I met with the HR Manager of a potential client last week and she described the company as a 10 year old startup. She explained that while the business was established, growing and thriving, they still liked to do things “scrappy”.
I like that definition.
When you are small and scrappy, all employees must wear multiple hats. I have clients who when you walked into their office you wouldn’t immediately know who the CEO is because they are all working together doing whatever needs to be done to move things forward. It is a unique experience and one that can take some getting used to if it is new. It is the reason many individuals who spend most of their career in big business and then move to small business, have a hard time adjusting or quit before they can really get their feet wet.
It is for this reason that during the interview process, I ask candidates about their experience in small business. If they have none, we spend a good amount of time talking about what small business environments are like and how they might be able to work within that. Many think that small businesses must be easier but the reality is very different.
Beyond making sure that candidates know what they are getting into, leaders can do their part to create a positive employee experience even when you are asking people to do things they may not want to do. In the beginning, everyone is in the weeds and not able to be as strategic as they want. How do you maintain positivity during that period to ensure employees stick with you for the long term?
Most businesses focus on customer experience. Some are paying attention to candidate experience. The place where they fall short is in employee experience. Especially in small businesses, where everyone is moving a million miles a minute, employee experience is usually not considered until someone is walking out the door. Over the years that we have been in business I have witnessed vastly different environments from one business to the next. For those who are creating positive employee experiences there are a few common traits.
Before we get into those I will say that for any of this to work small business leaders have to be deliberate. They have to be intentional. They have to think beyond the service or product they are selling and focus on the employees who are helping them to make it happen. Without that intentionality, culture builds itself and employee experience can become a very problematic thing.
Without fail the first thing a new client tells me about their workplace is that they have an open communication policy. I have learned to ask them what that means to them. I often find out that what it means to them is not what it means to their employees. When you only have 15 or even 50 employees it is very easy for everyone to interact on a daily basis. Even if the work is not overlapping, which is rare, there is no reason why open communication should not be practiced and encouraged.
I have a client who shares in the recruiting process that all employees have the ability and are expected to share ideas and push back, even to senior leaders, when they feel something isn’t right. Not only do they say that, but they mean it. Small businesses that truly foster open communication in both word and deed and do not put boundaries on that communication or make it political have much better employee experiences.
This one is big. Especially if the small business is in startup phase or experiencing some issues with funding, honest communication about where the business stands to all employees is critical. We serve as a grievance hotline for clients and one of the most common complaints really stem from employees just feeling insecure about their longevity with the company. They feel their leaders are hiding things from them because they aren’t telling them where things stand financially or what the growth trajectory looks like.
Leaders shouldn’t be afraid to share, even the not so positive news, about how the company is doing. Employees are likely to be more loyal to a leader who they feel is honest with them even in darker periods. We all want to work for someone we feel we can trust and being honest is a crucial step in building that trust.
Get Out of Their Way
I founded this business by myself. For many years I did it all. I’ve built the brand by myself and handled all client work from top to bottom. Once I reached max capacity I started adding team members. While it is nice to delegate and move things off my plate, it’s also tough at times to have someone else do things in a way that I wouldn’t. I have to remind myself to get out of their way and let them do it.
Because founders are clearly passionate about the business and have a very vested interest in how things are going, they can be some of the worst micromanagers. Even if they weren’t prone to micromanaging before their entrepreneurial journey, starting a business can turn them into one. Nothing turns competent, capable employees off faster than being micromanaged.
To avoid this in my business, all my staff is virtual and I have a policy that allows them to work when, how and where they want. All I want to know is that the work is being done. Keeping it this way keeps me from seeing what they are doing every day and wondering if they should be focusing on something else. It also minimizes my urge to tell them how to do something they are completely capable of doing on their own. Something I believe they appreciate.
Creating positive employee experiences isn’t about fun parties or foosball tables. It is about fostering an environment where employees feel like they can trust leadership, where there is an open and continual loop of information and where deeply honest conversations can be had without consequence. Having those fundamentals in place makes everything else that much easier.
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