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Maggie Harlow

It’s Chaos Out Here – Don’t Lose Focus of What’s Most Important in Your Shop

All of us sign managers must continue practicing our “soft skills” in times of tumult.




RECENTLY MY COMPANY has been going through convulsions. We’re enduring the pandemic, the “Great Resignation” (not a fan), and are also in the midst of acquiring another sign company — the greatest challenge of my sign-ownership career! While every day is a battle against the enemies of culture shock, training hurdles, new client relationships and production snafus, I’m trying to remember that my real job is taking care of people: customers and teammates.

We sell signs. Our days are filled with materials, hands-on fabrication, coordinating installs and all the other tedious priorities. Nevertheless…

My appeal this month, to me, and to you, is never to lose sight of people, which make things actually matter.

It’s a complaint that many entrepreneurs have — “If it weren’t for the employees and customers, business would be great!” The solution to almost all problems I’m encountering these days is to put my time and energy into the people around me:

  • Time for Training — Forcing myself to invest time in training — whether on the fly, with some advanced planning or by way of a program — is crucial. I really must find the discipline to avoid “it’s easier to do this myself” and never getting around to delegating the work.
  • Coaching and Camping — While I’d rather slay the email dragon to help me sleep at night, taking some minutes each day to check on teammates or customers and give them my attention and focus is much more valuable. Time spent connecting and coaching will be paid back. By “camping” I mean taking time for personal conversations, hellos in the morning, “how are you?” questions during quiet moments (see St, February 2022, page 43). I can hardly do too much of this, but often it ends up last on my list!
  • Inspecting What I Expect — I can be ignorant of what my team is dealing with when I always assume “they will let me know if they need help.” Sometimes they won’t. When I’m busy, they are loath to interrupt me. I must make sure I’m checking in on their work, getting the results I expect and coaching them to where I want them to be. Getting my head out of the sand and into the details is important.
  • Managing Like a Mentor — OK, so yes, every day I’m “managing,” but managing people means conversations, ideally face to face. Am I glossing over issues that may seem “small” when I’m dealing with a crashed project? Am I avoiding what might be a hard conversation because I’m “too busy?” I am checking myself daily to be sure I’m really acting in the best interest of managing people and resources!
  • Self-Managing: Recharge! — Pay attention to what activities you do every day that “recharge” your own batteries and try to reserve your most energetic hours for the most challenging work. Some people would rather build a 100-column spreadsheet than ask someone, “How are you feeling?” Know your own strengths and what drives you, try to plan your day around bursts of energy you can predict, and recharge in your way when you can.

These are “soft skills” that are hard to measure, and even harder to hone. This challenge is universal in business, but making even small progress on it can impact your state of mind and your bottom line. While we are in the “business of signs,” I am always reminding myself, with great urgency and repetition, to be in the business of people every day.




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