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Kenneth Keller: Take care of your business like it is your family

Inside Business

Posted: September 1, 2009 5:53 p.m.
Updated: September 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there are profound differences between children and adults. I recently spent time with my two-year-old granddaughter and had time to observe her. As I played with her, read to her and watched her, it struck me that within an organization there are substantial barriers between the owner and employees.

I want to make clear that I don’t consider the “adults” in the organization to be the owner and I certainly don’t want anyone to misconstrue that I think employees are the “children” in the relationship. I am using these only as examples to demonstrate the similarities and differences between groups of people in the same unit.

n Speak a different language. My granddaughter started to learn sign language, a language I do not know. This became evident to me when she saw me eating crackers. She began tapping her elbow, the sign for crackers. Until I asked my daughter in law to interpret and learned what my granddaughter was trying to communicate to me, I must have appeared like an idiot to her.

Just like a two-year-old speaks a different language than their parents, two different languages are spoken in most businesses.

Owners think in terms of “cash flow,” “profits,” and “balance sheet.” Those are terms used often and with a known definition to those responsible for running an operation.

Employees speak in another language, containing such vocabulary as “payday,” “vacations,” and “time to go home.”

Many running a business would like to change employee attitudes so that employees think and act more like owners. There are many possible answers, but one way to start the process is to make sure everyone is using a common language.   

n Have different priorities. My granddaughter, like most little ones, has her priorities. They include laughing and playing, learning, eating, running around, talking and sleeping. Crying doesn’t appear on the list, but it happens once in a while.

Owners have priorities too. They include finding and keeping clients, billing and collecting money and managing all the other millions of things that keep the business running on a daily basis. Because there are so many things on the priority list, often times, very little gets done.

The priorities of employees depend on whether or not they are engaged in their work. Engaged employees more often than not put their employer first. Disengaged employees put time in on the job, but don’t do more than asked. Actively disengaged employees are considered to be internal terrorists so their priorities are whatever they can get away with doing, or not doing.

But here is the difference: my granddaughter’s parents have only a few priorities for their daughter and they have only a few rules for her. Those priorities are cast in stone and those rules are repeated often and enforced. There aren’t daily disagreements about what to do, when to do it or who is going to do it. Things just get done and the unit, their family, flourishes.

n Want respect and attention. Babies and children want the attention and approval of their parents. We laugh at onset of the “terrible twos” but that is when children start to show independence on the long road to adulthood.

Many owners seek the approval and respect of their employees and sometimes forget how easy it is to lose it. Employees also want the respect of coworkers and their supervisors.

I noticed how much more engaged my granddaughter became when I got down on her level (on the floor) and saw what she saw, played with what she was playing with, and took the time and had the patience to be a part of her world. I was glad I did this. I have a better understanding of how I can help her even if I don’t see her as often as I would like.

Owners want employees to understand the world they live in. This world consists of liability, cash flow, profitability, making payroll and taking care of clients. This is a world where watching pennies matters, where every employee needs to be a profit center, contributing to the financial health of the company and not being a drain, of making a contribution to find and keep happy clients and to live up to the values laid out for the company to fulfill the mission to the best of abilities.

Employees want their owners to know that when they are working hard, doing the right things, they want to be noticed. No employee wants to simply be known as a “worker bee” or “a cog in the man’s machine.” They want to be recognized for the contributions they make. And just like the owner who should know right where things are with the company, employees want to know “what the score is” and how they are doing versus what is expected of them. The hard workers know who the lazy employees are and want ownership to terminate them because lazy employees kill morale and productivity.

Closing the gap between owners and employees is hard, perhaps even difficult. But for an organization to be successful, having a common language, the same priorities and providing respect and attention for all who earn it is a great way to get started on the road to long term success.

Ken Keller is president of Renaissance Executive Forums, which brings business owners together in facilitated peer advisory boards. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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