an organization, McKay notes the recent downfall of Silicon Valley Bank is an example of abandoning abundance. “From our standpoint, the culture point of abundance means that you do things that are wins for everybody, your customers and employees,” he explains. “It sounds like they were focused on wins for the senior executive teams pulling their bonus and compensation packages out, and they made short-term decisions that were good for them but not good ultimately for shareholders and customers and the FDIC [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.]”

An essential function of the leader is to make sure that whatever culture points you adopt are being adhered to by everyone, and to look for signs of an imbalance when some are being emphasized at the expense of others. “I know of some companies that have as few as five [culture points],” notes McKay, “but as long as they create the common understanding with their employees about what they mean, then leadership begins by asking questions such as: ‘Are you living up to the culture point of commitment? Are you living up to teamwork? It looks like you’re doing your own thing and causing some issues.’”

After installing his company’s points of culture, Karl Beckman (Beckman Builders) had an issue with a former employee who was not a good fit for the type of efficient, collaborative culture he wants to maintain. The employee, a blame-deflecting type who was not adhering to business processes and the critical point of culture of being a good team player, was given a 30-day notice to take corrective action, but he never followed up and eventually decided to leave. These weren’t trivial expectations, they were things that are important to the efficient, successful execution of building projects.

“I had procedures that I wanted followed for how I expect time tracking to be done and things like that,” Beckman explains. “He said that was micromanaging and there were things like that where we just weren’t on the same page.”

In all, Beckman has 14 points of culture that are shared with prospective employees during the hiring process — it’s best not to wait for onboarding, after a hiring decision is made — but as the aforementioned example demonstrates, individual agendas can still creep in. That’s why organizational leaders must be the primary monitors to ensure that best practices are followed.

As the company grows, Beckman knows that process improvement will have to evolve with that growth. “As we’ve grown and increased the size of the company, some of my processes and procedures have not evolved enough for the size that I’ve grown to, and we’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into that to make sure that we’re staying on top of things,” he acknowledges. “So, in the past, I would just start a project whenever I had time to, and I was able to manage that, but it was on smaller scale, not working on the larger scale that we have now.”

Long-time influencers

Whereas some organizations stress culture, others stress leadership because it influences culture. Dale Carnegie Training, which was built on winning friends and influencing people, is one such organization, and its reasoning is that leadership development is culture. According to Amy Roberts, there is a lot of truth in the old cliché that people don’t leave an organization, they leave their manager, and one way for leaders to avoid that scenario is to delegate and develop.

“One thing we tend to find with leaders, at all levels, is that as they continue to grow in responsibility, their focus tends to be how do I get more done?” Roberts explains. “Our focus in developing leaders is the mindset shift of ‘it’s not about what I do, it’s about what I help others get done,’ and those are two different thoughts.”

On one hand, business leaders think about working more, doing more, and “push, push, push,” Roberts adds. However, there is a point of diminishing returns where a leader can only do so much and output stops growing. If executive leaders want to get more work done, they now have to rely on other people, and part of the job of a leader is to foster an environment where employees are growing and getting more done.

It’s a hard shift for business owners, but the sooner they think of themselves as talent incubators, the faster they can gain traction because the focus shifts to developing their employees’ skill sets. In so doing, owners also develop their organization’s leadership pipeline. “It’s about looking at your team and figuring out how to build processes and systems that help people succeed,” Roberts notes, “and how to invest your time and energy into growing their skill sets through coaching, empowering, delegation, and really looking at how to grow their performance. It’s not just about growing their performance and their ability to do their jobs, but also creating an environment where people feel empowered, they’re innovative, they’re agile, and they’re willing to flex when needed. Our world has changed so much that the culture of organizations has to be one of agility, movement, and flow.”

In addition, Roberts says people can be coached to “flywheel things,” or figure out how to make things repeatable and scalable so that a leader’s time is spent more efficiently. “Some of it is taking your operations team and figuring out what you do really well as an organization,” she notes. “Let’s do more of that and sometimes that means turning away things that don’t fit into that bucket. When the flywheel gets going, project management gets easier and more efficient and production continues to go up.”

Is there an art to knowing which jobs to turn down? Well, it’s difficult but Roberts’ advice is to focus on a few different buckets: What’s the market need? Do you have a solution that ignites a passionate reaction? Is it scalable? “There are other pieces too,” she adds, “but if it’s not a big need, and if it’s not something that your organization ignites a passionate reaction around, and if it’s not scalable, it probably isn’t a good project for you.”

Hold on loosely

Preston Tokheim is the owner of Tokheim LLC, a design-build general contractor focused on commercial construction but also does some residential building. Tokheim was a project manager at Newcomb Construction Co., rose to vice president of operations, and then started his own firm. So, he’s seen project management from the standpoint of a project manager and a business owner, and while he agrees about the importance of delegating to well-trained employees, he knows where the buck stops.

“We’re small enough that it’s pretty much a constant feedback loop where they’re learning and I’m with them all of the time for the most part, just as we’re getting started though,” he explains. “Eventually, you have to be able to trust your employees and give them more freedom, but at this point, all decisions are pretty much still going through me. They are more just assisting with the flow of the project.”

It’s been a challenge to delegate because the choices an owner has to make will impact the pace of company growth. It’s a delicate balance between what he himself actually likes to build and what makes the most sense for his customer base. “There definitely had to be some choices as far as growth goes,” he notes. “Right now, I’ve taken on just a little too much, and now it’s about finding what I need to keep growing but not grow too fast. Being a small business owner, I like control, so it’s difficult to give it up.”

Running a business on the move

Making a remote office efficient is the definition of a post-pandemic business imperative. Jake Fellman, founder of the media production company Jake Fellman LLC, has employees scattered around the country and clients around the world, and he’s learned remote management lessons.

That’s in part because Fellman moves around a lot. For the past eight months, he’s been in Colorado, and he’s also lived in Alaska and Hawaii since graduating from UW–Madison in 2020. But high-profile clients such as Burberry, Google, and Epic Games count on him, so his business focus cannot wander around. His company uses the same software as Disney and Pixar to create short-form, animated content for social media, and its content primarily revolves around pop culture and video games. With the varying flow of projects that roll through his inbox, the number of employees needed to tackle the work also has varied.

For most of this year, his three employees have been scattered between Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but he’s also had team members in California, Mexico, and in war-torn Ukraine, which made for some early-morning meetings when he lived in Honolulu. While it’s complex enough to have meetings with his own staff, who are in different time zones, client meetings require another level of commitment. “Differing time zones is the most obvious and inconvenient aspect of working remotely, which certainly is felt more when collaborating with a global brand like Burberry (based in London) or Genshin Impact (based in Singapore),” Fellman explains.

Although emails and file-sharing make communication easier, those tools have a time lag since clients in Europe are out of the office during the majority of working hours in the U.S. Sometimes, signing a contract or nailing down specific client requirements may take extra time, Fellman notes. “They have to coordinate things on their end, and there may be delays or last-minute changes,” he says. “The process of a project like the one we did for Burberry includes many more steps than most people realize … I delegate tasks to the team, oversee creative direction, and serve as a liaison to the brand.”

Dropbox is Fellman’s cornerstone organizational tool because an elaborate folder structure is the foundation for each project. Every possible file associated with a project has a predetermined name, which automatically indicates to the entire team how it fits into the puzzle. “There may be upwards of 300 derivative files connected to any given video we produce,” he explains. “Many of these have no relevance to the client, who will receive a separate folder structure containing only the project’s deliverables. This robust filing system is absolutely essential, as it turns our box of jumbled shapes into a completed puzzle.”