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Effective HR management for small companies [Podcast]

People Spark Consulting explores effective HR strategies for small businesses, focusing on company culture, talent development and impactful managerial roles.

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Harish Sharma | Pixabay

In this episode of the Feed & Grain Podcast, Kristen Ireland and Erin Mies, co-founders of People Spark Consulting stop by to talk with host Steven Kilger about effectively handling human resources as a small company. They discuss how companies can create a effective company culture, the tips for developing talent inhouse, why managers are key to effective HR policies and resources for having a effective HR strategy without a large staff.

Podcast sponsored by Pneumat Systems

Materials mentioned in podcast:

Click HERE to receive additional resources on the topics covered in the Podcast:

  • How to define your business strategy and goals and align your HR practices.
  • How to engage and develop high performing employees, and
  • How to talk to long term employees during succession planning. 

Purchase The People Spark®: A Business Leader’s Essential Guide to Crafting Your Culture with Confidence from Amazon.

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 Schedule a 30-minute call with a member of the People Spark team to answer your questions.


Transcript edited for clarity.

Steven Kilger - 00:00

Hi everyone, my name is Steven Kilger and I'm the managing editor of Feed & Grain Magazine and the host of the Feed & Grain Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today as we dive deep into the issues affecting feed manufacturing, grain handling, and allied industries. Today's episode is brought to you by the Banshi from Pneumat Systems. The powerful dual-impact BinWhip removes the toughest buildup and blockages in industrial storage silos without hazardous silo entry. Learn more today at In today's episode, my guests are Kirsten and Aaron, co-founders of People Spark Consulting. We discuss HR challenges in the ag industry.

Kilger - 00:38

We discuss common HR challenges ag industry companies are facing right now, from forming company goals, training employees with limited resources, And getting management succession right. I hope you enjoyed the interview. If you want to help out with the podcast and are listening to this in a podcasting app, please rate us and subscribe. If you're listening online, sign up for the Feed & Grain newsletter, Industry Watch, to see the latest podcasts and stay up to date with all the latest news from around the industry. Now, on to the show. Thank you Aaron and Christian for coming to talk to me today. Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and people-spark, what you do, and your connection to the feed, manufacturing, and grain handling industries?

Kristen Ireland - 01:18

Well wonderful, thank you so much for having us. This is one of our favorite things to be involved in. So Erin and I are co-founders of People Spark Consulting and we founded People Spark Consulting six years ago next month, so we are having our sixth birthday coming up. And our goal, our focus as People Spark Consulting is working with small to mid-sized businesses within the agriculture industry to achieve their goals through their HR strategies and HR practices. So we talk a lot about business strategy, and HR strategy, which we start to term as, are your employees and your leaders demonstrating the behaviors that you need to see for the business to be successful? And if not, what can we do to encourage that? And another key aspect of that is developing leaders, that when we're talking about Achieving goals.

Ireland - 02:09

When we're talking about the behaviors of employees, leaders are a key aspect of that, so making sure that leaders are equipped with the skills and tools to be effective in their roles is another key part of what we do. Erin, what would you add that I'm missing?

Erin Mies - 02:26

So I think you've covered most of it. I think for us in starting the business, our focus has been on clients in agriculture. So we work with cooperatives, we work with independents, both, you know, feed mills, feed retailers, implements dealers, family-owned, sometimes they're privately owned, sometimes they're cooperative structure. Typically in small to mid-size where there may be HR in-house, There may be HR responsibilities tacked on to someone else's full-time job, but those clients are typically the ones that we are generally working with, both on developing the right people strategies to support the business, as well as that leadership development. But we made a conscious effort, both coming from a large ag co-op, that this was the industry that we wanted to best serve and best work in. And frankly, we've got some of the best clients to show for it.

Kilger - 03:23

Well, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to have you on here is because it fascinates me. We have a blog called New Crop that I write once a month, and it's just about leadership development, learning, and continuing education. And it's so hard for our industry sometimes because we're so small. So like the courses aren't just jumping out at you and doing any of that. So it's, it's a struggle, a constant struggle for small businesses. What are some of the most common challenges that you guys see out there, especially with smaller feed mills and grain businesses that they're just not able to handle the way that a larger company might be able to?

