If no one leads the team, you can't beat the competition.

Continuing my suggestions from last month for maximizing your productivity in a slowing economy, I want to emphasize the importance of the manager's role as a team leader. There is a lot more to leading a successful team than just being the boss. An effective manager performs several functions that all lead to increased productivity.

Workflow fluctuates. So when business slows down, employees often have some free time. It's human nature to make the tasks they have to complete fill up the time they have to do them. If they don't have much to do they will take longer to complete their work.

On the other hand, if they are given specific projects, in addition to their usual work, they will have to work efficiently. Each person should have some project assigned to him or her and each project should have a completion deadline with standards set for quality performance. Their performance on these projects should become part of their overall performance record.

Several positive benefits result from assignment of these projects. First, employees are not tempted to waste time surfing the Internet or talking to friends on the telephone. Also, more can be accomplished for the company in less time with fewer resources -- very important in lean times.

Detached Headquarters

Although it is important for the manager to remain in touch with what is going on in the business, often being in the middle of all the daily activities can be a disadvantage. It's very tempting to start working in the business and do the work of the people you hired. That's not the way to improve the efficiency of the business. Diving into daily activities robs you of precious time. You need to spend that time orchestrating the operation of the business -- such as planning, motivating employees or getting employees trained.

Since it is so easy to jump into daily activities, I am convinced that having an office in the main operations building is a disadvantage. If you have a telephone, fax and computer access to the records of the business, you are better off working from an office without distractions, even from home. You need to work uninterrupted by the typical situations that flare up daily.

If you are always on hand to put out every fire, it means that your employees are either unprepared or you won't let them take the responsibility for their jobs. If you are always there to do the job, they probably never will take the initiative to solve the usual daily challenges that we know will appear. If the business can't run without you being there every minute, it is a proprietorship, with you as the proprietor.

Growth will be difficult, limited by the amount of time and energy you spend doing the job that your employees should do. All efforts to find more efficient ways to run the business, cut costs, build the customer base and coach your people to produce the most they can will be the casualties of trying to jump into all the daily activities.

Missing Manager: The worst part of falling into that common trap of getting wrapped up in daily activities is that the business will be running without a real manager. With a missing manager, there is no way the business can function effectively. A manager's job is a necessary one; when they are not acting as a manager, the job goes vacant.

Let's look at some more of the tasks a manager needs to perform:

Downsizing -- Often heard as a label for big corporate cutbacks, downsizing certainly affects smaller service businesses, too. It's the manager's job to look at the workforce and, where necessary, cut back.

Talk to any experienced manager and they will soon admit that if they have made any mistake in a slowing economy, one of them was not cutting back on payroll soon enough. Successful businesses learn to survive by doing the job with fewer people when times are lean -- otherwise they are soon one of the casualties of the times.

The kinds of jobs you go after may change when it's time to tighten your financial belt. Big jobs requiring lots of up-front expenditures on your part, if they are not a core part of your business, may not look so attractive when you look at your cash flow.

Reducing risks in the business is part of dealing with the slowing economy. By specializing in the types of jobs your team performs best, and those that have the best margins, you can prosper where others cannot.

Minimize Liability -- Another way to keep risks low and margins high is to identify areas in the company's operations where there may be unnecessary liability. Whether it is avoiding hazardous jobs or checking for ways to cut other risks, such as monitoring safety practices and legal compliance, reducing potential liability is essential to assuring profits in slower times.

Team Motivator-- You'll frequently hear me talk about the importance of motivating your team to maximize their performance. Here is another way: opportunities for a bonus. Notice I said opportunities, not just automatic bonus awards that are given to employees. They need to be related to performance.

Real motivation is part of a system that includes specific goals and accountability for each person's performance. For example, I think all managers should have a completion board, showing accomplishments of the company's employees.

The bonus program should be planned so about 75 percent of the people competing are able to achieve the bonus, if their goals are met. Involving the employees in goals and rewards tends to improve their acceptance of the program and their willingness to work harder to meet their goals. The company wins with higher productivity and the employee wins with both satisfaction and some material reward.

If you really want to see employees excel, add another level of bonus awards for an even higher level of performance. Only about 10 percent of the people competing for these awards should reasonably be expected to win the bigger prizes.

One of the key ingredients in these types of programs is the use of measurable yardsticks for performance. No one can strive for general, unspecific goals. The completion chart keeps people motivated on a daily basis because they can see their progress.

Obviously these types of performance incentive programs, with corresponding rewards, take time to develop and implement. Managers who are engaged in day-to-day activities don't have the time to set up these programs. Yet, it is those businesses that need to improve their productivity the most.

Incentive Compensation

In the coming years, only companies with a workable incentive compensation plan will be able to compete with the industry leaders. Those companies will retain the best employees and the productivity of the employees will outpace all the other "old fashioned" companies who still pay by the hour.

During lean times, the increased performance that comes from incentive compensation is even more critical, since the business needs to get the most for its payroll dollar.

Set up programs for incentive compensation and you'll find that employees actually earn more while your company generates more business. At the same time, customers will be more satisfied, because technicians aren't rushing off to the next job. Technicians will meet all the customers' service needs -- leading up to higher average job invoices, happier customers and happier employees.

Look into incentive compensation for your people if you do not already have such a system. It will pay off for everybody.

Lead The Team

It's difficult to lead a team of productive employees if you don't see the advantages or aren't familiar with what is necessary to have a team of loyal productive followers. I have given you some ideas to boost your company's productivity, but let me summarize and make it simple.

First, physically get out of the business (literally). Try managing from an office (or your home office) with your computer and telephone. You'll force yourself and your employees to do the right job: you manage, they take care of the daily activities, including the fires that erupt.

Next, identify ways to encourage your people to produce more from their jobs. For example, how can technicians legitimately sell more jobs, or more add-ons? Make it easy for them, reward them and train them, and they will.

Then, create a long-term plan to have incentive pay components for all your departments. And make it easy for them to keep track of their progress with realistic and attainable goals.

It won't be long till you'll be doing the right job, and so will your employees.