Why you need to be unflinching when it comes to the people with whom you surround yourself
What do you do when your team needs to expand? When I started my small business, I was joined in partnership with three other powerful, dynamic women. We all shared a common vision and decisions were generated out of strong and deep consensus. All four of us know exactly where we’re taking this company, and on a fundamental level, we all agree on how we need to get there.
The problems started when we realized the need to take on employees. To be able to serve our clients while still maintaining the ability for top-level strategic thinking, we (the directors) had to start separating ourselves from the operational side of things.
At a board meeting some months ago, we admitted to each other that it was time to let other people in on the fun (and stress) that our business operations entail. We identified two crucial roles – a CEO to keep our projects and operations on track, and staff members to actually carry out the day-to-day work of our fastest-expanding division. I was given the task of getting our first set of staff hires in place by year’s end.
Naturally, I began by pushing a call to action through our social channels, and reaching out to individuals in my personal network who I thought had the skills and the temperament to do the job well. I came up with a simple application package (headshot, bio, 3-item portfolio), and asked each person to submit. Of those who did, I then assigned a test task to gauge how they handled time-bound work.
Over and over, I was disappointed. Some people wanted to do the test task before they had submitted the required items. Some people just sent links to huge online portfolios. Others sent in headshots that were so off the wall, or of such low quality, that they were unusable. Some missed the deadline of the test task without ever communicating that they would be delayed.
After a few weeks, I started to grow bitter. How could people not understand that I was trying to build a business?! How could people be so cavalier about communicating? Didn’t these people want to make money? Yes, I am a fun-loving person, and I can party as hard as anyone else on Friday and Saturday nights (and random weeknights too, when the opportunity arises) but I never, ever, EVER miss a deadline. I lost my laptop and underwent an abrupt change in my living situation mid-way through one week and STILL managed to deliver my clients’ work ahead of schedule.
Where was I going wrong? Complaints to family and friends were met with mental shrugs. “You know the culture down here”, they said. (I live in the tropics.)
“People don’t take things as seriously as you do, you have to cut them some slack.”
After sitting and thinking for a while, doubts started to creep in. Was I being too rigid in my requirements? Should I relax my standards so that I could get at least ONE person on board? I started adding people to our shared tasking system before they completed the application requirements. They sat there, idle, as deadline after deadline passed. Each exhorting message I’d send through the administration account was met with empty promises to complete the tasks, followed by ominous silence, until the next stern or pleading admin message came along.
At our next board meeting, I loudly despaired over our shared Skype connection. I had fallen behind in my company-building duties because I was spending so much time managing a group of recalcitrant non-performers. My partners demanded I take a firm tack. Purge everyone who had not yet completed their requirements, send one last message letting the survivors know that they too would be cut if they did not start meeting deadlines and communicating with administration, and then plan out a month’s worth of tasks, fully preparing myself for weekly cuts from the roster if necessary.
The first week was painful. I had personal conversations with each person I cut, many of them family and friends. Reactions ranged from understanding to rage to begging for second (or third, or fourth) chances. It was the latter that got to me the most. For a life-long collector of stray animals, the empathy I felt towards stories of hardship and struggle ripped me apart internally. I only managed to get through it with the knowledge that I had the full backing of my partners. I felt like a ruthless corporate raider, instead of the people-centric entrepreneur I wanted to be.
After that hell-week though, a surprising thing happened. The admin inbox started to ping daily, with communiqués from team members. Judith got slammed with work from her primary job, so she needs another day to finish her task. Michel wanted to know if he could submit early, since he tends to pack away the work and forget to send it in on deadline day. People (some of whom were actually cut in the initial purge) started sending in complete application packages, unprompted. My stress levels were back in the normal range – extremely high rather than ridiculously high – and the business actually started churning! My baby had learned to crawl!
Compromise is always necessary to be able to run a successful business. But I learned my lesson the hard way – being too willing to compromise on standards and quality is a surefire way to kill your passion, and your business! Set the bar high, and NEVER lower it because other people find it hard to meet. Trust me, the right people are out there. But if you get bogged down trying to manage unsuitable people, you’ll never find your true tribe.