Division of Labor: What to Do When Owners & Employees Disagree
I spent some time last week talking to employees and separately the leadership at a small family-owned business.
Set in a location of great natural beauty, the company offers outward-bound training--obstacle courses, climbing, orienteering, survival workshops--that has great appeal to aficionados. In conventional terms, the company is successful: it's profitable and growing. But it's also strategically unimaginative, which is why I was there. I also found while I was there that the perspective of employees is quite different from the outlook of management, and began to wonder if that's what the company needs to tackle first.
Here's some of what I heard:
EMPLOYEE: "The work is so boring! Cleaning, bookkeeping, more cleaning. Most of what we do just seems to be filling the time. Or cutting the grass."
OWNER: "Most of the jobs here are pretty low level so you can't get great people. So you can't ask them to do anything very demanding."
EMPLOYEE: "Mid-week things are really slow so everyone just sits around complaining."
OWNER: "The staff really takes very little initiative. I guess that's to be expected since they're not very qualified. So I find I spend a lot of my time getting them organized."
EMPLOYEE: "It's OK at the weekend--it's better to be busy--but we don't really have the time or facilities to offer customers anything special."
OWNER: "The experts that come here really love us and are terrifically loyal. So they bring us customers; we don't really have to do much marketing."
EMPLOYEE: "They could be doing so much more with the site. You could bring people here for picnics, treasure hunts, birthday parties. Give more people a reason to come."
OWNER: "Because the experts love us and are really our marketing machine, we don't want to dilute our offering with something that they wouldn't respect."
EMPLOYEE: "The shop is full of unbelievably expensive specialist gear; it's incredible how much people will spend."
OWNER: "The shop is really our biggest money spinner. We're doing very well with it."
EMPLOYEE: "If more of us got trained up, we could probably do more: sell better in the shop (because we'd know what we were talking about) but we don't have the time or money to get more skills."
OWNER: "Our staff turnover is pretty low. There aren't that many jobs around here and people here know they're pretty lucky."
EMPLOYEE: "The owners? They work hard, I'll give you that. I suspect they have no life at all. And she's okay, she's friendly and nice. He thinks he's just superior to everyone. He's a ***. I don't know how well the business is doing."
OWNER: "We have some a few really great employees. The rest, well...there's a limit to what you can do with them since they don't have much expertise."
On the surface, everything is running smoothly. The owners are inclined to try to cut a few more costs but otherwise keep things going pretty much as they are.
But what do you think of these comments? What do you think the owners should do?
Coming up: I'll write a column about what this company should do first.
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.