For the last several years, outsourcing has been a hot topic across the startup and solopreneur communities. The idea of optimizing your time while minimizing costs is one that has very obvious benefits.
As the well-worn adage goes, if you can outsource your $10/hr tasks, and focus your own energy on the $1,000/hr tasks, your profits will shoot into the stratosphere – and the few dollars that you spend on outsource will pay for themselves one-hundred fold.
I myself have used outsourcing to grow multiple companies at a rate that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. From my high school web-hosting startup, to my current offshore back-office support company, SupportNinja, using an international team has been one of my trademarks for success.
But there’s one thing I don’t like about the current conversation around outsourcing…
It’s focused almost entirely around tasks instead of people. Pick up a book on outsourcing, or do a quick Google search, and nearly everything you find is build around short-term productivity and immediate money-saving benefits.
In fact, outsourcing very rarely has a face (except, perhaps, in the movie Outsourced). For the typical union worker it’s the leading example of capitalism gone wrong; for the Fortune 500 executive it’s an improved earnings report; and for the early startup or solopreneur daydreamer it’s the fast-lane to millionaire.
In none of these scenarios are virtual assistants and outsourced teams actually viewed, or treated, as people! They’re a tool, philosophy, dollar amount – never people.
“But Cody,” you might say, “that’s what outsourcing is all about! If saving money wasn’t an issue, then companies would use in-house teams to solve all of their labor needs. Outsourcing is done to save money.”
You’re absolutely right. I won’t argue with you one bit on this.
And I need to clarify that this post isn’t as humanitarian as it may at first sound. There are two reasons why I believe treating your virtual team as people is crucial to your success:
1. It’s humane and considerate. Just because someone is willing to work for $500/month doesn’t mean you should treat them as cheap. They’re still a human and they deserve the respect and dignity that us Americans believe is an innate human right.
2. It can add even more value to your bottom-line in the long run. If you stop treating your virtual team as an intelligent computer, and start treating them as people eager for professional development, you can actually improve the value of your workforce overtime.
Every corporate executive recognizes the financial value of leadership. That’s why millions of dollars are spent every year on developing leaders within an organization. That’s why John Maxwell has over 1.5 million Twitter followers. That’s why every airport bookstore is filled with books on leadership, management, and team building.
Although good executives do care about people, they also recognize that investing in people pays off incredibly well.
Yet for some reason, that team development and growth mindset appears to be low priority until an organization is well-established. When it comes to virtual assistants, it’s nearly absent.
Through both my personal experience, and the analysis of other successful startups, I would like to suggest that professional development shouldn’t be a phrase heard only in corporate America. The moment anyone has someone working for them full-time – even if that person lives 8,000 miles away – they should be focusing on professional development.
And again, this isn’t purely to “be nice”. It’s also a valuable way to enhance the financial performance of your business. Let’s get started…
Jack Welch: The Leader Who Pursued Excellence
The jury is often mixed on Jack, the 20 year CEO of GE. While his “rank and yank” tactic of firing the bottom 10% of all managers, regardless of performance, draws substantial criticism from labor groups – the results (4,000% increase in the company’s value) certainly suggest that he knew how to drive a company to success!
But here’s the other half of Jack’s business strategy – invest in people. We placed a high value on leadership, and developing leaders within the organization. If you think about it, even the activity of firing the bottom 10% of managers is an investment in the team members – as lousy leadership would quickly get booted.
In his autobiography, Winning, Jack Welch shares the following eight leadership principles:
1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team. Every interaction is an opportunity to evaluate, coach, and build self-confidence. People development should be integrated into every interaction.
1. Evaluate – make sure that the right people are in the right jobs, and people are always moving into a role that is a better fit for them – even if that’s outside of the organization.
2. Coach – help people improve their performance through guidance, role-modeling and critiquing.
3. Build self-confidence – continually give encourage and recognition to those who deserve it, increasing their confidence in their own capabilities.
2. Leaders make sure people see, live and breathe the vision. For a vision to be beneficial it needs to be believed by everyone and discussed continually. Only then does it jump off the page and become real.
3. Leaders get into everyone’s skin, exuding positive energy and optimism. The leader’s mood is contagious. Even when times get tough, the leader must display an optimistic, can-do attitude. Don’t sugarcoat challenges, but have belief in yourself, your team, and your mission.
4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency, and credit. Your team should always know where they stand and how the company’s doing. When times are good, leaders pass the praise around. When times are bad, they take responsibility for the challenges.
5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions. Sometimes a leader has to make a “gut call” – even if it’s unpopular. But the leader’s responsibility is to do what he/she believes is best for the company – even when others aren’t thrilled with the decision. If you’re in charge, it’s because you’ve made more right decisions, and had more experiences, than those reporting to you. So don’t be afraid to go with your gut.
