Over the past five years, as iContact and Virante have grown, I've learned a lot about managing people. A business amounts to little without the people behind it. The two most important things I look for when hiring are initiative and work ethic. I cannot overestimate the importance to the eventual success of your business of bringing on good people. But once you have hired these good people, how do you manage them?
I certainly admit that I have much left to learn about leadership and management, but here are a few tips that might be helpful:
Have a vision and communicate it. Make sure you clearly communicate your vision for the company. No one follows a leader who cannot communicate the way in which the company will succeed. The future of all your employees is tied closely to the success of your company. Make sure they believe in your company, what it stands for, and its products and services, and make sure they know that the hard work they are putting in now will payoff.
Show respect. Treat people, including your customers, suppliers, partners, and employees, with respect at all times.
Share your success. Make sure your employees share in the success of your company. As the company is able, provide additional benefits such as health care and dental coverage, a stock options plan, and a 401(k) plan. As your employees' skills and abilities grow, reward them with fair compensation. Finally, consider incentivizing your top employees and managers with ownership in the company. Few things can make a person work harder than a piece of the action.
Don't be too serious. Make the business environment fun at times. While being professional and taking things seriously is important, nothing can beat the effects of a companywide midnight round of bowling after you reach an important milestone, a lunchtime pizza party once a month, or a spontaneous Nerf-dart duel.
Work with your employees. Make sure the employees see you there and working with them. No one likes to work hard for someone who doesn't work hard him -- or herself. Especially early on, be the first to arrive and the last to leave whenever possible.
Keep your door open. Whether or not you have your own office yet, keep your "door" open. Make sure your employees and managers know that you are approachable at any time about any problem they are having.
Listen. You have built a great team and are paying top dollar for it. Hold meetings with your management team at least every other week. Also have frequent informal ad hoc discussions with your partners, managers, and employees. Get their feedback, discuss the business and its strategy, and inquire every so often if there is anything that is frustrating them that you can help with. A few weeks ago I had a quick spur-of-the-moment meeting with the lead developer for iContact. After inquiring whether he had any job frustrations, it came out that he felt he was working in an environment in which he became distracted too often. We quickly devised a solution whereby he would work at home four hours a day until we could move into a larger office where the development team could work in a separate room, away from the distraction of the sales and support team. This small change has doubled the developer's productivity.
Build relationships. Without understanding at least the basics of what is occurring in an employee's out-of-office life, it can be hard to connect with the person on a professional level. One tactic I've used successfully to get to know each employee personally is to take the person and his or her significant other to dinner the first evening of their employment. It serves as a way to celebrate the occasion as well as learn a little bit about the employee that would not come out in interviews or through reading a resume.
Commend more than you criticize. Too many business owners (and I have been guilty of this as well) speak to an employee only when he or she has done something wrong or something that has negatively affected the company. While constructive criticism and appropriate guidance have their place, if you seem to only condemn and never praise, your employees will quickly either dislike you or show apathy toward their jobs. Continual properly placed praises can be as powerful in getting quality results from employees as a large pay raise. Many people thrive on peer and superior recognition just as much as on money. Instituting an employee-of-the-month award and a quarterly performance review can be extremely valuable to your company.
Consciously build a culture. At iContact, we truly are a family. In fact, we call ourselves the iContact Family. When someone is moving into a new house or needs a ride home from the airport, we're there to help. We believe in building people up, not tearing people down. We put people first and have respect for the individual. We believe that we should work hard and be innovative, yet maintain a balance in our lives. We believe in not letting balls drop, and that we're all working together on the same mission. We have foosball and Ping-Pong tables in our office, free sodas, Bagel Monday, and monthly birthday celebrations and Outstanding Performance Award ceremonies. We have a young, dynamic, fun, and innovative culture. It exists because we have consciously built it.
As a manager and business owner, you are charged with an immense responsibility. You control the activity and purpose that your employees dedicate half of their waking hours to. Make your company's purpose meaningful, communicate your vision, respect and praise your employees, and share your success. If you can succeed in building a team of highly motivated and happy employees who take initiative, have a bias toward action, respect you, and truly care for the business, you will have done much of the work toward building a strong and fast-growing organization.
from the book Zero to One Million by Ryan P. Allis Published by McGraw Hill; December 2007;$16.95; 978-0-07-149666-7
Ryan P. Allis is CEO of iContact Corp., a venture-backed marketing and online communications firm that has grown from nothing to over $10 million in annual sales and 80 employees. He is also the Chairman of the web marketing firm Virante, Inc. For more information on Ryan Allis and Zero to One Million, visit www.zeromillion.com