Do your employees work for you OR are you working for your employees?

Recently I was talking with a friend who owns a local business here in Tallahassee. He was complaining about his employees:

"They just aren't motivated. We've told them...do this and you'll make more...a lot more. But they just won't do it."

So I asked, "What keeps them from doing what's needed?"

His reply, "We've spoiled them. We've been growing this last year, so we added training, we added perks...they're just not getting it. We've needed them to step up, but they still leave at 5 and we [the owners] work late, come in early, work through lunch...we're at the wall and can't grow anymore."

My friend is working for his employees, instead of the employees working for him.

I've been there, and so has just about every small business owner at some point. He's working harder, longer hours, sacrificing time at home. Worse, he's not doing the high value tasks like sales, marketing and thinking (the real focus of his job as CEO) because he's constantly pulled back into client work.

If you find yourself in this spot, get out...fast. Here are three things to do to change the dynamic in your business:

1. Document Your Business Systems

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, you don't know what you're doing."
--W. Edwards Deming

Every business has their system of doing things, but few ever write them down. If you're a business owner without documented systems you're doomed. You can't get away from your business, because you've got to be there to direct every detail. Even worse, you can be held hostage by employees who have created their own systems for doing things that only they know.

Here's how to tackle your systems:

  1. Don't try to create systems, just document what you and your staff are already doing. Write down the steps.
  2. Have each member of your staff document their own systems. Schedule 30 minutes each employee to identify the important processes they're responsible for. Have them make a list of steps involved in each process. Emphasize that you don't want anything fancy, just a typed list of steps. Give them 1-week to get it done.
  3. You review all of the processes. You'll get a great view of your business and your staff.
  4. Organize the processes by function-accounting, operations, sales, marketing-and put them in a shared folder on your server. We use Backpack, a private intranet, to post and organize our documentation.
  5. Now edit them as needed. You'll find things being done in ways that are inefficient, that duplicate other efforts, that create friction for customers and that are just plain wrong. Fix them one-by-one...over time.

By getting all of your processes documented you can now manage the processes, not the people. If the processes are right, then the results should be predictable when a capable, responsible person implements the process.

Now, you've created two points of freedom for yourself: 1) You don't have to be there every minute micromanaging like the puppet master; 2) You can't be held hostage by any employee, because you can teach anyone how to implement the process.

2. Train Your Staff

With your processes documented, the next step is to train and cross-train your staff in how to implement the processes. Your staff must be capable of doing the steps...they need skills. It's your job to make sure they have the skills they need.

If you're thinking they already know it (or should) you're missing an opportunity. Training and skill development must be an ongoing process for two important reasons:

  1. Up to a point, improved skills will deliver improved productivity.
  2. As you teach your business systems and the skills related to them, you will understand them better and you and your staff will discover ways to improve your systems as time goes by.

Training is not a one-and-done exercise and it's not something that you have to spend tons of money on. The best way to deliver training to your staff is in regular weekly or monthly workshops. Make each workshop 60-90 minutes long and focused on a single topic. Attendance should be absolutely mandatory.

Remember how we were taught in school. A new skill was presented, we worked until we mastered it, then moved on to a new skill (building on the previous). Use this model to design your training.

3. Don't be Afraid to Let Go

Having your systems documented takes away the excuse of employees not knowing what to do. Your training program ensures they know how to do it. If they still can't implement your systems...it's time to let go.

In the case of my friend, he had great systems (he probably does this better than anyone I know). He spent a year training his staff on his systems without seeing the improvement he wanted. He had to face the decision that few business people enjoy...firing people.

I know there probably are managers that enjoy firing people, but I've never met one. It's not easy, it's certainly not fun, but it's absolutely necessary when you have an employee who, after reasonable training, can't execute a documented system. And, if you've done your job in building systems and training you shouldn't feel guilty about it.

Remember, you went into business to be your own boss and have more freedom. Your business exists to serve you and your employees work for you. Take a few simple steps to help them help you.