Don’t be a Mediocre Manager
Growing your team, and effectively managing it, is the only way a solopreneur can grow into being a successful entrepreneur (and therefore provide jobs to others). But managing people is a very specific skillset, just like marketing, accounting or IT.
So what happens if you don’t have a corporate background? What happens if you have never held a management position prior to finding yourself in the leadership position of running your own business?
When I first started freelancing, I was 23. By the time I was 30, I had founded a small bookkeeping business. I had zero corporate experience, which meant when I finally did hire employees I was at an extreme disadvantage.
I missed out on the more subtle skills one learns in the day-to-day interaction within a corporate environment such as learning how work with others in a team, how to achieve a common goal or set of goals, how to set benchmarks, evaluate performance and motivate others. It probably took me two years to realize that I needed outside help developing those management skills. There are ways to speed up the learning curve, though.
We asked three very successful human resource and management experts to share some key techniques for hiring, training, retaining and motivating a team.
You will never be able to effectively manage a person who isn’t a great fit for your company to begin with. In order to generate the kind of performance results you need for your company to thrive and grow, you need team members who are aligned with your vision, believe in your mission and have the necessary skillset required to complete their job — which makes hiring an art.
Make sure you have a clear job description that details why the job exists, what the job entails, and the specific skills and education required to do the job — as well as the character and personality traits that will help the candidate excel in the job, says Doug Sundheim of Clarity Consulting, an author and a management and leadership consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as small firms.
You may want someone who is patient and detail-oriented for a client care position, but someone who is full of energy and a tour de force to lead up your sales team.
Defining the character traits required for a position seems fairly easy. Digging deep in an interview to find those character traits during the hiring process can be challenging. Sundheim recommends taking your time during an interview. You should frame a real problem or challenge and have the applicant talk through how they would approach, and more importantly, solve it.
Jaime Klein, the founder and president of Inspire Human Resources and a consultant to Fortune 500 companies, recommends thinking of your team as a portfolio of talent (like a diversified financial portfolio) and ensuring that you have a range of skills and competencies represented to create a well-rounded team.
Avoid the “Dump and Run”
Now that you have found the perfect person, training and onboarding them effectively is key to retaining the talent you have spent time to find.
Valerie Smith Pease, a talent and leadership development expert at Valerie Smith Consulting who has worked with both small business and multinational corporations, says one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make is not teaching the new staff member how to be successful and meet the entrepreneur’s expectations. One of the most effective tools you can use to communicate this information is to create a punchlist of your performance expectations. Share this with the employee when they come on board and discuss it point by point. This is your time to learn, in a more meaningful way, what the employees skills are and the support they need to succeed.
But no matter what you do, don’t fall into one of two traps: micromanaging or the ”dump and run” — where you throw a slew of tasks on your new team member with little support or training.
Sundheim trains his clients to take a three-pronged approach to human resource management: “believe in them, support them and hold them accountable.” One of his key onboarding tools is eliminating the “I need to prove myself” belief that new employees usually possess. To do this, he advises using the “believe in them” piece of his approach immediately upon hiring: share with the person what impressed you about their skills and experience, why you are excited to have them on the team, what you are looking forward to during your working relationship and, most importantly, why you hired them.
Investing in your new employee’s career development is a low-cost way to provide a benefit to both you and to the employee, says Klein. By adding new skills to their portfolio, you demonstrate you are invested in the success of the person, not just your business. The more highly trained your employee is, the more benefits and skills they can bring to the table to help your business succeed.
Klein also suggests you reward and recognize great work, long hours and creativity. Token rewards such as buying a meal or providing fresh juice and snacks during challenging days can go a really long way in terms of motivation.
Ask Employees What They Need
Nothing can be more draining on a small business owner, both financially and emotionally, than an employee or subcontractor who is not performing for the company.
Defining expectations will vary from business to business, but it can be done by client, by project or by the “when and how,” says Valerie. You can set a new employee up for success by delegating easy projects to them first. Gradually expand their responsibilities by adding more challenging projects slowly. Stating specifically “the first month we will do this, second month we will do that” keeps the expectations and communication crystal clear.
Regular meetings with your team members every two weeks in which you ask them what they need are also key, says Sundheim. Do they have the right technology? What problems are they having? What are their goals for this month, this quarter, this year? During these meetings he focuses on four main questions, which provides insight into personal employee motivation and keeps them on track in terms of their performance. He asks about recent wins or achievements to be proud of, what challenges are present, what they are working on in the near future and if their are any specific places he can support them or help them problem solve.
Klein gives new employees a cheat sheet, so to speak. When an employee comes on board, she provides them with a blank performance appraisal so the new hire knows the exact goals and behaviors the organization rewards. She likens this process to a professor sharing a blank final exam the first week of class. The student may not know the correct answers, but with the exam in hand, they know what they need to focus on during the semester.
Coach, Don’t Criticize
All three experts agree, entrepreneurs need to share verbal feedback on a regular basis. Storing problems in a backpack and unloading on the employee all at once is a surefire way to disengage a person you have invested time and money in.
Additionally, Pease and Sundheim advise that you coach, not criticize your team — an important distinction. Keep conversations and directives focused on the solution.
For example, if a staff member has a problem with punctuality, saying, “You arrived to the office late on these past three dates, remember we start at nine o’ clock and you are expected to be here at that time” gives the parameters of the problem and the expectation moving forward. Blurting out, “You are late all the time” is not solution focused.
Sundheim says it can be a huge challenge for managers and leaders to hold their employees accountable for their performance. Performance is often overlooked, or ignored by higher-ups, because it can be uncomfortable to hold someone’s feet to the fire. If you proactively negotiate monthly or weekly goals with employees, you must follow up on those conversations and make sure those goals have been met.
If an employee fails to meet defined deadlines or achievements, several uncomfortable conversations with “the boss” is usually enough social pressure to coax the employee into stronger performance. Sundheim pushes his clients to ask employees in supportive ways why they aren’t getting their work done and not to cower from confrontation. If you do, you are doing a disservice to your company and your team by not encouraging, and mandating, strong, consistent performance.
Recognize and Reward Your Team
The direct relationship with a leader is the number one reason employees stay or go, Klein has found. Taking the time to know your team is critical in motivating them and staying in touch with what your employees are passionate about.
Great leaders create viable businesses their employees can trust and believe in, and they have a genuine commitment to the people who work for them.
Commitment takes many forms, says Pease, but several concrete examples are creating perks like flexible hours and the ability to work from home, coaching people personally and remembering “cash is king.” Reward your team members financially when they work hard during a busy season, if they fix a systemic problem or they contribute to the business in a big way.
Your employees are the golden bricks in your road to success. You must make sure you, the business owner, are what holds everyone together. If you don’t feel good about your business, or yourself, your employees won’t either. If you find that you have a high employee turnover rate, or that you are constantly annoyed that people aren’t “doing what they are supposed to do,” chances are it’s you, not your team members, who needs performance review and training.
By investing in yourself, you will also be investing in your team, setting the stage for a stellar performance by all.