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Are You Asking Too Much of Your Best Employees?

They work like demons and never complain, and that's exactly the problem. Here's how to push your best people ahead without pushing them out the door.
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Every fast-moving start-up goes through growing pains:

  • Having to work in tight quarters because you’ve literally outgrown your office space.
  • Losing sales because your current phone system can't handle a growing number of calls.
  • Surrendering your Tupperware lunch because your homemade pasta no longer fits in the tiny office fridge.

And of course, parting ways with a key employee because unanticipated growth led to a culture change within.

A few months ago, we lost one of our most valued employees due to growth and the changing needs of the company. A rare Millennial, Amy was extremely responsible and meticulous. She was never late and incredibly productive. As the company grew and our staff expanded, we thought it was only fair to promote her to a more senior position and give her more managerial responsibilities.

It ended badly. She left. Here’s what I learned as a result of this experience:

Ask your employees if they want the new job

As crazy as it sounds, sometimes promotions and new responsibilities may not be what motivates your seasoned employees. As your company grows, you might find that some people feel happier with the comfort of performing familiar tasks. Some employees find it soothing to know what to expect on a daily basis, and if they do it exceptionally well, there’s no harm in that.

Watch for red flags

When roles change in a small business, it’s vital to closely monitor your employees' progress. Is everything going according to plan? Are people adjusting well to their new role? In hindsight, Amy's discomfort was evident from the get-go, but we kept pushing her to succeed because we knew she could. Oddly enough, at the very end of her journey she showed us she was very capable of managing correctly, setting boundaries, and expecting results. The problem was, it didn't make her happy.

Spend time explaining change to your staff--and how it affects them

In a start-up, it’s natural for employees to feel blind-sided by rapid growth, expansion projects, and incoming members. Employees are used to working closely with other co-workers, knowing them well, and understanding the social dynamics within the business. So as your company expands, spend some serious time explaining to others how the change will help the company’s overall interests, which in turn will benefit their personal career goals. This is an ongoing process, not just a one-time sit-down meeting.

Factor in culture when hiring

It might be tough, but learn to resist your profit-maximizing instincts. The candidate with the best resumé and experience may not be a team player (and may even be a flat-out jerk to others), and just because he or she can generate the most sales doesn’t mean it’s the right fit. Sometimes, you may want to choose a candidate with the right balance between competency and kinship. Hiring someone who doesn’t gel with others can demotivate your staff and drive some of your best people away. That ultimately can cost you way more than the short-term sales lost by not hiring the potential hotshot.

Have a backup plan--and be ready to implement it ASAP

The toughest lesson learned: Never make a dramatic staff move without a contingency plan. If you plan on executing a major staff restructuring in a small company, think of how to make emergency adjustments before your expected launch date. We had no Plan B when Amy gave her notice, and going on crisis control when your critical operations are at stake (and the volume of sales continues to expand) may be very detrimental to your bottom line.

The takeaway: With growth comes change. As an entrepreneur you must learn the art of motivating seasoned employees even as you move them out of their comfort zone. Not every employee wants to grow as your company gets bigger, and that's fine. Just make sure you don't learn this the hard way.

Last updated: Jul 10, 2012

MAYRA JIMENEZ | Co-founder, Orchid Boutique

In 2007, Mayra Jimenez and her husband founded The Orchid Boutique, which specializes in designer swimwear made in their native Colombia. Today, Orchid Boutique is a multimillion-dollar business.




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