Keep your Learning Business Flying

When opportunities come fast and furious, or, even worse, few and far between, it’s easy to freak out and depart controlled flight in your learning services business. Rough air or cash flow headaches are part and parcel of any enterprise. Keep your head when things get choppy.

  1. Make sure everyone’s on the right plane.
    Team members and clients love a business with direction. This obvious statement can challenge a services company, which at its broadest can be chartered to “just do great work”.  If you envision a sunny destination or a great trip (“We’re good at sales training… let’s see if we can win some more”) for your learning services business, chart a course and help your team follow you. Don’t change direction (“Now we’re going to Reykjavik!”) every time things get bumpy. That can disorient and demoralize your team, and alarmed clients will all depress their steward call buttons simultaneously.
  2.  Avoid storms.
    Saying “no” won’t win the deal at hand, but it may win respect, or a better deal down the road, and it can preserve your good name. If a client approaches with an opportunity that’s not a good fit, say so. We’ve done it, probably less often than we should. Plunging into the cloud wall because you need or want the cash can wreak havoc with your reputation if the engagement goes poorly. At the same time, not every cloud harbors a storm. Warm up your business acumen radar to see if the shortest path to St. Maarten is over, under, or through the veil.
  3. Keep the cabin crew happy.
    Businesses without employees evaporate like morning dew. Your best folks, be they salespeople, project managers, artists, developers, or instructional designers are the ones clients talk to the most. However much clients might like you, unless you’re a great thought leader (I, myself, am not), clients realize that the people who will make their journey comfortable are the ones working for you.
  4. Work the comms.
    The only person inside your head is you. It echoes a lot in there, so you’re probably up to speed on your message and all the initiatives you’ve launched. Outside your skull visibility may be lower. It’s ok to repeat your business’ central thesis. Be lavish with praise, evenhanded in corrective feedback. Passionate employees want to know they’re doing a good job and want to know how to do a better one. Additionally, and here the aviation metaphor goes thin in our post 9/11 world, get off the flight deck now and again. Head back and talk to clients. Once you’re seated behind the yoke again, remember to make time to talk to your peers and mentors. Being in charge is varying parts exhilarating and emotionally taxing. Nobody’s supposed to say it (pilot code, and all) but a business leader who tells you he hasn’t lain awake at night or buried her head in a pillow is lying.
  5. Mind the gas tank.
    Business/airplane metaphors need cash flow to keep the engines turning. If it’s hard to devote time to the books, find someone who can – preferably a real accountant directed sternly to keep you in the know at weekly intervals. While cash flow dips are part of any services business story, fuel starvation often results from poor planning. Husband resources with good resource management. Multiple people can do multiple things, and “flexible workplace” can mean flexing to more hours or tasks on occasion.
  6. When all else fails, fly the plane

    Autopilots excel at smoothly correcting course, attitude, or altitude deviations from a setpoint in a flightpath. Competently managed, sound businesses with good people will generally stay airborne unless someone banks them into the ground or a building storm. No sane pilot would throw a plane around the sky just to see what happens. Don’t do it to your learning team. There are certainly better things you can be up to (see “Communicate”).

    That said, in moments of genuine crisis you need to grab the yoke and pull hard. Know the state of your business at all times, and know what control inputs can get back to controlled flight at any time without horribly overshooting your setpoint. If your setpoint keeps changing you have a strategy problem. Expect barfy team members and clients.

How do you keep your learning business flying?