“We have a Neelesh problem.”
That was both my agenda and opening line for an emergency meeting I pulled together in September 2014. At the time, Neelesh had been a Net Friend for over 6 years. He started as a field technician in 2008 and was promoted to Operations Manager in 2012. What he had done during his tenure was extraordinary. The string of successes Neelesh had overseen were fantastic, but they were also clearly pointing to a genuine business problem that we needed to decisively address.
Addressing Serious Business Risks
First, let me share some background: when Neelesh became manager, 65% of Net Friends’ revenue came from our Duke customers. I pointed out in an all-hands meeting that as much as we appreciate how much Duke contributed to our continual growth and success, it was a serious risk for a significant portion of our business to be continuously derived from one source. As a UNC-Chapel Hill grad, Neelesh found some inspiration in the school rivalry and challenged everyone on his team to help him “beat Duke.”
Within two short years, Neelesh had captured so much new business and grown his team, he was overseeing more revenue than the Duke team was bringing in.
Around this time, I became aware that Neelesh was a voracious reader. Whenever I spoke with him, he was eager to talk about the latest ideas he’d gathered from various management and customer service books. I’d hear from his team about the ideas and concepts he was trying out (not all the ideas were exactly welcomed by everyone). Neelesh was a scientist in a lab, creating hypotheses and experimenting with a sense of urgency and eagerness that was unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met. His ambition and drive inspired his direct reports and made rivals of his other manager peers who found his trajectory intimidating. Neelesh was openly working on being the best leader he could be, running the most productive team in the company.
Boldly Trailblazing New Opportunities
Neelesh did more than optimally motivate and lead his team. There were 3 major new business opportunities that Neelesh had pursued that went way beyond his “territory” as manager. One involved him starting a massively successful opportunity near the southern state lines of North Carolina, where he started working with community healthcare centers that were in desperate need of high-quality IT support and help with HIPAA compliance. Neelesh had leveraged our deep history in healthcare IT to bring on as customers several new community healthcare centers throughout the state. Pursuing this opportunity required a good bit of travel. It also required regularly going to poorer communities since these healthcare centers were placed in the areas where the need was greatest and Medicaid enrollment was high. I recall Neelesh speaking often about how vital it was to help these underserved communities, and how supporting them was true to our company values.
Another fresh initiative involved Neelesh starting a remote support operation for a Medicare eligibility assessment company that was operating in 7 states, building up our first help desk, hosting, and procurement management operation to support the 350 staff members within that company.
Prior to Neelesh taking this on, the typical customer size his team supported was approximately 12 staff members, and they were also almost exclusively supported with an onsite visit by a technician. Neelesh had to put together a team, processes, and tools to begin providing remote support to a rapidly growing, high-turnover customer.
The customer also prioritized security and HIPAA compliance, so we also had to perform major projects like rolling out an endpoint encryption solution to all the laptops. Thanks to Neelesh’s endless supply of confidence and resourcefulness, we somehow found a way to successfully implement all the projects and ongoing support duties while maintaining excellent customer satisfaction scores.
The third opportunity Neelesh pursued involved attempts to support the IT infrastructures to several local cities. The “cloud” was a new concept back then in 2013 and 2014, and Neelesh saw innovative ways that municipalities could harness it for disaster recovery plans and offsite backups. We devised creative business continuity strategies for multiple municipal departments that could keep the IT systems running even if there was a significant regional disaster. Thanks to our early understanding of Azure and adoption of cloud infrastructure strategies, Neelesh and his team could devise a menu of options that allowed us to tailor-fit a strategy that would work with each department’s existing infrastructure and technology investments.
Neelesh pursued these opportunities alongside the core duties of his team: to provide support and IT project work to SMB customers in the Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary and Triangle areas of NC. There was plenty of support work to accomplished, and new customers were coming in regularly that needed to be onboarded and delivered stellar IT support services. Neelesh had to be quite resourceful and innovative to trailblaze into these new arenas, all while bringing his team along with him and keeping them excited about tackling new challenges.
It was clear to everyone in the company that Neelesh was doing something special, and his team was incredibly loyal and proud to be a part of all this success.
Recognition Through Promotion
Whenever there is a special leader and a team that is significantly more successful than the others, there’s potential for jealousy and rivalry in the rest of the company. Looking back at where my head was going into that meeting in the fall of 2014, I’m surprised that this wasn’t actually top of mind. Instead, my top concern was I didn’t know how to honor his achievements properly. At the time I was Vice President of the company and 49% owner, David was President and 51% owner, and Jackson was our CFO. I brought the 3 of us together to discuss our “Neelesh problem” to see how we could ensure Neelesh saw that his brightest future remained with us at Net Friends. But to do that, we had to figure out a good enough reason to encourage him to stay.
I recall spending about 20 minutes summing up several of Neelesh’s key accomplishments for David and Jackson, and it was the first time either of them had recognized just how much of our growth and success had Neelesh’s fingerprints on them. I wrote customer after customer on the whiteboard, listing how we either won, secured, or maximized them thanks to Neelesh.
I remember asking my partners,
“Do you want to keep working with a guy who’s done all this, or would you rather compete with someone who’s done all this?”
Because, I warned, if we don’t find a way to promote someone like Neelesh then we will be at risk of him leaving or starting a new company on his own. I reminded David and Jackson that Neelesh had been an owner of an IT support company in San Francisco in the late ‘90s, so he was more than able to imagine what it would be like to run his own company in our own backyard. I wanted to make sure that we all saw this from all angles: we either recognize his achievements now with a promotion or run the risk of his achievements happening elsewhere. When the hour-long meeting ended, we had agreed that the case was clearly built for Neelesh to be promoted.
But more importantly, I had made two more declarations: that Neelesh needed to be made a partner, and that his ownership would be gifted entirely from my ownership portion. I articulated that while I was slated to be David’s ultimate successor of the business when David was ready to move on, what I wanted was to have a complementary business partner like Neelesh to help me grow our business to be the best it could be.
I hope every fellow business owner out there encounters a similar “problem” as the one I faced back in 2014, and takes the path to share ownership, success, and struggles with a partner who clearly is maximizing the opportunities they come across.
Choosing Your Business Partner
I hope any business owner who’s out there reading this is thinking about whether they have appropriately acknowledged the achievements of those working for them. Is there someone ambitious and effective working for you? Are they both handling their core duties and willingly volunteering to help expand your business in various ways? Do they show leadership potential, both by motivating others and being resourceful themselves? If so, you just might have your own “Neelesh” problem. Feel free to reach out to me directly if you’d like to pick my brain about how to navigate it.
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