Mies - 03:58

There's a couple of things that I would start with and then I'll have Kristin add in as well. Partly it's being able to communicate and share what the goals are for that business throughout the business. A lot of times what we'll see is that maybe the general manager or the CEO has that information. It may not be widely known or understood beyond them. In other instances too, we also hear that as we get further within the organization into that supervisor level, there's a real discomfort in holding others accountable and not holding others accountable in a bad way. It's about helping someone know where they stand and if they're meeting expectations or if something needs to be adjusted. So we focus in those spaces to help develop leaders to have some of that confidence and to develop that confidence and how they can say that without being a jerk and also without being walked all over too if they're not holding someone accountable and so we get so excited when we hear some of the stories from our clients of I had that conversation I was going to have and it didn't erupt into a whole situation that the person was Appreciative that I told them what was going on and I told them and I shared with them what I needed to see. And so it's little steps like that along the way and being able to support those clients and taking those steps that make it all worthwhile. Kristen, what would you add?

Ireland - 05:24

I think it's fascinating. You asked the question, Steven, of what are the most common HR challenges and what people tend to come to us with is questions around kind of HR processes. You know, I feel like we need to have an incentive plan or I feel like we need to do more around performance reviews or I feel like we need to, so they're focused on the internal processes. And to Erin's point, when we start to dig in deeper, when we start to ask a few more questions, what we're seeing is people are seeing the solution around, I need a performance review process. Where when we dig in deeper, we see that there are some underlying or foundational gaps, even in strategy. To Erin's point, the strategy isn't fully defined and if it is fully defined, it isn't communicated. And if we can build an HR practice or an HR strategy, but if it's not tied to where the business wants to go, it becomes a check-the-box activity.

Ireland - 06:21

And neither of us is a fan of check-the-box activities. So we dig in with businesses to understand where you want to go. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? What does success look like? And it's fascinating when we ask that question of businesses what does success look like? There's usually a long pause. Like, I haven't thought about it in that way before.

Ireland - 06:41

Or people start to rattle off very general responses. Grow, make money, and be more profitable than we were last year. They talk about it in generalities, where we work with businesses to talk about what that looks like specifically. So when you look at your market, when you're talking about growth, what does that look like? Where do you have the most opportunity to grow? What behaviors do you need to see from your employees? So that we can support those behaviors through your HR processes.

Ireland - 07:11

Usually, there is the gap is earlier in the process or more foundational than whether or not they have a process. We see that a lot with business structure as well. The strategy is taking us one way, the business is structured a very different way and it doesn't align to support the business.

Mies - 07:28

Kristin, to that point, can you give an example of that? Because I think that would be helpful. Yes, please do.

Ireland - 07:53

And then when we look at the overall business structure, there isn't anybody responsible for multiple aspects of margin. We're all a part of it, or we're all involved in increasing margins, so there isn't one person who's taking ownership of that. And that's a very basic structure. We need to put that in somebody's job responsibilities. And maybe it isn't one person increasing margin, it's one person focusing on expenses, it's One person focusing on sales, one person focusing on purchasing, whatever that may be, but nobody owns that responsibility or goal. We have it aligned with everybody and if everybody owns it then nobody owns it. So that is a very General example, more specifically, one of the things that we tend to hear from a lot of our businesses is we have multiple business lines and multiple business units.

Ireland - 08:45

We may have feed, we may have agronomy, we may have grain, so they're spread across the industry and many say if we want to grow, The biggest impact that we could have is organization-wide customers, that if more of our grain customers were purchasing their agronomy products for us, or more of our agronomy customers were bringing us grain, and if we could do that cross-selling across the organization, we would have the biggest impact. That's where we need to grow. That's what we need to focus on. And yet, the organization structure is aligned with This person is responsible for grain, this person is responsible for agronomy, this person is responsible for feed, and they're held accountable for the success of their business line or business unit, not necessarily for what will drive the biggest impact or success of the organization.

Kilger - 09:40

One of the things that always kind of surprises me and you guys talked about a little bit is how many people in feed mills and grain elevators usually management goes with you've been there for a long time, but then a lot of times they don't always invest in the people becoming managers. They don't give them training in being a manager and doing all these things. As you said, it's a lack of communication with what the goals are, from a human resources perspective, from a learning perspective, from even a training and reviewing perspective. And a lot of people are kind of left to do it on their own. And often not at the fault of the employee at all, or even the organization. Some of these organizations are just too small to have someone who's dedicated to human resources all the time. They just are.

