From the November 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Would you work for an arrogant and cold boss who aloofly keeps his or her distance? Of course not--and neither will your employees, at least not for long, and never at top effectiveness.

Are you that boss? Don't be too quick to scoff. "Most entrepreneurs dramatically overestimate their people skills," says Frank Shipper, a business professor at Salisbury State University in Salisbury, Maryland. That overconfidence can be a fatal business flaw. "The entrepreneurs who get ahead are those with good people skills. But many falter due to simple, people-related issues," warns Shipper, whose research pinpoints arrogance and coldness as common problems. "People skills are much more important than most of us realize."

"Lack of people skills is a real problem faced by many entrepreneurs," agrees David Goldsmith, an Orlando, Florida, management coach. The problem often sneaks up on you, Goldsmith adds: "The difficulties often don't show up at first. With a staff of two or three--people the entrepreneur may have known for a long time--his or her skills may be adequate. But as the business grows, difficulties arise. By the time the tenth employee is hired, the business may be heading for trouble, precisely because many entrepreneurs lack the basic people skills good managers need."

What's the problem? Few entrepreneurs get where they are by virtue of smooth interpersonal skills. Many go into business because of strong technical abilities, others because of sales talents, and still others because they cannot tolerate working for others. You'll look long and hard before finding an entrepreneur who started a business because he or she gets along so well with people.

Worse, many of the same personality traits that help entrepreneurs launch a business work against them as managers. "Single-mindedness is a case in point," says Goldsmith. It takes real goal-orientation to get a business afloat, but this same single-mindedness can make an entrepreneur defensive about legitimate input on how to do things better.

Then, too, most entrepreneurs are exceptionally hard-working and smart--but that can lead them to judge employees too harshly, warns Anthony Mulkern, a Glendale, California, management consultant. "The entrepreneur needs to remember that he or she is exceptional," he says. "But be humble about that, and don't always judge your people against your personal standards. Your employees aren't entrepreneurs--that's why they're employees."

You may think you're too busy keeping the business afloat to ponder these points. But don't you want your people pulling with you? The bottom line is, they won't--not if they don't like and respect you. And that means getting your people skills in order.

"Once you accept that the company won't continue to grow based solely on your efforts and that you need the help of others to get where you want to go," says Roger Herman, a Greensboro, North Carolina, management consultant, "you are on your way to seeing why you need to improve your people skills."

Essential Elements

Which people skills are essential in sustaining the growth of a business? According to Goldsmith, the key skills are communication (do you get your vision across in an understandable way?) and listening (do you hear the feedback your employees provide?). Compassion is also crucial: Do you understand how your employees feel?

But scoring high on compassion, listening and communication isn't enough, says Herman. "You may have the skills, but if you lack the attitude, you're out of luck," he says. "You can take all the listening improvement courses there are, but if you don't respect your people and want to listen to them, you still won't hear them." Ditto for communication and compassion.

That's why Herman pinpoints what may be the most critical people skill needed by every entrepreneur: "You need an attitude where you are sensitive to the needs of your people and want to build a partnership with them based upon mutual needs," he says. "The attitude you need is that of seeking collaboration with your people."

The surest way to get that result is to begin with brutal honesty about how you presently rate. Tim Fulton, a consultant with the Small Business Development Center at Clayton State College in Morrow, Georgia, recommends listing the people skills needed in your business. "Then honestly rate yourself," he says. "This will pinpoint where you need further development." An even better alternative: Turn to a trusted friend or a consultant to do this appraisal. The unvarnished results may sting, but that puts you on the path to getting better.

The next step, says Fulton, is polishing the skills that need buffing. Local colleges offer plenty of training classes at affordable prices; instructional tapes and books provide more tips. No matter the medium, the key to getting better is to keep practicing. "Actually improving people skills is the easy part," says Fulton. "The harder part, for most entrepreneurs, is accepting that there is a problem in the first place."

Short Subject

Fortunately, plenty of shortcuts can dramatically improve your relationships. First off, "hire people who are the best possible fit for your business and personal style," advises Mulkern. While he admits the hiring process can be time-consuming and frustrating, he warns, "Fight the urge to get it over with. Impatient hires may prove very expensive for you. Take the time to methodically consider who will best fit the business."

Just as managers vary in people skills, employees vary in their need to interact with the boss. Some want lots of nurturing contact. Others are content with rarer doses, so if relationships are low on your priority list, recognize that and hire people who will thrive in a leaner environment.

Step two: Really know yourself. "Successful entrepreneurs understand where they add value to their business and where they don't. The areas where they don't add value, they hire people who do--and they let them do their jobs," says Tom O'Malia, director of the Entrepreneur Program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In practice, this self-awareness means being ready to turn over people-related issues that aren't your forte. "A big step in growing a business is letting go of some tasks," says O'Malia.

But the last shortcut may be the surest way to boost any entrepreneur's relationships: "Really care about your people," says Herman. "If you do, even if your skills aren't that polished, your people will come along with you because they know your heart is in the right place. Show your heart, and you may be amazed by what happens with your staff."