I’ve been working as an advisor to large-scale global enterprise for the better part of 20 years, and in that time I’ve worked with folks whose business practices ranged from quirky, to poorly conceived, to questionable, to down right, bat-shit crazy. These people are known by many names, but I tend to call them: Amateurs.
It’s important to differentiate at this point between “neophytes”, and “amateurs.” Neophytes are, by definition, people new to the game. They know basically nothing about anything that can help you, but that’s because they’re shiny and brand new. You know what this is like, because you were once a neophyte as well – we all were (except maybe Tim Armstrong, who I am told actually came out of the womb shouting, and promptly called the midwife an “incompetent hack”). There’s nothing wrong with neophytes, and as someone wiser and more capable, it’s your job to help them out. Amateurs, on the other hand are transient-hobbyists, masquerading as professionals. It’s the masquerading that’s the problem: because that’s just a fancy French way of saying they’re pretenders. And that, is the part that will piss you off.
But it’s not the pissed-off that’s the real issue here; this isn’t a ‘commiserative rant’ article. There is a significant danger of having amateurs mixed in with professionals in the machine of global commerce, and that is that they cost more, on every possible level. They will make projects take twice as long, cost three times as much, be delivered late and at a sub-standard level, damage your brand, harm your own credibility by association, and in the process suck with Dysonian tenacity every last ounce of emotional calm and sanity you have left. And the worst thing of all is, these bastards can’t be bothered to actually learn what they’re pretending they know. So what do you do?
In my experience there are three kinds of Amateurs you may have to work with that are dangerous: the Amateur Co-Worker, the Amateur Partner, and the Amateur Reseller (there is also the Amateur Vendor, but hell, just fire that idiot, and the Amateur Boss, in which case you’re screwed). All of them can be dealt with, managed, marginalized, or broomed, but you’re going to have to identify them first, which in turn determines what your options are for dealing with them. If while reading these descriptions you get this weird burning sensation in the base of your skull, your blood pressure rises, or you feel a little sick, you may want to have a pad of paper next to you to write an action plan on (or Death List, whatever floats your boat), because any or all of those symptoms are telling you that you damned-well know that you have some ass-kicking to do when you’re finished here. Let’s get busy.
The Amateur Co-Worker
This one is frustrating, because it is likely that 1) you didn’t hire this person, and 2) you have no direct way of getting rid of them. They have been inexplicably hired by someone else, and have been flying under the radar pretending they know what they’re doing and screwing shit up like Lebron on fire ever since. Unfortunately, like you they will be delegated to by someone higher up the food chain, and they will invariably screw whatever that task is up enough to impact you, which in turn will make your life miserable. If you step back and examine this person’s screw ups, you will likely notice that the way in which they screw up is amorphous; it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly how or what it is they do that has a direct impact on your work or the work of the project team on the whole – which is why they’re still here; colossal screw ups get fired (or promoted to CEO, like Chuck Conaway). If you can ignore them, that’s always the best approach, but I’m guessing if your fists are clenched and your brain is welling up with murderous rage right now, that’s not possible. What you need to do is convert their impact from amorphous to obvious, and let the lions close and nature take it’s course. This may seem harsh, but the reality is that amateur co-workers are cancerous. When we have a tumour, we don’t go the the doctor and say “Well, I mean I don’t want to KILL it…can’t you just…you know…talk to it? Do we really have to cut it out? Just seems a little strong…it is part of me after all…”
So, you get friendly. When you’re in team meetings with a higher up who has final say, and you’re planning out a project, you take an active role and suggest that the amateur look after something segmented and visible – and you do that in front of the whole team. Be nice about it: “I think that Steve’s obvious strengths in this area would be a huge asset to the XYZ process,” or something like that. You won’t look like a back-stabbing sonofabitch setting a snare, and phrasing it in this way makes it very awkward for Steve to back out or refuse, without 1) obviously ducking the work, or 2) confirming that he doesn’t have the strengths you just said he does. If you want to further your own career while culling Steve, then by all means prepare a tourniquet you can slap on whatever disastrous trauma comes as a result of his implosion.