Kilger - 10:29

So for example, my company, Watt Global, we resource out our human Resources, we resource out our human resources. We contract out our human resources department where there's a company that does it all for us and therefore we don't have to have anyone involved or in-house. But that might be kind of a weird concept for people to have. What kind of structure and approach would you offer to someone who might not have a big enough company to have a dedicated HR department and is looking to contract a company to supplement their abilities?

Mies - 11:08

Mm-hmm absolutely and this is so this is something that we see with a very large proportion of our clients is that they aren't quite big enough to have a dedicated whether it's a part-time or certainly not a full-time HR person they're just not at that point in their number of employees the complexity of the business overall and what we have found that has worked well with them is We generally start with what we consider our people and strategy roadmap and this helps us understand what are we trying to do within the business, where is the business trying to go, and what's happening in the structure today. Tell us about your people and what we have in place, what are some of the processes, and whether we have them in place today or not. It gives us a lay of the land to understand where they are today, where they want to go, and We meet with stakeholders during that too to also understand from more of an anecdotal perspective, from people's experiences too, and we help develop them a roadmap of what we would recommend going forward. This may mean for them that we can help develop some of those practices with them, some of those processes for their business.

Mies - 12:27

Kristen mentioned earlier that this part is around really defining the goals and the strategy of the business, We spend a lot of time in there and I think sometimes clients are surprised at the amount of time that we'll spend with them to clearly define that. Because once we're able to do that, how we structure the business, how we define what the expectations are for individual roles is much more fluid and we're able to connect those things back together and keep them cohesive. So while we are not an outsourced HR firm, What we like to share with our clients is that we can be alongside you helping to provide support. We occasionally have those, you know, Friday afternoon employer relations, haven't seen this before. Can you help call? Our aim is really to help them develop the right practices and processes that they might need to support where they want to take their business and then continue to coach and advise along the way. They may not need someone full-time, or they may not need someone part-time for a while so we can help be alongside them for that journey and coach them through those things while also making sure that we're helping them get their compliance where it needs to be and have that under control.

Ireland - 13:47

Well, when I think about a lot of the businesses that we work with, the term human resources is so broad. There is so much that falls into human resources and I like to think about it in terms of what are human resources' functional responsibilities and what are human resources' Management responsibilities, so the HR functional responsibilities around compliance, payroll, benefits, a lot of the things that can be outsourced, supported through other services, housed in even in many cases we see that in an accounts payable role. What we also see is there are a lot of HR responsibilities that are the responsibilities of managers. So that's one of the statistics that we talk a lot about 70% of the variance between a lousy culture and a strong culture is the knowledge, skills, and talent of the team leader, of that supervisor, of that manager. So we want to make sure that in that engagement, culture, performance, and accountability are all things that many people tie to human resources, where when you look at who has the biggest impact on that, What are the managers? So how can we talk about the role of a manager?

Ireland - 14:57

How much impact do they have as a manager, which is one of the key areas that we talk about in our leadership development program? And then how can we equip the managers to be the most effective in that way? Because they will have the biggest impact on whether or not employees stay, whether or not employees are engaged, whether or not employees are demonstrating the behaviors, we need them to demonstrate So part of that conversation to Erin's point when we're looking at how do we structure roles and really what are those needs of the business depending on where the business wants to go. We look at that in terms of what HR roles and responsibilities need to be in an HR functional role and what are many of those responsibilities and key aspects that are really in leaders and we need to develop their skills to do that.

