If I'm willing to learn from my staffers, they're more willing to learn from me. Here's how.
I know my business better than anyone, as both the founder and the person who has, at one time or another, performed most of the jobs in the company. For that reason, I have valuable lessons to impart. However, there comes a time in every business owner's life when it is also important to be open to allowing others to change, add, or create methods that may or may not be in keeping with my own vision. In the last month, I have been privy to both teaching and learning moments with a very talented new hire, who has brought some of her own vision to the mix, but who is also still learning the ropes of our business.
As a result, I've found I have to evaluate carefully in the training process when to teach, and when to be willing to learn.
When someone challenges my way of doing things, I try to be open to hearing them out, and have found that learning from others can be just what my business needs to kick things into turbo. When it comes to small changes, it is easy to be open to suggestions--but for the bigger, more conceptual changes, that is not always so. I struggled when my new hire decided that she wanted to completely reorganize our showroom space. The space is made up of wall display spaces, display tables, and organizational drawers with surplus stuff in them. My approach had always been to leave the wall space packed with masses of all types of jewelry to show clients that we could make anything, while setting the display tables with neatly-targeted trend groups that changed seasonally, and depending on which client was coming for an appointment.
But I could see the new hire's point that it would be good to go through all the items to get rid of some of the samples that had been accumulating for the eight years we have been in business. It was a job I had never really wanted to do, both because I had a hard time throwing out styles that represented part of the history of our company, and because it was a massive undertaking time-wise. While the new hire made over the showroom into her vision, I left on a business trip. When I returned, I found that more than 50% of the samples had been thrown away. The result was a very bare space, and I was on the verge of a heart attack!
Rather than go into meltdown mode about the newly-created blank space, I asked her to explain to me what she intended. Her feeling was that customers prefer to shop in an uncluttered space that shows less "extra" stuff, so they can stay focused only on the relevant pieces. Although I disagreed strongly, and my honest inclination was to tell her to put everything back the way she found it, I decided to roll the dice and try out her vision. The result was a showroom set-up that was sleek and inviting, complete with great new viewing spaces for customers to see more of our line at once. In truth, being willing to step out of my comfort zone allowed us to create a more welcoming and easier-to-shop space for our customers.
While I felt safe learning from my new hire when it came to my showroom, there are times when I know best, and it is my job to make sure my staff does as well. Our first market week in the newly organized space--when customers from across the country come to view our new product lines and place orders for spring merchandise--takes place this week. As the new hire began to pull together trends and lay out relevant jewelry on the display tables, I noted that she was showing some merchandise that would not be suited to the specific customer she was preparing to meet. When I asked about her choices, she told me she thought it was good for the customer to see what others would be carrying as well as what might most interest him.
In this instance, I had to insist on a teaching moment. Showing a few pieces outside of the customer's range is acceptable, but I feel it is crucial to ensure that 99% of the items on display match the customer's taste and shopping history. The first impression a customer gets when he walks into a space is to feel that he is either in the right place, or the wrong place, and that feeling will influence the rest of the meeting--and ultimately the orders we get from it.
While I could tell the new hire was not in total agreement with my reasoning, I needed her to understand why I was right on this point. I explained to her that just as a teenager would never deign to shop in a clearly older woman's shop, a buyer does not want to feel he is dealing with a vendor who does not understand his needs. I then showed her specifically the items that needed to be traded out for merchandise that better fit the type of customer she was courting. I stopped myself, however, from going so far as to tell her what to fill the ensuing holes with because I wanted the project to remain hers. My request for her to remerchandise some of the pieces was the right one; a couple days later I came in to find an assortment that will sell 10 times better than the first one I saw.
I find that being willing to learn from my staff members does not just help my company's interests, but it also creates a willingness among my team members to learn from me without feeling micromanaged.
Vanessa Merit Nornberg: In 2004, Vanessa opened Metal Mafia, a wholesale body and costume jewelry company that sells to more than 5,000 specialty shops and retail chains in 23 countries. Metal Mafia was an Inc. 500 company in 2009. @vanessanornberg