6. Leaders ask hard questions to ensure that answers are followed by actions. Sometimes the right question can have more of an impact than the right answer. As a leader, you need to constantly be thinking and verbalizing questions that guide the organization towards excellence. Finding the questions that, when answered, will lead to action that moves the company forward.
7. Leaders set an example with risk taking and learning. A team that is allowed to make mistakes is one that will push the envelope – potentially achieving even greater success. Set the tone for a risk-taking culture by trying new things and opening admitting when they didn’t work.
8. Leaders celebrate. We spend too much time at work not to make it fun. Celebrate wins, achievements, and goals reached. Make the work environment an opportunity to push hard, but also to play hard and feel proud of your accomplishments.
Finding all eight of these characteristics in a corporate leader is challenging. In a virtual leader, practically unheard of!
While many founders will verbalize how their VA is doing and quickly remove those underperform, this is only a small piece of the people-investment necessary for overwhelming success.
Leadership is the highest level of investment. As we all know, investing your money is far better than investing your time – because it can work while you play. Therefore, hiring a team member or virtual assistant suddenly allows you to earn from someone else’s work, rather than purely your own – giving you an even better return. However, the greatest level of investment is investing in the development of people. Well developed workers and leaders don’t just add to your productivity, they multiply it.
Jack Welch, along with most corporate CEOs, understand the tremendous value of leadership.
What if those of us with smaller, virtual teams, decided to recognize this value as well?
Building a Team that Wins: Now and in the Future
In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck discusses two different mindsets – growth and fixed.
A growth mindset is one where you believe that you can cultivate and improve your capabilities through practice, effort, and study. A fixed mindset is when you believe that your skills and abilities are predetermined and there’s nothing you can do to improve them.
Obviously, Dweck’s argument is one that most entrepreneurs would agree with – a growth mindset is superior and, you can indeed, develop the skills and capabilities needed to overcome most weaknesses.
But don’t let this concept stop with your personal development. There are two ways that entrepreneurs can benefit from implementing the “growth vs. fixed” philosophy: by viewing their company with a growth mindset, and by finding assistants with a growth mindset.
Maintain a growth mindset and think beyond the task at hand
When developing a strategy around how to implement a virtual team to maximize the benefit of your business, don’t limit yourself to a fixed mindset.
Sure, to start you probably just need someone to post tweets, copy-and-paste data, or track orders. But take a moment to think where could this position go from here?
What would happen if your virtual assistant who replied to your tweets developed into a social media strategist – able to make suggestions on how to optimize your profiles and increase your brand’s overall visibility?
What if the person tracking orders for your FBA business was actually able to research, find, and recommend additional products worth selling on Amazon?
In both of these situation, the value of your virtual team suddenly shoots up from a few dollars an hour, to potentially hundreds!
Sure, these activities may be months, or even years, down the road. But why not have an open mind to the possibilities? Why not develop a team that’s more than a smart machine, but one that’s capable of high-level decision making?
So the first way to implement the growth mentality is to develop your workforce strategy from a growth mindset.
Hire team members that have a growth mindset
Once your plan is to develop a team that can grow with your organization, it’s essential to hire team members that can grow with your organization.
Despite my distaste for the traditional view of virtual assistants as intelligent machines, there are some people who have no desire to learn. They are perfectly happy with copy-paste jobs and other mindless activities. Their dream is to find a stable $500/month job that requires little mental exercision on their part.
These are the people you don’t want on your team.
Instead, seek out assistants and team members who have a growth mindset themselves. They don’t need to be the smartest or most talented individual (as these will probably be far more expensive to hire), they just need to have a hunger to excel.
When you build a team that is as passionate about success as you are, you’ll suddenly realize that you can accomplish substantially more that the average entrepreneur who hires a virtual assistant exclusively for the purpose of following pre-developed processes.
Then, once you have a team that’s eager to excel, invest in their development.
The Benefits of Investing in Your VA Team
The way I see it, there are four overarching benefits to investing in your virtual assistant team:
1. You increase their long-term value. The more they know about the work they’re doing, the more productive they’ll be – ultimately benefiting your bottom-line.
2. They find more purpose in their work. Being challenged and able to learn gives your VA satisfaction because they are growing themselves – something that will benefit them in the future regardless of who they work for.
3. Your team is happier. Autonomy is the #1 factor in workplace happiness. The more educated and experienced your team becomes, the less oversight they need from you and the more autonomy they receive.
4. Your schedule becomes even more flexible. Delegation is that first step to minimize your work hours, but you can take it a step further by outsourcing the decision making process itself.
Developing a very inexpensive group of virtual assistants that autonomously fill their roles within your company is the first step to effective outsourcing – and is discussed exceptionally well The 4-Hour Workweek and blog posts around the web. But why stop there?