Mies - 15:45

And I would, I would add here too, that especially within smaller organizations, whether it's a mill or an elevator, there are so many opportunities that where somebody can grow and develop right there, that by providing more of that clarity of, for instance, if we want to see this person manage a project, if we want to see this person learn how not just manage the project, but be able to communicate throughout all the project is continuing, without positional authority, Maybe I have a new scale coming in, maybe I have a new mixer that we're going to be installing later this year. Finding ways that we can get them that experience while they're in their current role and being clear that the reason I want you on this project is because I think that this is a great opportunity for you to develop your project management, your time management, as well as how you communicate throughout the organization. So I think there are opportunities all around and sometimes we just lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Kilger - 16:54

Yeah, definitely, and it's shocking to me, right, because that's so important today. One of the biggest complaints anyone in the industry has is not being able to find the right people. And it's not that their people aren't out there, because they are. It is, they're just not the farm kid that's going to come and immediately pick up everything and then be on board for the next 30 years. You're going to have to put in the effort to make Generation Z millennials Stay, and it's going to involve a little more hands-on management than I think a lot of older generations in the workplace are used to. For small businesses, what kind of strategies can they employ to identify and nurture potential leaders, potential people in their ranks who might not have the skills right away that they want to move into leadership, but could become the next generation of leaders in this industry?

Ireland - 17:43

So I would think about that from a couple of different perspectives. One, I think, first of all, as organizations define more of what those expectations are of the leader, that in many cases, those high potential employees that are good at what they do are looking to their leaders to look at, okay, how do they do it? And what are their responsibilities and how do they operate? And making some assumptions where, as organizations, we need to define what successful leadership looks like. Successful leadership is different. There are different skills and different abilities to being a successful individual contributor. So identifying what success looks like, identifying the here are the skills and the abilities of you in your contributor role in which you were high performing.

Ireland - 18:31

Here are the things that we need to see as a leader and being able to have those conversations about this is what success looks like in a leadership role. What experience do you have with that? What skills do you feel you need to develop? What experiences could we provide that will help you develop those skills in that area? So that there is more clarity around expectations, there's more of a conversation with that individual so they see the expectations and the gap and they're working together to close those. In many cases we hear, this is one that I just had last year with a general manager who had an opening, Somebody was going to be retiring. He had about three individuals that were looking at that opportunity, that were interested in a promotion to that role.

Ireland - 19:19

And as we would talk through each of those individuals, I would say, well, how do you feel about this person in that role? And he would say, you know, this person's not ready yet. This person's not ready yet. What do they need to get ready? Right? I was trying to find out what is that skill gap. And they would say, well, about probably about three more years.

Ireland - 19:36

So talking about it more in a time frame where discussing what does that person need to grow and develop in those three years? What are the expectations that you have? What are they doing well? Where do they need to focus more? What we find is that when they're saying to me, this person maybe needs about three more years, that that's about the same level of information that those high-performing individuals, individual contributors are getting. You need about three more years of experience. That they're not, leaders are not providing that level of detail of what is the skill gap.

Ireland - 20:11

What behavior do you demonstrate and what behavior do I need to see? And how can we work together to close that?

Kilger - 20:18


Mies - 20:19

I would come back to the return on investment part because I think one reframe I would offer up for business owners and business leaders is what is walking out the door that you are spending money on today. What does your turnover look like within your operators, within some of your entry-level roles, and within your organization as a whole? What, are you looking at in terms of rework? In terms of downtime as well because the reason I look at some of these things isn't because I'm looking at a machine breakdown, I'm looking at a communication breakdown. And a lot of times when we're not having coaching conversations and we don't have leaders equipped with some of the skills and behaviors, these things happen because we're not addressing them and helping to coach and encourage somebody to do it differently. And so we are already spending and seeing some of these things impact our margins, impact our bottom line, where if we flip that into, okay, what can I invest in a couple of my managers? To start developing some of these skills and tools, I will be the first to say training is not an end-all-be-all.

Mies - 21:34

I completely agree with what Kristen's talking about it has to be about behavior change and so being clear with your leaders about what expectations you have Of what results you need to see because of it can help provide some of that connection to this isn't just a class that I'm going to that I'll just shelve later that I need to learn some of these things so that I can better address situations when I see them. When I see that somebody isn't wearing their PPE or when I see a near miss that's happening. Or when I see downtime happening within our facility that I'm not comfortable with doing today because this is how we start making some of those connections so that a leader can see that ROI on that investment that they're making. The other thing too is not to underestimate the power of some of that peer-to-peer learning as well. So not all of the learning can be done in the classroom. Who are some of the leaders within the organization who do some of these things well?

