The best businesses invariably have the strongest employees. A company, as they say, is only as good as the company it keeps.
That's precisely why supporting your staff, all the way from the top managers to the greenest new hires, should be a business leader's top priority. Keeping communication lines open, motivating and challenging your workers, and aligning your employees' vision with your own are all crucial to your company's success. "Happy employees equal happy customers," says Rick Galbreath, founder of HR consulting firm Performance Growth Partners, which is based in Bloomington, Illinois. "The final recipient of any misunderstanding between employee and boss is always the customer."
Whether it is encouraging extra vacation days, scheduling additional time to talk to your staff, or even offering up midday yoga lessons, as a leader it is your job to build and maintain morale in your organization. We've talked to the experts and compiled their advice on ways to support your staff and, in turn, get them to support your organization.
Supporting Your Staff: Ignite Your Purpose
Trite as it sounds, the saying remains true that honesty is always the best policy. And being honest with yourself from Day One of founding your company is part of that communications strategy.
"The reality is people want to connect with what they are doing," Galbreath says.
Before a worker can do so, their boss must. Galbreath says oftentimes businesses neglect to find a greater good out of the products or services they provide. Simply by getting employers to tell the grander truth about what they do and why they do it helps find what it is that resonates with workers. Galbreath says in his consulting practice, companies he works with who open up about the big piture with workers achieve a 30 percent reduction in turnover rate.
For example, a company like Yodle, an online advertising firm based in New York, shows its sales reps the impact they can have right from the outset. Mike DeLuca, the company's senior vice president of sales and marketing, says he is "upfront and honest" with them about how great an opportunity they have. Particularly for his business, which aims to enhance profits for small businesses, there is a very real potential to change people's lives. "Small business is one of the most vulnerable types of business that's out there today," DeLuca says. "We help them thrive, and there's a lot of gratification in doing that."
Even if there's no direct connection to some greater good, it's still important to infuse workers a sense of purpose and importance in their jobs. Seth Besmertnik is the CEO and co-founder of Conductor, a SEO measurement-and-technology firm based in New York. During each staff member's initial orientation, Besmertnik encourages that person to always question the highest paid person in the room.
"Just because someone makes more money than you doesn't mean that they're smarter than you or that their ideas are better," Besmertnik tells his employees.
Without bestowing the virtue upon his employees, Besmertnik fears they might shy away from opportunity and lack the confidence to reach their full potential. This open understanding and flattened hierarchy have led to tremendous success over the past few years, bringing Conductor to No. 145 on the 2010 Inc. 500 list.
Another benefit to having a transparent, honest approach is avoiding the unpleasant element of surprise. Galbreath says that if you spell out for people during their interviews exactly how much time they will need to commit and what projects they will be working on, they will know right away whether or not they will be happy doing it. "If people come in and are surprised by the reality, immediately it causes them to be distrustful about their organization," Galbreath says. Most companies do not actively lie, Galbreath says, but often neglect to mention aspects of the job that workers might find unappealing. If someone understands the mission and purpose of your organization, he or she will dedicate whatever is necessary to bring about a desired result.
Supporting Your Staff: Keep it Fresh and Challenging
We know that stacking any worker's plate too high with unexpected challenges can hinder that person's motivation and performance. Yet allowing employees to get too comfortable can work to their detriment as well.
Both DeLuca and Besmertnik challenge their workers to innovate and excel beyond their potential as a way to keep things spry in the workplace. Motivation doesn't have to take the form of a cash incentive, either. "Having some sense of autonomy is one of the things that drives employee satisfaction," Besmertnik says. "There's nothing more motivating than having success at what you are doing, that feeling of accomplishment and being pushed in a healthy kind of way."
At Yodle, DeLuca believes the motivation flows inherently from the satisfaction in the results. He knows how important it is to keep things fun, and every day encourages some form of competition among his sales team. "They are fierce in terms of people wanting to win, but it's all done with the desire to help our customers succeed," Deluca says.
Much of Yodel's staff is comprised of young, entry-level workers with similar sets of interests. Amy Gutmann, a political theorist and president of University of Pennsylvania, last month told Inc. that 70 percent of "millennials" say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities. In an effort to support this spirit, Yodle holds monthly community service events in which its workers can get involved. Its latest initiative provided computers for underprivileged, inner-city schools in Boston. "It's a combination of keeping things fun and creating a responsibility to the communities that we serve as well," says DeLuca.
