Shortly after a fire destroyed his company's production plant earlier this year, Brad Sterl, CEO of Rustic Crust, a Pittsfield, New Hampshire-based maker of pizza crusts, met with employees to talk about options. As one of the town's leading employers, having Rustic Crust close down its operations was devastating. But Sterl reassured staff that not only would he have a temporary facility up and running soon, but that he would continue to pay them.
"I also listened to what we could do to help them do their job better," he relates.
By communicating with employees during a crisis and adopting a positive but realistic outlook, Sterl was able to maintain employee morale and prevent a potentially disastrous situation from spiraling out of control.
Several weeks ago, Rustic Crust broke ground on a new facility that will open in the fall. In addition, Sterl says that the company has also launched programs based on the feedback he received from employees in the days and weeks following the fire.
And while Sterl’s experience serves as a prime example of how a small business owner can take charge of difficult circumstances and secure employee buy-in, it doesn’t take a crisis to hone your leadership skills. Below are some tips from small business owners that have helped them become—and remain—better leaders.
Be transparent and listen to employees
Small business owners who are intent on becoming exemplary leaders must have clear and transparent communication with employees. Whether it’s during a booming period or when a business is in distress, keeping workers informed enhances company culture and unity. In Sterl's case, clear and candid conversations with his workers helped to keep a devastating event from getting worse, and also prevented all his employees from leaving.
Sterl says being accessible to employees at all levels and following through with actions based on promises are imperatives for effective business leadership, regardless of company size. For example, when Sterl met with employees following the fire to address their concerns, he asked them for feedback on how “we could do better at the new facility.”
According to him, ergonomics, which is the study of arranging and designing things to improve safety and efficiency for people, was a big issue for his workers. So the new facility was built with that in mind.
And on the basis of these one-on-one meetings, he also hired a job coach for his employees. This person’s role, says Sterl, “is to work with all of the production employees to help them advance in their position.” This can include dealing with language barriers as well as getting specific job training.
“Don't become detached as the company grows,” cautions Sterl. “A good CEO will continue to have a good understanding of the company culture and its products.”
When bosses excessively interfere with an employee's performance on the job, they are signaling a lack of trust with the worker. Why hire anyone if you won’t let them do their job?
Brian Short, the founder of Allnurses.com, a networking site for nurses and nursing students,
is a champion of the importance of allowing workers free rein to do their jobs without excessive intervention from bosses. Having recently stopped telecommuting, Short moved to an office and hired a staff of five. And according to him, he has given each the leeway to do their job.
“It’s all about finding wonderful employees,” he says. “You will get better results out of someone who is allowed to spread their wings and know that you have confidence in them. Nobody likes to be micromanaged; plus if you feel the need to micromanage someone, maybe you hired the wrong person.”
To prove his point, Short recounts how he recently hired an office manager adept at organizing and optimizing workflows. “Unless I am great at that kind of thing, if I try to micromanage this person, I'm probably just going to slow down progress, my employee will have less confidence in her abilities and probably be less productive,” he says. “My philosophy is get out of the way, do what you do best, and let your employees do what they do best.”
For small business owners that operate virtually, not succumbing to the urge to micromanage is even more critical.
Jeff Goldenberg is the CEO of Appleton, Wisconsin-based SchoolSupplies.com, an online retailer of school supplies. Like Short, he believes in hiring qualified personnel and then having the confidence to let them do their job without incessant intrusions.
With staff located in various cities throughout North America, this takeaway has been instrumental in not only marshalling team unity, but also inspiring staff to meet business objectives. To help fulfill these aims, Goldenberg relies on online collaboration tools, such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Skype to talk to employees.
“The truth is, when the team works remotely, it's easy to lack the cohesiveness you get when you meet regularly in an office,” explains Goldenberg. “So the team really looks toward me to instill a meeting rhythm that sets a structure necessary for our virtual interactions and to meet our business goals. I can't stress enough that if you want to be a leader, you must participate in the process with your team. Taking on jobs, assisting when necessary, and following up are all important, but also taking a genuine interest in the work your team is producing helps in making them feel confident in the work they're doing.”
Orit Pennington echoes Goldenberg's sentiment. As owner of the Houston, Texas-based labeling software solutions provider TPGTEX Label Solutions, she feels empowering employees is a big part of being a good leader.
“When we first started the business, I wanted to answer every call, talk to the customers, and go through the mail,” she recalls. “Once I realized that I spent more time being the receptionist than actually developing and expanding my company, I hired my first employee. It took me some time to learn to let her do her work. Later, as we hired more people, I kept on empowering them to do their work on their own. This is the only way a business can grow.”