Mies - 22:37

And how can you even partner up some of your leaders with that person who is doing that well too? So there are ways that you can work on building some of those behaviors and building some of those skills. Training may be a great way to add to the overall programming. And to not underestimate just the power of what you can do by partnering up with some of your team members already.

Ireland - 23:04

I want to add to that because one that we see so common is There aren't many manager roles. We have a lot of individual contributors who are interested in management roles, but since there isn't one role, then we think that there isn't an opportunity until this person leaves. To Erin's point, it's how can we stretch somebody in their current role, so not moving them to a new role, but stretching them in their current role, provide those opportunities to develop those skills. And one of the common ones we hear is, I want to be a supervisor, there aren't many supervisor roles that I can move into. And yet those are the individuals that are training new employees, which in and of itself is a great way. Providing work direction, looking at engagement, and looking at what we can do moving forward is a skill that supervisors need to have. So they are already doing something in a role that's developing them for supervisory responsibilities, but we as leaders are not making that connection.

Ireland - 24:06

So if we were to connect the dots a bit more, as Erin said, and say, you know, you have been training new employees, let's talk about what you do there and how that would relate to a supervisory role. What skills have you gotten? What experience have you gotten? What have you learned through this process? So that they're seeing those connections because one, it's preparing them for the roles. It's a low-cost something that you need to have happen anyway thing that they can do so that they're preparing for a role and that employee is going to feel a lot better about training new employees when they know that it's a benefit for the new employee and them and it's helping prepare them. So it's more of a Yay I get to develop skills in training new employees rather than Okay now I got to train the new guy today.

Mies - 25:00

Absolutely. So our first step with anyone is to have a call like this. Don't worry, it's not recorded or anything. But just to understand what's happening within that business owner, within that leader's business today. What are they seeing? What are some of the pain points? What is it that they're trying to do?

Mies - 25:17

What frustrates them that isn't happening today? And from there, we can work with them to say, You know, this might be the route that we would recommend taking with you to start. Um, what we, what we find with our clients is that we build into any of our projects and also within any of our training too, is that our clients have access to Kristen and myself and our team to be able to be there with them. We know that not everything happens between 7 am and 3 pm or seven and five. And so we provide support for our clients and can answer some of those tough questions that they have. And sometimes we also can help share some of the tough questions back with them as they're considering what the right next step is for their business as well. So we very much, we talk about our clients a lot.

Mies - 26:13

Because when we jump into a project with them, we're all in. We want to see them be successful so we work with them to find the right way to get the results that they're looking for.

Kilger - 26:28

That segues great into kind of the idea that I have professional development in general, which is a constant thing. It is not something that you, you know, you do once in a while. It is a continuous process for any employee. And the last time you be having that, well, who's the next general manager discussion? The last time you want to have it is when your current general manager is getting ready to retire. You have to fill that role right away, right? But as we all know, budgets are tight.

Kilger - 26:56

Budgets have been tight, especially for continued education for many, many years now. Do you have any tips for owners who need to continue to develop their employees professionally, but might not be able to afford to send someone away for a week-long class on things?

Ireland - 27:13

Erin, I'll jump in, and then I'll ask for your thoughts as well. What I love about being in a partnership Is Erin and I both have thoughts and perspectives and typically come at them in different ways, so I get excited to hear her thoughts and perspectives as well. I do want to say one thing about investing in professional development. So as you said, funds are limited, and professional development, and external training, in many cases, may be one of the best ways to develop some of those skills, to get the skills that then they can continue to apply. What we find is that people say, okay, here's a class, go take it, come back. And that becomes a check-the-box activity. I went to the training, now I'm done checking the box.

Ireland - 27:54

Where even when you're looking at learning and development opportunities, and training opportunities for your employees, the goal isn't whether or not they went to the class. The goal is, are they changing the behaviors that you need to see changed after they go to the course? The same leader that I was giving the example about earlier What behaviors have you seen changed? Nothing. He hadn't seen that behavior change. So being intentional about if we are spending the money and investing in leadership development or investing in skill development, making sure you're getting the most from that. Make sure that you're looking at programs that aren't checking the box, and that they are helping to build those habits.

