Being The Boss

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Emily Winch

If you are already the boss of your own business or a team of people, you probably don't need to read this, or you know more about it than me and you can improve the article! If not, read on...

Running a business is very different from studying or having a job. It is different, because you are the boss.

It's All Your Fault[edit]

In a normal job, when something goes wrong, it's probably not your fault. Perhaps the computer crashed, your colleague let you down, or the job was rained off.

When you're running a business, you are personally responsible for everything. On a major project such as a BJC, several things are bound go wrong. The computers may crash, people on your team will let you down, and the weather may well be terrible. You can't turn around to your customers and say "I'm sorry it's gone wrong, but it wasn't my fault!"

As the boss, it's your job to think of possible problems in advance. For each one, either you do something to make it less likely to happen, or you do something to reduce the damage when it happens. It's a good idea make a written list of risks and of your mitigation plans. Review the list every now and then to make sure you're still on top of it.

Some of the things you can do to reduce risks are

  • Communicate. Always be talking to your team members and know what they are doing.
  • Sign contracts with your venue(s), performers, and so on as soon as possible. This is not only to give you recourse if they let you down. It's to make sure in advance that you all know what you're agreeing to, it's to make everyone less likely to forget, and it's to make sure everyone is really happy to commit and they are not just blagging.
  • If there are things on the schedule that your team is inexperienced with, get those things started as soon as possible - don't delay them because you aren't sure what to do.
  • Leave more time than you think you need. If you think it will take two weeks to get t-shirts printed, leave at least four weeks.
  • Leave at least 10% of your budget for the unexpected.
  • Make backup plans. If your venue is stalling on signing the contract, get a backup venue in place.
  • Keep minutes of meetings and refer back to them.
  • Store important paper documents in one place
  • Store important computer documents in one place and make regular backups
  • Make sure the whole team is using official email addresses and that your server is keeping copies of everything that's sent.

Donald Rumsfeld said "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know".

Try and know as many as possible of the things you don't know.

Not doing what you are told[edit]

In most normal jobs, your boss tells you what to do, and you do it.

When you are the boss, your suppliers, the council, or your venue will still often try to tell you what to do. If you're not used to being the boss, it may be easy to agree without even thinking about it. Don't do that!

Your job is to stand up for yourself and for your business, because nobody else will. You don't have to antagonise people, but you do have to be assertive.

Remember; it's not rude to ask for a discount, it's not rude to remind someone that you expect what you have paid for, it's not rude to negotiate a better deal, it's not rude to take a contract someone gives you and say "Well, this is a great starting point".

If you find yourself backed into a corner, try "I'll have to go away and consult the team before we make a decision on that one".

If you are worried that you are being steamrollered by people with more negotiating experience, you can always ask the community for help; there are past organisers around who can help you with negotiating strategies, or come with you to meetings for moral support in making sure you get what you need.

Making Decisions[edit]

As the boss, you will need to make a lot of decisions. Sometimes you won't know what to do - but you have to make a decision anyway. It's scary, but there are things you can do to help make the best decision possible.

  • If (for example), the decision is about the show, and the person organising your show is in a better position to make the decision than you are.... leave it to them.
  • Find more information. Work out what you need to know and how to find out.
  • Ask for advice. Phone complete strangers; call in favours; contact previous years' organisers and ask them what they would do.
  • Will more information become available later? If it will, and there's no real reason to decide right now, then the best thing to do is to leave it for a while... just make sure you don't forget about it!
  • If it's a matter of opinion (which colour t-shirts should we have?) you can ask people's opinions.
  • Can you find out by making an experiment? For example: if you are deciding the price for your merchandise, try selling it at the higher price, then if it doesn't sell well, reduce it to the lower price.
  • Is the decision really that important? If your entire team has spent half a day arguing over the colour for the balloons over the entrance, just stop talking and make any old decision. Your team's time and energy is more important than balloons.

In any case, once you've done as much research as you need, YOU should make the best decision you can with the information you have available. This is scary but important. If you avoid making the decision, eventually the decision will make itself and you will have no choice. Losing opportunities because you couldn't make your mind up, is far worse than making a couple of decisions that turn out badly.

