CWB February 2003

The Owner/Employee 'Disconnect'

No employee is going to work as hard as you, the owner. Get over it.

By Anthony Noel

I love golf, even though, as my scorecard sometimes indicates, it doesn't always feel the same about me.

Golf, they say, is 90 percent mental. (The same could be said about roughly 90 percent of the game's practitioners!) In this respect, golf and running a business are one and the same. Success in both have a lot more to do with one's mental approach than anything else.

We talked in the December issue about the importance of having a healthy mindset in terms of customers. But, even more important (especially to inexperienced business owners), is having a realistic mindset when it comes to employees.

Most business owners were employees at one time or another, and much of the time it was frustration over mistreatment by their bosses that fueled their decision to start their own companies. But it is funny how a few years later, many fledgling owners, who swore they would be more understanding of their own employees, have shops filled with unhappy workers.

Why does this happen? What turns an owner, who just a few short years ago was an employee decrying the "slave driver" he worked for, into a slave driver himself? Does selective amnesia reach epidemic levels among even the best-intentioned businesspeople? Or could there be other factors at work?

I believe it all comes down to one's point of view.

The fact is, business owners in general are highly motivated, success-seeking people. Because of that drive, they are more prone than most to becoming - let me be direct - some of the most impatient SOBs who ever walked God's green earth.

There is no denying that within every new business owner resides fear. This is especially true of those who start their companies with that previously mentioned "I'll show them" attitude in thinking of their former employers. It is fear of discovering that running a business isn't as easy as they might have thought. And a well-founded fear it is, because running a business is never that easy.

Another culprit is time compression, which is another way of saying "I want it now."

Highly motivated, driven (and, as we have illustrated, frightened) people often suffer from time compression to such a degree that it skews their standard for what constitutes real effort. So intent are they on achieving some (usually arbitrary, if they would just sit down and think about it) measure of success "now," that they expect a level of dedication, efficiency and productivity attainable only by super humans, from their very human work force.

Even owners far less emotionally invested in their companies can fall into a pattern of expecting too much from their employees and, again, it all comes down to point of view.

The truth is that no matter what the owner might like to think or even what the employee himself might say, no employee is ever as invested in the business's success as its owner. It really is that simple. But as owners, we tend to forget this immutable truth and often demand that workers make everything else in their lives secondary to their jobs.

To an owner, the business is his life. But to most employees - and the younger they are, the more true this tends to be - this business is, well, a place to work. And if he doesn't like working at one place, you know what? There are countless other places he can go in search of a better fit. In fact, that is probably the very mindset the owner himself adopted back when he was working for somebody else, before he decided that a better fit wasn't good enough, he wanted a perfect fit.

And the only way to get that, of course, is to run the show.

Now, I'm not sure where owners get their time-compressed, unreasonable ideas about success and how soon they feel they have to achieve it. But I do know this: The more they forget how they felt when they themselves were employees, the more they will tend to make unrealistic demands on their own work forces.

Employees will never work as hard as you do. Accept it. Get over it. And then, adapt your business to take advantage of it.

Yes, you change this fact, which at the moment you may see as a negative, into a positive.

Start by throwing your timetable for success out the window - for now. Until you have a realistic picture of what human employees are actually capable of, your timetable is useless and will only cause you frustration. Next, open another window and toss your pricing out that one.

You see, if you are dissatisfied with the efforts of your employees, even if you are following the creed of this column and doing cost accounting religiously, your numbers are wrong; they are either too high (i.e., it is taking employees fatigued from overwork too long to do things) or too low (employees are operating at an unreasonably high rate of efficiency because the fatigue hasn't set in yet).

Of course, if you wait to do cost accounting until everything in every employee's work life is hunky-dory, you will never get any costing done. But I suggest doing two things: (1) season the time studies you are basing your pricing upon with a general assessment of the overall level of productivity in your shop at the time the studies were done; and, more importantly, (2) take positive action aimed at establishing a more constant, reasonable, predictable level of demand on your work force.

Yes, there will be those jobs that need to be done yesterday. But if they are the norm instead of the exception, you need to take a long look at the reasons why (and maybe a look at the previous column's thoughts on managing customers). You need to let your employees come up for air, and the more often you do so, the better it is, for them and your business.

The first step to achieving your definition of success is understanding what you can and can't change and working within those parameters. One thing that will never change is that your point of view as an owner differs greatly from that of your employees. The sooner you accept that and begin to work with it, the better you will understand which buttons, thoughtfully pushed, can help create an enthusiastic work force, greater profitability and the kind of job satisfaction that you were seeking when you started your business in the first place.

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