How do you think a member of your team would describe the culture you have instilled in your company?

Do you have staff who will start early, stay late and bend over backwards to get the job done? Are your employees happy working for you, or is it just a job to them? Do you have great retention statistics for people growing within the company or are you perhaps carrying staff members who have been outgrown by your success?

It can be hard to find the right employees, whatever line of business you are in. Once you have them, it is important that they feel valued enough that they’ll stick around through the rough and the smooth. This is how your company will go from good to great, indeed it is how you accelerate some parts of your success by building a desireable reputation where people will literally queue up to join your team.

As a leader, do you lead from the front, or the rear? Are you happy to sit behind your executive desk and issue directives about who should do what and when? Or are you out there, making sales calls, interacting in the office, being aproachable? Do you have an open door policy or a ridiculous reserved parking space? Would you and do you still unpack boxes with the rest of your team? If you are not seen to be mucking in with the rest of the team, what does that say about you as a leader? It’s also worth noting that if you turn up for your business less than one hundred percent, you leave the door open for others to do the same; you simply can’t expect your staff to be dedicated and work hard for you, if you’re not leading by example, indeed if you expect others to bring positivity, relentless improvement and a determination to be the best then you too have to be on your game every day.

When I ran Pacific Direct even during the recruitment phased we informed potential new team members that when and if I hired them that I would expect a lot from them. I warned them that we worked hard as a team, and were rewarded as a team too, once we achieved our targets. I still warn people I take my “ounce of flesh” and expect people to give willingly in exchange for a ridiculous amount of learning, great expectations for their own personal development, possibly in exchange for meeting their own travel demands, lifestyle flexibility, workplace agility…there is much up for grabs. I have no time or space for people who just want to coast along, and I was very lucky to very rarely actually come across someone who didn’t want to work hard to achieve our goals as a company. Indeed the sooner I also stepped aside and let my trusted team members employ their own new staff members the higher the expectations seemed to become – all in pursuit of excellent customer service which was always at the heart of our strategy.

Although I say I was lucky, I do believe I put a lot of effort into making sure the culture at Pacific Direct was inclusive and fair, and rewarded people’s hard work and dedication. One February after everyone had gone home, I bought a single red rose for each member of my team and left it on their desks along with a handwritten note thanking them for their hard work and dedication, ready for Valentine’s Day the next morning. Fifteen years later, apparently people still talk about those roses. In reality, it didn’t cost me much money and it wasn’t even my idea; I stole it from a book I was reading at the time! But I made damn sure that the people who were working their arses off to hit our targets felt that I appreciated them. A purposeful, well timed, private thank you can go a very long way even when the pennies are hard to find.

When you’re starting out as a company you can’t usually afford to offer big salaries and employee reward packages. Think about what you can offer instead though. If you’re the boss and you don’t have a chain of command through which to authorise things, you have more freedom than the larger companies offering the better salaries. You could offer flexible working or working from home for parents or people with physical disabilities. You can do what I often did, and ask the team what the target should be, and what reward everyone should get when the target is met or succeeded. Initially we shared 10% of any profit made in excess of a target, plus some other broadly agreed bonus ideas like duvet days and Christmas shopping half day bonus.

Another thing you can do is ask your team for feedback – and be prepared for their brutal honesty! I once did this and ended up with a target that I was not allowed to shout across the office more than three times in a quarter. That was hard for me to do, and a bitter pill to swallow. My gut reaction was, of course: but I am in charge and sometimes I need to get someone’s attention – but what is to say that my “urgent” request was the most important thing going on in the office each time I shouted? Actually, it probably wasn’t the most important thing, and my shouting destroyed the focus of those working hard on their tasks and ultimately earning me money. I learned to stop shouting, knowing that this would improve the productivity of the team as a whole, and also make my staff feel happier in their jobs.

When we talk about working as a team, it’s important to talk about a person’s contribution rather than productivity. Parents and part time workers can feel devalued if everyone is targeted on the number of calls they make or the number of sales; they can never be at the top if they’re pitted against someone who is able to work longer hours and travel further because they don’t have the same family commitments. Having commitments outside of work does not mean these people are not able to make a valid contribution to the business. In my experience, a mother who has already organised a small military operation in order to get everyone out of the house and into school on time can work wonders in your office, whatever the role requires. These highly organised, determined, hard working people deserve a break and will pay the company back with immense loyalty and agility. Each member of your team can contribute to the business and to the culture in different ways. Your job as leader is to identify their strengths and ensure their role allows them to shine. Consistency must be a watch word and precedence should be thought of as individuals will push barriers. You do sometimes have to say no to requests that you will not be able to honor for all.

Of course, it is important to always share your culture and values with employees, old and new. That doesn’t mean handing them a printed sheet on their first day; it’s about leading by example and reminding people what you all stand for. I am always open and honest with employees about as much as possible. The hardest thing about selling Pacific Direct was that I was unable to tell the staff beforehand as this would have affected the sale. I could though live with myself as whenever someone asked what my longer term plan was, even at employment stage, I would say that I would sell to anyone who offered me life-changing money should I be lucky enough. Things like the financial situation (performance statistics) of the company – good and bad – were always talked about openly and honestly though. Once your company reaches a certain size information like this is public knowledge via Companies House anyway, so why try to hide it? If you have built a good team who believe in what you are doing, you might be surprised by who will stick with you through extraordinarily tough times.

When 9/11 happened the hospitality industry went into meltdown; people were afraid to travel, and hotels were empty – which meant many of them didn’t need what Pacific Direct was selling. Without an amazing team of people on board, I have no doubt at all that the company would have folded. As it was, we all pulled together and weathered the storm. My team once paid me a huge amount of respect by taking 4 days’ pay for 5 days’ work to get through the industry hotel downturn in 2003. I paid them all back but we went with a request and not one person choose not to work on in the trust we would get through an unprecedented marketplace impact. Many of the people who saw Pacific through those tough times have become life-long friends. Some have since left the company; others have stayed put; others I would employ again tomorrow.

I will finish this by telling you a short story: one Friday evening as she was leaving for the day, a member of my team received a panicked call from a hotel housekeeping manager: she had been on holiday and the person filling in for her hadn’t ordered any stock so they had none for the weekend! This woman immediately got into her car and drove to our warehouse in rush hour traffic to collect stock before driving on in hideous Friday night rush hour traffic for many hours to the hotel to deliver it personally. The first I heard of this was on Monday morning when the housekeeping manager called to thank us for such great service. This is the sort of culture I was blessed to have at Pacific Direct, and I believe all business owners should be aiming for this level of dedication from their staff – but you only get out what you put in, and in order to gain that level of dedication you have to show your appreciation.

Written by Vicky Charles

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