STREET SMARTS

The Employee Mentality

Learning to accept that people have a life outside the business.

Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur.

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There's an important lesson you have to learn when you own and operate your own business: your employees don't think like you. No matter how closely you work with them, no matter how well you treat them, no matter how hard you try to develop team spirit, your relationship to the business is fundamentally different from theirs, and so is the way you approach your work. Employees have one mentality, and owners have another -- and that's all right.

Many people have trouble accepting that reality, particularly in the early stages of a business. The start-up experience is so intense, and the owners are so dependent on the people they work with, that they naturally assume everybody cares about the company as much as they do. When the owners find out that's not true, they become frustrated and upset.

Consider my friends the Stones. As longtime readers may recall, Bobby and Helene Stone have a computer-supply company, Data-Link Associates, that I helped to get up and running in the early 1990s. (See " How to Succeed in Business in Four Easy Steps," by Bo Burlingham, July 1995.) The business has grown steadily since then. This year it's on track to do more than $2 million in sales.

That growth has been possible because of the addition of two salespeople. In 1997 the Stones brought in their son, Steven, to sell along with Bobby. Their daughter, Jennifer, joined as the third salesperson in 2001.

The biggest problem facing their company right now is inadequate support staff. In addition to Helene, they have an employee who works part-time, handling various administrative chores, but with leads pouring in from the Internet and the fax machine, the salespeople wind up doing much of the paperwork and computer tasks themselves. Steven seemed particularly unhappy with the situation when I met with the Stones recently.

"I'm working more than 50 hours a week, and I still can't get everything done," he said. "I could make twice as many sales if I could focus on just selling, but I'm responsible for dealing with the Internet stuff and answering all the E-mail correspondence. When I come in on Monday morning, I have 10 problems to straighten out. On top of that, the fax machine is always busy, so I have to wait in line to use it. When am I supposed to sell?"

"What about the part-time person?" I asked. "Can't she do more?"

"She's available," said Helene. "She asked me for more hours."

"Is she competent to do the faxing or to deal with the E-mail?" I asked.

"Yeah, she's competent to do all that," Steven said, "but there's a problem with her. When it comes time to leave, she leaves."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean, it's just a job for her," he said. "She does good work when she's working, but she only works her hours. She comes in 10 minutes early and sits there, drinking her coffee. She doesn't ever start until 9. And when her time's up, she leaves, even if the work isn't done."

Helene laughed. "Steven, you're describing yourself five years ago," she said.

That was true, but I understood Steven's frustration nonetheless. Even when I worked for someone else, I couldn't get used to people leaving at 5 p.m. sharp with problems still lying on their desks. In the early days of my own business, that just didn't happen. I expected everyone to work long hours. We were a team, after all. We were all trying to build a good business together. How could someone leave when the phones were still ringing or the work wasn't done?

Then one day I had a revelation. The business was about two years old at the time, and our sales were skyrocketing. I was working with one of our salespeople, Vicky, on a proposal we had to submit the next morning. At 5 o'clock she looked at her watch and said, "Oops, sorry. I've got to leave."

I blew up. "What the hell are you talking about?" I said. "We have to finish this proposal. You can't leave."

"Hey, Norman, I've got another life," she said, grabbing her coat, and she walked out.

I was furious at first, but when I calmed down, I thought about what Vicky had said and realized she was right. She did have another life, and it wasn't centered on the company. That was my life, not hers. I was the one who lived and breathed the business, and I stood to reap the biggest rewards if we were successful -- or to suffer the biggest losses if we failed. Vicky was there just to earn a living. She was a good salesperson, and she worked hard from 9 to 5, but when she walked out the door, she left her work behind. From 5 p.m. on, she lived her other life, her real life, and didn't think about the business until the next morning, when she came back in and did her best for us once again.

That was the deal, and it was fair all around. I had no right to demand more.

Of course, sometimes I got more. You often do. A few employees will treat the company as if it were theirs, even though they have no ownership stake in it. If they have work on their desk at the end of the day, they'll stay late and finish it. You don't have to prod them. They go the extra mile because they want to, because something inside is driving them.

You need to take special care of those people and make sure they have opportunities to advance in the company. One of my most devoted employees from the early days is now my partner and the company's president. Others have become key managers.

But I also value the people who simply come in, do their work, and go home. They're important to the business as well. To be sure, you can sometimes motivate them to go beyond the job description. Cheerleading, rewards, and games can take you a long way. But you can't change a person's fundamental nature, and the effect you can have on behavior is limited. At a certain point, you just have to accept people the way they are.

That's what I tried to tell Steven. "For all intents and purposes, you and your sister are partners in this business," I said. "Someday you'll own it. You can't expect employees to devote themselves to it the way you do. If you're not satisfied with this person, replace her, but you say she does good work. Good workers are hard to find. If her only fault is that she wants to keep her time for herself, well, think about it. Are you right, or is she right?"

I don't know if Steven heard me. It's very difficult for some people to accept the employee mentality. It's particularly difficult in Steven's case, I suspect, because he's a convert. When he first joined the company, he was strictly a 9-to-5 employee. But his attitude changed over time, and now he thinks every employee should go through a similar transformation.

Many entrepreneurs have the same fantasy. They believe that life would be wonderful and business would be great if they could just get their employees to act like owners. But a lot of people don't want to be owners. They don't want to make business the center of their lives, and they're not wrong to feel that way.

I'd argue, moreover, that companies need people with that perspective. They bring a sense of balance to the workplace. They remind everyone else that business is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

So it doesn't bother me in the least to know that the employee mentality is alive and well in my company. We have enough people who think like owners. If the others prefer to think like employees, that's OK with me.


Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include an Inc 100 company and a three-time Inc 500 company. This column was coauthored by Bo Burlingham. Previous Street Smarts columns are available on-line at www.inc.com/keyword/streetsmarts.


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Dec 1, 2002

NORM BRODSKY | Columnist

Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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