More than stacks of money, more than lines of customers — even more than the knowledge contained in a thousand books on small business — an entrepreneur’s ultimate success depends on the people he has at his side.
That’s the opinion of Garry Bradford, founder and president of UniqueHR, who started his life as an entrepreneur at age 50, bringing half-a-lifetime’s worth of business knowledge to his one-man startup in 1992. Now almost 70, Garry has a business that spans 16 states across America. He spends more time answering calls than making them, building teams than managing them, and enjoying time in front of his boat wheel than dreaming of it behind the grindstone.
Tall in his swivel seat and energetic even for a man half his age, Garry (does something very “Garry”). “It’s just as important to hit your people goals as your business goals,” he says. “ When you see people raise their own abilities and self-esteem — and their salaries — it’s amazingly satisfying for business owners to watch.”
Having built his company into a regional powerhouse over the last 20 years, Garry’s patient path to success is far cry from the popular myth of the exceptional entrepreneur who straps a business to his back and rockets past all competitors virtually overnight. Whether asking for advice or giving it, learning about leadership or training the next generation, Garry owes his company’s success not to the auspiciousness of one man but the collective efforts of hundreds of dedicated employees over the course of a generation.
The Right People Matter . . . Even Before You Hire Them
Few things spook business owners as much as the unknown, which is perhaps one reason they tend to project a demeanor of certainty, lest their employees fear just how jarring and unpredictable markets can actually be.
Such behaviors lend themselves to myth-making, upon which many a reputation-hungry entrepreneur have been happy enough to capitalize. But despite certain retroactive gloss-overs to the contrary, it’s far less likely that lauded entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk saw billions of dollars in their companies’ futures than the much more realistic possibilities of stagnant growth and corporate bankruptcy.
The longer a company has been in business the more certainty it builds, the knowledge of what will likely happen in the coming weeks, months and years. This would be a luxury for most startup owners, whose tomorrows and next-weeks are often nearly as hazy as their far-flung futures.
When just starting out, Garry says, an entrepreneur’s most valuable asset is the network of outside influencers willing to help guide the businesses through early growing pains. These third-party advisors, whether hired experts paid in dollars or personal acquaintances trading in relationship capital, are better able to dispense uncensored opinions, remain insulated from a business’s successes and failures, and won’t succumb to the obsequiousness that is the often hallmark of hired hands.
Most importantly, owners can benefit from this expertise well after a business brings on a full team of managers and executives. Once an entrepreneur’s outside think-tank is established, its role remains an important one throughout the life of the company.
Building a Team Takes Time and Trust
People aren’t just a startup’s best investment. They’re everything it has, in a manner of speaking.
All the assets a business owns, all the processes it creates, and all the infrastructure it puts into place won’t do a thing without the continuing efforts of hard-working people whom the business owner can rely upon and trust. Even when technology or outsourcing allows companies to keep their rolls slim, the running of new systems and the effort of maintaining them takes skilled and trustworthy personnel, whether they’re brought on as vendors, service providers, temporary employees or full-time hires.
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New employees learn a business’s culture and expectations by watching those more senior than they, and so the secret to building a talented team is to start with model employees who set the right example. Garry’s first employee, a salesperson, was his only backup during Unique’s first seven months of life. His second and third were his wife and son, model employees both, he says with a wink.
More came along. People he knew started showing up at his company’s doorstep ready to bring their skills and knowledge to bear for an old colleague.
“Believe in relationships and believe in trust,” Garry says. Make every hire a marriage of minds. Let your network know what you’re up to. If the people you already know and trust need work and believe they have something to contribute, they may just end up coming to you.
Building Team Members Into Leaders
Getting a good return on hirelings is a business goal as important as any other. Having an employee go from subordinate to leader is as good as building any other type of business resource. Perhaps even better: Human capital is tax free.
“Not everyone gets the same opportunities in life,” Garry says. “If they have a burning desire to be successful, you have to fan those flames.”
Businesses don’t remain the same forever, and neither do the people who work with them. A company’s most valuable employee today may eventually become its pinch-hitter, and any entry-level associate may have what it takes to become its next department head.
“You don’t just give people a job, you give them the potential to become a leader,” Garry says. “You’ve got to be willing to give people that shot. You have some influence over their direction, but your goal as a business owner should be to help them grow into what they want to become.”
Resisting such changes only uses up resources to delay the inevitable. Far better for businesses to prepare for the process, smoothing employees’ transition from role to role by offering leadership preparation and free education.
People Come . . . and People Go, Too
As with any investment, when returns aren’t evident over a long span it may be time to turn elsewhere. Even when employees leave on friendly terms, parting leaves unanswered questions.
“There are usually doubts,” Garry says. “Is it my fault or theirs? I always wonder: What could I have done to make them succeed? What could I have done to make them stay?”
But former employees, who are sometimes more honest and forthcoming than current ones, can help businesses thrive, too. Conducting detailed exit interviews to determine the answers to those tough questions can help businesses bring on and keep future personnel.
And friends remain friends, no matter where their paychecks are coming from.
If you found this article helpful, may we suggest:
- For more on keeping great employees, read Strategies to Improve Your Business Through Exit Interviews.
- For more on proving return on business investment, read Proving Corporate Wellness ROI is a Hard Job.
- For more on hiring the right people for your small business, read Effective Job Descriptions Keep Employees Great, Too.