Once you have made a decision, stick with it. If other people don't like it, then tough. You are the boss. You are the one clearing up the mess if it doesn't work out. If the consequences of being wrong are particularly bad, make a plan now to cover what you will do if it doesn't work out.

Then make sure everyone knows what you have decided.

On a project this size, unless you are omniscient, several of your decisions will turn out to have been wrong. If this happens, all you can do is fix the problem, learn from your mistake, and then put it behind you and move on. Hindsight is a lovely thing. Don't beat yourself up about it.

Sometimes other people will be upset. You can't do something as big as a BJC without upsetting some people about something. It's nice if everyone's happy, but try not to tie yourself in knots over it. If one group of people want a loud party at 6am and one group want to sleep, you'll be hard pressed to avoid annoying some of them. That's life. They will forgive you eventually.

Management Judo[edit]

As the boss, you need to somehow get other people to do things for you. You probably can't pay them. Mostly you can't even offer them free tickets.

Pretty much the only motivating factor around is enthusiasm. You just need to find a way to marshall people's enthusiasms towards a defined end result.

If someone on your team is really not excited about a job that needs to be done, your best bet is to find someone else who is excited about it. Conversely, if someone is raving about something that's really not the most important thing right now, sometimes you can just run with it. Enthusiastic team members are happy team members. Nothing will make someone quit your team faster than responding to their ideas with "Why on earth are you thinking about that when there's all this paperwork that needs doing?".

Useful responses for dubious ideas include

  • That sounds interesting. Could you write out a proposal for that, showing what exactly would be involved and how much it would cost?
  • I really like the idea of X and Y. But we don't have that big a budget and the fire marshals won't let us do Z. Is there some other way you could make this happen?

Sometimes, someone outside the team suggests a new idea (good or bad) related to some personal interest of theirs. "Can we have a juggling competition between university societies" is a recent example. At this point, you have just located the ONE PERSON who is most enthusiastic about this idea, and probably has more relevant knowledge and contacts than you. If you can convince them to take the idea and run with it, this will be an excellent act of management judo.

If it's a really good idea, and they come up with a realistic plan, you might consider giving them a budget. If it's a terrible idea, it may still be worth asking them to run with it, for two reasons:

1. Their idea may be better than you think

2. Even if their idea is really terrible, they will learn a lot more by finding this out for themselves. Afterwards, you may still have a committed volunteer rather than a disgruntled member of the public.

However, if your volunteer has spent months preparing for their unicorn boxing match, and then they show up a week before the convention...

"Now I'll just be needing £1500 for the hire of the boxing ring, and £300 for unicorn hair decorations, and ten comped tickets for the unicorn handlers."

This is why you need to be very very clear up front (in writing) about exactly what you are able to contribute to a side project, in terms of time, money, comps, and space, before anyone has a chance to run up any bills.

Being nice is great, but being effective is important too[edit]

For a lot of people, being "nice", or well liked, or conciliatory, is an incredibly important goal in their lives, up there with getting a promotion, fitting into smaller trousers and raising genius children.

This is especially something drummed into many women, for whom even asking directly for something rather than hinting about it can be seen as aggressive.

When you are the boss, it's important to stand up for the team and for the event. It's important that if people are making mistakes they are told about it clearly and firmly. It's important to get a good deal with suppliers and to make sure they provide the level of service you are expecting. It's important, if you discover that a team member is not coming through and doing the job you asked of them, that you are able to talk to them about it honestly, and reassign the job quickly enough to make sure it's still done on time.

Sometimes, in order to avoid being trodden on, you will have to stop thinking of yourself less as a Nice Person and more as a Boss.

Sometimes, you can find a way to get both parties what they want. Sometimes you can compromise. Sometimes, however, the best solution is really just standing up for yourself. People may get upset or annoyed with you. Just because someone is upset doesn't necessarily mean you did the wrong thing. Of course, this doesn't give you license to behave like an ass and wind up everyone you meet - but it does mean you might need to be more assertive than you would in your day to day life.

At the end of the day - you are the boss.

Project Management[edit]

This is such an important task that it has its own article.

You may also like to read about Negotiating contracts