Experts, Gutmann and Galbreath included, agree that letting workers take risks and encouraging them to achieve challenges is what truly can lead to progress in the workplace. As a manager, affording that latitude and level of autonomy, while continuing to mentor and support, can produce the best results.
Supporting Your Staff: Foster Relationships and Communication
You can chalk a countless number of mistakes made each day up to a lack of communication. Galbreath says he believes that most of these mistakes are preventable simply by developing a welcoming atmosphere for supervisors and employees to share thoughts openly. Unfortunately, he believes this ethos has been lost in much of corporate America, and points to the fact that the average supervisor spends less than 30 minutes a day talking with employees. "How can we expect employees to be excited about their organization or their job when we don't pay any attention to them?" he asks.
As a solution, Galbreath advocates what he calls "Velcro-like organizations," which cultivate close-knit, personal relationships between staff members. That doesn't mean you need to be best friends with everyone you work with. But taking a genuine interest in someone's life will go a long way toward making that person feel appreciated in the workplace. "We need to treat them not like they are human assets," Galbreath says. "We need to treat them like our guests in the workplace with respect, and with some attention to the value they bring to our organization."
It's no surprise that a company like Yodle, ranking No. 35 on this year's Inc. 500 list, has this formula down pat. "It's not viewing people as a number, but really getting to know them as a person," says DeLuca. "Once you can get that appreciation, then you'll be in a much better place to understand where that person wants to get to, what motivates them, and how to create a great environment for them."
When seen as appreciated individuals rather than automated components, employees will much more readily lend ideas and feedback to the company. For this reason, the team at Yodle set up a forum for all employees to submit feedback ranging from product ideas to concerns about how the company operates. DeLuca cites this as a way for sales reps and lower-level employees to have a voice back up to management. "They're the face of Yodle, the ones closest to the flame," he says. "And often our best ideas come from our employees," he adds.
What about dealing with employee mistakes and poor decisions? Galbreath says it's all too typical that the only time employees know they are going to talk to their supervisors is when they make mistakes. Instead, he encourages managers to really make an effort to praise their workers' successes more often than they point out mistakes (which typically happen a lot less, anyway). And when they do make mistakes, shift the focus from the past to an opportunity to make it better in the future.
"The moment you get it in your head that you're an idiot, then you start acting like one," Galbreath says.
Experts also suggest that managers can help prevent mistake fallout by creating recognition programs or presenting opportunities for career growth. Employees, when treated with respect and given something to aim for, tend to react positively and try that much harder to succeed.
Supporting Your Staff: Seek out and Reward Passion
No matter how excited you are about your new and innovative ideas, they won't go anywhere without employees who feel the same way. It's not enough just to educate people on the purpose of your business; you have to get them to believe in it as well. Naturally, a select few will emerge in your workforce that simply get it. You can sense the passion and commitment they have the moment they walk through the door. But how do you get everyone else to emulate that sentiment?
The truth of the matter is that it's actually very difficult to simulate passion. As the organizational leader of your business, you sometimes need to weed out the good from the bad. You need to understand that tolerating mediocrity can actually hamper your staff, as people tend to follow what surrounds them. "Unfortunately, we hire people whose chief attributes are that they can respirate and that they will work for the meager amount of money we are willing to pay," Galbreath says.
While letting people go is never easy, and may even deter job security, it is sometimes a necessary step to getting optimal performance out of your staff. Some, like Besmertik, employ a "hire fast, fire fast" mentality. "People who are looking to hide below the radar are not looking to be challenged," Besmertnik says. This only leads to less of a challenge for everyone else. Although Besmertnik says he isn't afraid to fire someone and hire someone new, that's something he also rarely needs to do. Conductor's less than 5 percent annual voluntary turnover rate is a testament its warm, dedicated atmosphere.
One way to ensure employees genuinely enjoy their work is to find the right ones early on. You will do both yourself and your staff a service by setting the bar high and rewarding the best, no matter how big or small your organization. Sam Feuer of MindSmack.com, a media design firm based in New York, settles for nothing but the elite when filling out his small staff of only four. "If you have something that's special and that you've built, then surround yourself that you feel are as passionate and fiery as you are," says Feuer, who brought the company to No. 114 on the 2010 Inc. 500 list. "It's impossible to fail if you have something special."