What if you could develop a mastermind of talented virtual assistants that not only fulfilled the tasks you assigned, but were capable of growing their role to accomplish even more?
That’s what happens when you start investing in the professional development of your VAs. You’re no longer managing a few task rabbits, you’re working with people. You’re no longer buying services, you’re leading a team.
Once you have team members growing different elements of the business, you are no longer responsible for managing the minutia of everyday tasks – giving you the ability to focus on high-level strategy. And once you’ve reached this point, your business’s growth potential becomes unstoppable.
How to Invest in Virtual Teams
Investing in your virtual staff doesn’t have to be a laborious or overly expensive process – especially when you take into account the immense opportunities for growth that this investment can have.
Although there are many ways to implement the leadership traits shared by Jack Welch above, here are a few concrete steps that you can take to invest in your team, inspire them towards your mission, and show that you see them as people and not processes.
Pay for their education
Many large corporations pay for continuing education for their employees – whether that’s an individual course or a full MBA. Why not do the same for your team? With the resources available online, it doesn’t even have to cost you anything other than a few minutes of their time!
Find high quality free courses on sites like Lynda, Coursera, and Udemy, and have your virtual assistant spend 30-60 minutes a day on those courses. Sure, this may cost you $3/day but it will be well worth it if your team is able to grow in their own knowledge – while simultaneously developing a realization that you care for their personal development.
Ask for their feedback
Whether it’s a new product launch, a blog post, or simply the overall direction of your business, ask your virtual team for their honest input and thoughts! Whether they’re veteran virtual assistants or just getting started, they’ll certainly have insights and suggestions – and many that may be worth implementing.
Even with the mundane, repetitive tasks that your VAs do, ask for their feedback on the best ways to ensure that everything gets done on time – and be willing to try services like manifest.ly, kissflow.com, and process.st that make it easier to track the completion of recurring activities.
Asking for input from your team doesn’t only improve the performance of your business by adding more possible solutions to a problem, it also requires your assistants to invest in the success of the business.
Suddenly, they aren’t just contractors, they’re part of the organization.
Allow them to develop their dream role
Maybe you have a virtual assistant who knows the basics of SEO and assists you by growing your website’s visibility online. This is a valuable role and one that can truly help your business.
However, what if this same VA has a desire to learn website development or graphic design? These are both activities that you need accomplished in your business anyway, so why not allow this assistant to begin learning those activities (while spending adequate time on their current work).
Rather than paying a substantial amount to hire an experienced developer or designer, you can take advantage of your own in-house talent! Then, once they’re competent, you can give them a raise and have them train someone else on their original tasks.
Encourage them to take risks
Does your VA think she can create a killer infographic that could drive a substantial amount of traffic? Go ahead and let her invest several hours, or even a day or two, into developing the infographic.
If it’s a success, awesome! If it fails to deliver as both of you had hoped, congratulate her for taking initiative and ask her what may help something like that do better in the future.
Continually reaffirm their accomplishments
In the virtual world it’s easier than ever to sound sharp, condescending, and rude. Considering that only 7% of in-person communication is actually the words we use, we suddenly lose 93% of our ability to communicate when we exclusively interact through emails and chat messages.
Therefore, make an extra effort to reaffirm accomplishments and visibly show support when communicating with your virtual team. Occasionally drop a line that simply thanks them for a job well done, don’t be afraid to use exclamation marks to emphasize enthusiasm, and never undervalue the use of a simply “thank you” or “great job”. These few words may take you an extra 5 seconds, but they can have an incredibly powerful impact on how people view your perception of them.
Make your affirmations frequent and visible – potentially even recognizing your team members publically on your website or elsewhere.
If your business is thriving because of the inexpensive yet beneficial support of your virtual team members, then include them in successes!
At times, this may simply consist of a “congratulations” when a blog post goes viral or appears on Google’s first page. Other times, however, the celebration should be more substantial. For example, if your virtual assistant helps you successfully launch a product that brings in $50,000, giving them a one month bonus (perhaps just $500) doesn’t hurt you much and would be a world-changer for your assistant.
In short, by taking deliberate steps to recognize your virtual team members and emphasize their value to you and your success, they will become more motivated and committed to the further growth of your business.
As an entrepreneur, you’re one of the hardest working, committed, problem-solvers around. The reason you don’t work for someone else is because you produce more value than any hourly wage is actually worth. So keep it up!
However, as you grow from a one-man-shop to a team, remember that it’s necessary to transition from a producer, to a motivator.
If, like Jack Welch, you invest in the growth and development of your team, you’ll move past the limitations of your own clock, and be able to establish a business that produces more in a day than you could on your own in a week, month, year, or even lifetime.
Discover how to manage, motivate, and educate your outsourced team and you’ll develop the leadership skills necessary to lead an organization of any size.
Now, how can you invest in the development of your current team?
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