Long after Machiavelli first posed the evocative question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, small business owners still wrestle with similar concerns. But should they have to? Can entrepreneurs be tough, effective leaders and still be liked (or even loved) by their employees?
The short answer is yes—but with some caveats, say the experts. Effective leadership comes down to setting clear goals, communicating those goals to your employees, and then holding workers accountable for meeting them, says Mike Staver, CEO of The Staver Group, a coaching and professional development firm, and author of the book Leadership Isn’t for Cowards. “Holding people accountable is not mean and it doesn’t indicate that you’re a bad person; it’s simply good business,” he says. The trouble, Staver believes, comes when small business owners sacrifice any or all of that strategy in order to be viewed by the staff as a good guy or gal.
When working with his small business clients, Staver says one of his first recommendations is: Don’t take things so personally. “Most [owners] want to be liked and that clouds how they deal with business issues,” he explains. “They personalize discussions or disagreements with employees when it really has nothing to do with them.”
Staver recalls working with a small business owner who was angry with one of his vice presidents over a performance issue, yet concerned that she would still like him. “I tried to impress upon him that the situation really had nothing to do with him personally no matter how it felt to him,” Staver explains. “Striving to be nice all the time can turn into enabling someone not to do their best.”
Bryan Janeczko found that out the hard way. He’s the founder and CEO of Wicked Start, a web-based service that helps entrepreneurs with the basics of getting their businesses off the ground. Not long after he started his company in 2010, he hired a woman he had worked with on a past project to be a senior manager.
After about a month, Janezko says he realized he had made a mistake. “I knew from our past dealings that she was smart, but I was starting to see that she had no ability to connect with other people and it was affecting the rest of the staff,” he recalls. Janeczko had a few sit-downs with the executive over the next six months to clear the air but nothing was improving. It got to the point where she was telling him to communicate with her only through email or text, not phone calls.
A few months later Janeczko says he finally made the decision to fire her. “I know I let it go on longer than I should have,” he admits now. “I want to like my staff and I want them to like me, but what I realized was that you can’t change people and I should have acted on that knowledge sooner.”
Put it in Writing
The informal nature of many small businesses can lead owners to send out mixed signals about what’s expected of employees. One day you’re a calm and understanding boss, and the next day a customer complaint or late delivery has you panicked and impatient.
“Even if you don’t have a lot of time, put your expectations in writing and get a reply back from employees so that everyone knows what’s required of them,” recommends Nancy Ancowitz, a business communication coach in New York City, and author of Self Promotion for Introverts. “You might think you’re being a nice guy by simply telling people to do their best, but that’s not nearly enough information and employees deserve more than that.”
It’s also crucial to know your limitations as the boss. Yes, it’s important to be sensitive to your employees’ needs—especially when there are just a handful of workers—but certain boundaries are best left uncrossed. Says Staver: “You can be empathetic without getting caught up in the details of an employee’s life. Remember, you’re not their therapist and you’re not their priest.”
Nor do you need to be their banker. Rennu Dhillon, the founder and CEO of Genius Kids, a chain of learning centers in the San Francisco Bay area, discovered that when an employee asked her for a loan. She gave the worker the money—and established a schedule for repaying it—but felt taken advantage of nonetheless. “If I asked this person to switch her schedule or fill in for someone else, she would never do it,” Dhillon says. “It was a one-way street.”
As a result, Dhillon says she’s learned to keep a certain distance between herself and her 30 employees. “I’m not unapproachable, but I’m tough,” she says. “I make it very clear now what my expectations are. I’ve become the bad cop and I let my other senior managers play good cop with the staff.” As for employees who ask for loans, Dhillon has a simple, straightforward response: No. “I tell them it’s company policy,” she says. “That keeps me out of the uncomfortable position of having to explain myself anytime someone would ask.”
While the shift in her leadership style was a bit unsettling at first, Dhillon says she’s happy with the results. “Our productivity is better and I’m hiring people who are going to do the job well, not just people I like or who I think are going to like me,” she says. Then she adds, “When you start out, you hire employees and try to be their friend. You want it to be a great, fun place to work. But as your business grows, it gets harder to be their friend and their boss. My belief now is that this is work and we all don’t have to love each other, but we do have to respect each other.”
Staver says it’s a message he hears from his own clients as well. “When you think about it,” he says, “the best compliment for a small business owner is ‘She’s nice, but you better get the job done.’”