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Marketplace
My Biggest Financial Lesson

Olalah Njenga on breaking rules and paying the price

Marketplace Contributor Mar 25, 2015
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During the 12 years I’ve owned a marketing strategy company, I have set many guidelines and recommendations for myself and my employees — but few hard rules.

Those few rules are in place as a safeguard. We don’t let total compensation exceed 35 percent of the budget, for instance, lest we not have enough sitting on the side in case of a cash squeeze. We also restrict access to proprietary client data in many instances.

But, this is a story about when I did not follow one of our most important rules. It began when I was wavering on making a firm offer to a job candidate, despite an amazing interview and glowing references. Sensing my indecision, one of my senior employees kept nudging me to make the offer. The pressure made a certain amount of sense, since everyone was picking up slack because of the staff shortage.

The screening process had been odd. Most of the candidates had quirks. One put her dripping water bottle on my desk and left it there, and another didn’t want to start work until 11 a.m. because of her two-hour yoga routine. Then there was one who prattled on about her dog and its diarrhea.

There was only one candidate who seemed good, even if she was a little lacking in the experience and skills we thought we needed. She seemed good because she had so much of what those other candidates lacked.

We were tired, I was tired, so I broke a simple rule: Tie new hires to new revenue coming in the door. In breaking it, I was taking a chance by redirecting a chunk of cash into operating capital and crossing my fingers that we would simply make more money once she arrived.

It turns out that my indecision had been my gut reminding me of the rule, even as most of the rest of me just wanted someone to come in and save me from the mountain of work on my desk.

But the choice did not save me at all.

Once she started, she constantly sought approval at each step, instead of completing a project and then seeking feedback. When we suggested finishing things first, you could see the terror on her face. I and others became her strategy buddies, but it did not help.

The fallout was problematic on two fronts. First, we burned through cash on her compensation without generating new revenue, thanks to the lack of productivity. Also, I was chained to my desk trying to both coach and pick up her slack, which meant I wasn’t finding prospects, selling or doing anything future-focused for the company.

It was a nightmare, and when my husband and son staged an intervention in our kitchen, I knew things were out of control and that I had to part ways with her.

If I had honored the rule and waited until there was new revenue to fund the position, I would have approached this decision with more confidence and more money. I’d like to think that if I face this choice again, I would sit tight and make an offer to a stronger, more qualified candidate, even if it cost more in compensation. Potential is great, but experience is better.

After blowing through tens of thousands of dollars on time, training and supplemental talent, the lesson was obvious: Break your own rules at your own risk. Now that I’ve taken that risk and lost, I’m going to try not to forget exactly what it feels like.

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