This is the second in a series of four articles reflecting on Brian Venis’s career as a business entrepreneur and sharing his experiences and insights from that journey. Please feel free to contact him to discuss the issues and challenges arising from your business as he enjoys helping other’s find creative and effective solutions.
Perhaps the most difficult lessons I learned during my time as an Owner/Manager were with employee relations. It is an area I believe we suffer from an expectation gap — one party has an expectation of behaviour that differs from how the other party understands and communicates their roles and responsibilities. The expectations have either been misunderstood, incorrectly assumed or, worse still, not communicated at all. For many, including myself, HR challenges how we perceive ourselves in the workplace in the eyes of our employees and taps into our insecurities of how others see us. I found it imperative to come up with a system from which to better communicate my vision to my employees – one that can diminish the potential for confrontation in those important relationships. Until I came up with this guide, I dreaded employee reviews and discussions about compensation, causing myself and likely others, a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Most people tend to shy away from confrontation. As an entrepreneur, we want things to go smoothly with our employees because we have “more important things” to focus on. Early in my career, I would always find other things to distract me from dealing with an employee issue, or I put things off until the problem became acute. Unfortunately, I did not have an HR department to handle this responsibility, so I had to come up with a process that I could use myself and trust our supervisors to use. It wasn’t until late in my career that I came up with a system that allowed me to better evaluate my employees, evaluate potential employees, and communicate with employees more effectively, honestly, and in a timely way.
Maintaining strong employee relationships and motivation was the greatest challenge to my leadership. I saw part of my role as the responsibility to inspire others. Over many years, I also learned that empathy was just as important as providing inspiration. The combination of these concepts could create a safe environment where people would want to work. My hope was that this mutual loyalty would create a focused cohesive team that had the Company’s success at heart. The disruption of employees leaving through termination or better opportunities elsewhere would be lessened. The need to build this trust through an objective set of measures was my challenge.
Each organization is made up of many different types of people. As a manufacturer, we had a very diverse workforce that included labourers on the shop floor, shippers, drivers, customer service people, supervisors, salespeople, and administrative people. Each person had their own unique story with their own motivations. They were all affected by family history, family life, and personal concerns. The challenge was to get this diverse team working together for the common good and create an environment where people felt valued, and the workplace was enjoyable and occasionally fun. Although this began as a challenge, it ultimately became one of my most satisfying accomplishments.
Around the time we were building a new Customer Service team, I was asking our Sales and Production teams what they needed to do their job more effectively. During this process I was also thinking about how I could relieve some of the stress I felt over employee relations. What did the ideal employee look like? How could I better bridge the need to evaluate our existing employees with the need to relate to our employees in a more empathetic manner? How could I better blend everyone into the successful, collaborative team I envisioned? Around this same time, one of my sons asked me about a school project he was doing with a group of his fellow students. He wanted to do well in the project but felt that some of the other students weren’t doing their fair share. He asked me how he could get his group to work together for better grades. As we talked it through, I realized this was exactly the issue I was addressing at work. This conversation inspired me to restructure my approach to employee relationships. To summarize the approach, I came up with an acronym for my ideal employee – MERIT.
MERIT is an acronym that stands for:
M – Manage. In today’s fast-paced work environment, we are inundated with information, customer requests, phone calls, emails, and demands by all types of stakeholders in a Company’s day-to-day needs. These demands need to be prioritized, organized, and managed in order to get everyone what they need and when they need it. I told the office staff to treat their desk as a manufacturing plant. They had to take in a raw material (in their case information) and turn it into another product (or enhanced information). Today, there are many tools available to help manage this process, but it still takes each individual to embrace them and use it effectively. These tools are only as good as they are being used. Good management adds value to the process, whereas poor management causes confusion and frustration.
E – Execution. For me, this is one of the most important elements of MERIT. We need to be able to execute on what we say we’re going to do. Far too often people talk about what they are going to do, but don’t actually get around to the “doing”. If an employee or your team doesn’t get the task completed, there is always a reason why. If the system gets in the way of completing the task, then together you can work on improving this systemic problem. If the system is working fine, but the task still doesn’t get completed, you can evaluate that employee or team on this failure, and a lesson is learned on how to improve for next time.
R – Responsiveness. People want to be acknowledged and heard. They want to get a response and know that the person they are talking to will respond with a solution. That solution doesn’t need to be immediate, but a response is warranted, nonetheless. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know, but I will get back to you by the end of the day or tomorrow”. As long as people know they are being heard, they will be satisfied that a solution is at hand.
I – Intelligence. Each employee needs to think about the problems at hand. There needs to be some thought about the problem, or at the very least, seek out others for advice and consultation. There are various types of thinking – critical, creative, and strategic. Each problem requires a bit of each. The underlying questions employees need to pose are:
- Why are we doing this?
- What are we trying to solve?
- What assumptions are we making?
- Through what lens are we looking at the problem?
- What evidence do we have to support our reasoning?
- What’s the best way to interpret this information?
Providing answers to these questions provides our people the tools to think about the problems they are trying to solve.
T – Thoroughness. It is critically important to think through all the possible outcomes of a solution. We need to ensure that we understand all the assumptions we’re making and that they haven’t blinded us to any potential solutions. I’m reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride when the gang is looking to storm the castle to save Princess Buttercup. The Man in Black asks for a list of their assets. It is only after one of them brings out a cloak that wasn’t included in the list (because it wasn’t thought to be important) that the best solution is found. A good reminder on thoroughness.
With my introduction of the MERIT system, everyone in my company now had what they needed to solve the problem at hand. They knew how to respond to customers, deal with suppliers, and plan an effective outcome. It provided me with an approach that everyone could understand and use when presented with a problem or plan. It even became a bit of a joke when something went wrong as all I would do was to mention the letter where we missed the mark. It added some levity to the workplace and alleviated any confrontation and politics. MERIT also helped with our recruiting process as everyone involved in the hiring decision had an effective framework for evaluating new people and how they would fit into our cohesive team.
MERIT seemed to encapsulate everything I wanted in my ideal employee, and it gave me and our employees a clear framework to work without judgement and with an understanding of expectations. Although it didn’t solve every employee problem, it went a long way to providing structure and removing the stress surrounding employee-employer relations.
We often state that our employees are our most valued resource and that they drive our businesses towards success. During my 30-year corporate adventure, I ultimately discovered how to align the human resource element of my business in line with my overall strategy for business success. I found that for the most part, our employees all wanted to do well in their jobs, and that any frustration they felt was usually related to an expectation gap between accomplishment and reward. MERIT became our guide and tool that helped propel the company to success.