The Amateur Partner
These people are extremely dangerous. Usually they appear at the onset of a new business, or new initiative. They’ll be supportive of your idea and vision for the future, extremely complimentary of your brilliance and innovation, and claim to be able to deliver fantastic value where you need it most. The energy at the onset of any new business can be electric, and often cause you to get so caught up in the excitement that this really is happening, that your checks and balances misfire and do not engage properly. If you’re not careful what you’ll end up with is dead weight that is contractually tied to you (at best), or the fallout from a never-ending series of misrepresentations and broken promises, which in hindsight the partner never could have delivered in the first place (at worst). This can (and has) destroyed or seriously crippled more start ups or groundbreaking initiatives than you can imagine. Here’s how you can make sure yours isn’t one of them.
If they’re business professionals, then look at their track record of profitability. Did all their previous projects/initiatives/ventures/start-ups net an ROI you can see? Or are these things cloaked in the thin wisps of marketing-speak, and always just old enough or “proprietary” or confidential enough that you can’t verify them for yourself? Is this person more interested in what they’re going to get – and making sure the proposed compensation is cemented legally – than demonstrating what they can deliver? Is what they’re bringing to the table so far down the initiative pipeline, that once you get to it and they turn out to not be able to deliver the value that they’re claiming they can, you’ll be unable to extricate them? If you answered yes to one or more of the latter three of these questions, you’ve got an issue. If you haven’t signed anything yet, make sure that the proposed ownership or profit participation is tied to meeting a target for which they’re directly responsible (NOT for example, gross sales or revenue), or bringing asset(s) they claim to have – within a specified timeframe. If they deliver, then you have a valuable partner, and if they do not, you have a culling mechanism built into the agreement which can be actioned. Remember: if what they propose to bring seems too good to be true, it probably is.
The Amateur Reseller
This one is the hardest of all, because they’re actually a client, and the solution requires a tough choice. The Amateur Reseller is a person or company who will use you to provide a service to a third-party that they will then mark up. What makes this a brutal relationship is that the amateur reseller – the one who is marketing in the end your service – has no idea how you do what you do whatsoever, but is going to be pretending they do to the end-client. You will never, ever meet this end-client (because they are afraid that you’ll steal away that client for yourself), you will never know what your service was ultimately marked up to, and you will, anytime there is anything that goes wrong, be thrown under the bus. You will receive all the assets you ask for late (like Friday at 5:30pm), in the wrong file format, and the accompanying instructions for the project will be vague at best – and you will still be expected to deliver what you agreed to on the original timeline, no matter how incompetently the reseller handles the back-and-forth end-client communication.
While it’s a tough decision to make, the right thing to do here is fire them. Believe me, the net cost to you in terms of lost time (which you could be spending on other, more profitable things), schedule impact, asset overuse bleeding into other clients’ project timelines, and stress which quite literally will add inches to your ass, is not worth whatever they pay you to put up with them. Just because they’ve paid the bills for however many years does not mean they’re worth a shit; having enough professional acumen to not starve is hardly the same as being excellent at what you do. I have done this several times in my life, always later than I should have, and not once has this caused a business to fail or my overall net income to drop. Not once. Take a deep breath, fire these dipshits and you will likely find a much more emotionally healthy client will step right into their shoes.
In the end, surviving amateurs in business, while annoying, is neither impossible or extremely difficult. It requires that you do four basic things: 1) identify the problem as early as you can, 2) determine the type of amateur you’re dealing with, 3) commit to the course of action that will take them out and ease your pain, and 4) ensure that the mechanism(s) needed to deal with the fallout of your actions are standing by close at hand. Above all, don’t feel afraid to act, and definitely don’t feel sorry for culling people who masquerade as professionals. These days competency is a freaking lynda.com tutorial away, for Pete’s sake; that the amateurs can’t be bothered to change their status from amateur to professional is testament to the fact they’d rather hide and leech than learn and lead.
And you don’t need that attitude anywhere near you.