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Can a boss be too nice?

Finding good employees for most business owners is a challenge. I don’t know if it is my industry, or the lower unemployment rate, but the challenge seems greater these days.   My wife (who also owns a business with employees) and I have always had the vision of retiring employees.  Having them till the end.  I think it sounds nice, it sounds old school, almost nostalgic.  Although I am not sure how realistic  anymore.

Our experience has been employees are good for 2-5 years, IF they can get to 2. This rings true in my estimation for those ages 26-40.  I suppose it is exactly what I did when I was 23-31.  I had three jobs trying to get to a career.

Once I find a good employee, I try really hard to do a number of things right.  Teach them and mentor them instead of making them watch training videos.  Be present for questions.  Provide a supportive environment that is rich for learning and succeeding.  I keep them involved in the training process, asking what they want to or what they need to learn next.

Our employees are told, that they can write their own ticket in the business.  If they show proficiency in a certain skill, we will push them towards that skill.  For example, if they are great at selling life insurance and really enjoy it, we would find away to ensure they are focussing more on life insurance and stripping away other things that take away from that.  Play to their strengths.

After the first 60-90 days, if they show promise, I will start to share more about the business with them.  I may show them some important performance metrics.  Recently I talked to a new employee about how the last five years of my business have changed some of the ways we do things.  I showed him how the last five years we peaked, and then began to shrink and how I want him to help correct that.

After 6 months I may open up the financials so they can see what funds the business.  This helps explain at a deeper level how important it is to keep our clients.  We all know it, but seeing it in numbers makes it more real and if they have more business sense, it will drive that point home.

I collaborate with them.  I am not the “my way or the highway” boss.  I’ve been a business owner since 2004 so I have a pretty good idea on what systems work, and what are a waste of time.  This helps me encourage good ideas, or redirect ideas that are off center.

Regularly I ask for advice from them because they have more day to day contact with my clients than I will.  They are the first line of defense and answer the phones so they have their fingers on the pulse than I do.

Keeping employees happy for more than 3 years has been a struggle of ours and I can’t decide if that is just the way the culture is right now or if there are some shortcomings on my part.  One time, at one employees one year review, we folded in a lease for a new car into her compensation package.   She was having problems with an old car of hers, and she had been performing way above average for her first year.  In order to show loyalty and to do something out of the box, we decided this would be a great perk.  It felt really good to do that for her and she was very thankful.

Her performance peaked about 6 months later and I struggled to get her back there for then next 18 months.  I tried everything I know how.  Everyone is going through their stuff outside of the office, but  I want the job to be an escape from that and a way for my employees to have a source of pride in their life.   When this employee struggled, I would sit and have a conversation with them to see what was going on.

There came a point when these conversations became the norm and she knew how to work me.  She would agree with me.  She would say all the right things, own it and tell me she would get better.  There would be a one month improvement and then it would be back to old, non productive patterns.

The problem is, I was afraid of losing an employee like this.  They know my business very well.  They know my customers very well and on boarding a new, strong employee and getting them up to speed can take 6 months.  I would feel trapped.

What I have learned is, when things are not going as I would like and there is an performance or attitude dip, is emotion has to be taken out of the picture.  This is hard for me because one of my strengths is talking things out with people.  If that gets exploited, or they try to take advantage of my good nature, it will become very binary for me.  The conversation becomes 100% fact based.  I will used things like direct quotes, sales numbers,  and clear examples on where these shortcomings are and give a timeframe to correct them.

This has been very difficult for me to learn and do not enjoy doing it at all but I have found it to be a necessary skill.  The other thing I needed to work on, is once I have built a strong working relationship with an employee, and the more embedded and committed they seemed, the harder it was for me to reprimand them.

I would be afraid of upsetting them.  Afraid they might leave.  This would lead to them doing small things at first that are inconsequential and would grow from there.  Like a child testing a parents boundaries.  As collaborative as you want your work environment to be, there needs to be a clear hierarchy established and maintained.

My business is the definition of a small business. I have 2 employees, and in the past have maxed out at 4.  I can’t afford to have anymore.  We work in a 600 sq foot office and are together almost all day.   It is vital that the three of us have a good working relationship due to the sheer amount of time we spend together.  I kept an employee many years ago for about 6 months too long.  I was miserable coming into work and it’s my business!  It was that realization, that triggered me to put things in motion to replace her.

Managing people can be very challenging, rewarding and frustrating.  Trusting yourself is paramount. Setting boundaries and establishing roles is just as important.  I believe a good boss can do all of these things.  Empowering an employee and collaborating with them is important, but maintaining expectations and following through will help keep the balance.

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