Ireland - 28:43

Make sure that as a leader, it's not they came back and now they're at it, but how are you continuing to engage with them so that you get your return on investment on that training? And you probably hear the passion in my voice about that. As somebody who has worked in leadership development and learning and development for many years, the check-the-box feeling was the worst feeling that I had, knowing that somebody could leave the training and it wouldn't change their behavior. So When we implemented our leadership development training, success for us is how we make sure that people are building the habits after the fact so it's not a one-time event that we're continuing to support and reinforce from our perspective. And we're equipping the leaders within the business to continue to support and reinforce that learning, that behavior change. So that's one of my comments about professional development. Make sure you get your return on investment when you're looking at what courses or training you want to provide.

Ireland - 29:43

Two, to Erin's point earlier, smaller organizations have so much more flexibility to provide those opportunities. We need to have conversations with employees to understand what those are. What are your career goals? What do you like doing in your job? What do you wish you could do more of that you can't? What is a skill that you have that we haven't utilized yet? What skills would you like to develop?

Ireland - 30:09

What can you do to enhance those? And I would say those are questions off the top of my head. I think many times leaders feel like we need to have the answers to those questions when we just need to ask the question, what skills did you learn from that? How do you think you could apply that to other situations? How do you feel that will help prepare you for that future role? So that we're pulling the questions out and having the conversations with people. It's not about providing a solution an answer or a job.

Kilger - 30:43

Yeah, definitely. And for those out there who are interested in kind of hiring a firm like yours, maybe they have some HR questions or issues that they want to talk about with someone. Even if they're not ready to, you know, leap. Can you just explain a little bit more about like what a working relationship with people-spark is like and how they can kind of get the best of both worlds?

Mies - 31:10

Well, and I think it's fair to say too, there's been several clients we've worked with where we've had conversations with them for a couple of years and right. The timing isn't always right at that moment. And so our goal is to build a long-term relationship with all of our clients, not so that they need to rely on us, but so that we can be alongside their journey and help support them when they need that support. And part of that is just getting to know them. And so like Kristen said, the book is a fabulous way to do that in an easy entry point too, and just having a conversation so that we know What's going on? We can offer up some tips and tools and if it isn't the right time right now, or if other resources would be more beneficial for that client at that time or that prospective client at that time, we are the first people who will recommend somebody else who would be more capable in whatever way in being able to serve what their need is at that time.

Ireland - 32:15

I would say one of the things that we found very early on is many people would see us at trade shows or speaking engagements and they'd go, oh, you're the HR people. And then afterward, they would say, you have a different approach than I expected. You're not what I expected when I listened to it. Giving people a chance to connect with us and for us to connect with them to understand their needs. A recent ad to one of the things that we've done is we have written a book. So our book is called The People Spark, a business leader's essential guide to crafting your culture with confidence. And this covers a lot It tells you more about our approach, our take on things. Even more so, it gives you a lot that you can do individually on your own. So each step we start, similar to how we started the conversation, we start in the book, let's talk about your strategy and your culture, let's talk about your goals and what you want to accomplish, and then bring you through exercises so you can reflect on that for your own business. We bring you through exercises of really identifying an intentional culture. And then practice reinforcing that through your HR practices, your HR strategies, your interactions with your team, and how you can coach your team and hold your leaders accountable. So a lot of that is in this book as a resource as well. The book includes a link to resources, worksheets, checklists, there's videos. I would say that is a great starting point. Who is close to retirement and either isn't sharing some of what their plans are or may not be performing at the level that we need to have or making the changes that we need to have. We hear a lot of business leaders struggle with this. I need to be able to move forward and I want to make sure that I'm honoring and recognizing this person that's in this role. How do I lean into these conversations? And then the blog for April, which is coming up, is focused on how you start to define that role. So when I talked about clearly setting those expectations of what it means to be a leader and how do you define that role, that it's not a replacement of the person, it's defining the position as we need it, not how that person did it.

Miles - 34:53

Include information about that as well as how you can join our mailing list.

Kilger - 34:58

So while you guys beat me to it, I was just going to say how great the People Spark website is. You guys have a great blog that I go to all the time. You also have some webinars and things that I think people can put in their information on and then watch. There will be links to that in the description. Thank you guys so much for sharing some material with us too. We'll make sure to link that down below. Thank you guys so much for talking to me today. I appreciate it. Thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you everyone out there for listening. Until next time, make sure you stay safe.

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