One year of running my own business. Still afloat and about time to cautiously expand. I’ve been very cautious, all too aware that one false step at this point could sink the ship. A smart first move, I figured, would be to talk to the The Elders, a select group of business veterans I trust, and find out how they went about successfully expanding their teams in the early days. These are a few of the most important lessons they relayed to me.
Through my own observations working at other agencies, I’ve realized that as businesses grow, business owners inevitably becomes less and less involved in the day-to-day work, the actual production of products and services. An enormous amount of responsibility is transferred to others in the organization tasked with maintaining the quality of the work. While they maintain the respect and integrity of the organization, it can be a challenge to maintain their respect without actively demonstrating your own skill set on a daily basis. When employees begin questioning whether their boss is capable of doing the work they’re doing, the case for their loyalty quickly begins to disintegrate. Some friends have told me that they make sure to still take deep dives with each team, proving that they’re not above getting their hands dirty. Others focus on the education of their employees, showing that they still understand what each skill set entails. One obvious theme was echoed by everyone I talked to: lead by example. In other words:
“Make it hard to spot the general by working like a soldier.”
Building the Core
Company culture has never been as important as it is today, especially when competing for highly-talented employees. Build a core team of loyal, talented senior-level employees and allow them to help define the company culture. The culture that you shape with them will be the foundation on which you’ll build the rest of your business. Sooner or later, a disjointed culture built of straw will be blown down. Hollow cultures come with expiration dates. Take your time, be the third little pig.
The Thin Line Between Caring and Friendship
Business owners must care deeply about their employees, and that attitude should mirrored by all leaders within the organization, but there’s a thin line between caring and friendship. That line should not be crossed. If you aren’t capable of making objective business decisions, you aren’t fit to lead. The easiest way to lose that ability is by becoming too friendly with employees. Respect, compassion, accessibility: good. Frequently fraternizing outside of work, putting relationships before business: bad.
A good friend of mine runs a business with over 100 employees and offices in New York and Southeast Asia. The team is talented, the culture has been perfected over the years, and their retention rates are unheard of these days. I asked what his secret is. Firing bad fits quickly, he told me. Because the core team was strategically assembled in the early days and a company culture was properly defined, employees who don’t fit the mold stick out like sore thumbs. If someone isn’t a good fit, it’s almost always clear by the third month. At that time, they are promptly let go. There’s nothing more cancerous to an organization than someone who doesn’t belong there.
This is all easier said than done. Building a healthy, thriving culture from scratch is difficult. Most businesses never do. Firing people isn’t enjoyable, unless you’re the Donald Trump type and take pleasure in administering pain. Showing employees that you’re there for them, to a certain extent, then clearly drawing the line, takes skill. Earning and maintaining the respect of your troops takes time and consistency. None of it is easy, but this knowledge has been passed on to me, and now I pass it on to you.