The family-like environment of a new business can be a powerful thing. It allows both employees and leaders to come into work each day feeling as though they’re there to make a difference. By being a team, employees feel the company is stronger.
“When I first started Overit, it was just a small marketing agency,” Dan Dinsmore, the founder and CEO of Overit, in Albany, N.Y., told me. “I was involved in everything and got to interact with employees on a daily basis.”
But, as startups begin to evolve, that relationship may be hard to maintain, as Dinsmore said he discovered. In order to take his company to the next level, he needed to hire middle managers to oversee operations. Doing that, however, created a distinct divide between him and his employees.
“It started to feel like an ‘us versus them’ environment,” Dinsmore pointed out. “That wasn't the kind of company I wanted to build.”
To get things back on track, Dinsmore said he needed to rethink his company and how he could once again be a trusted leader. It took a lot of work to rebuild a culture of transparency and honesty.
Luckily, it’s possible to avoid that “us versus them” mentality altogether. Here are four strategies for keeping your startup employees and leadership united:
1. Admit your mistakes.
One of the hardest things for a leader to do is to own up when he or she is wrong. The feeling is that any mistake will be viewed as weakness or incompetence. But, in order to be a trusted leader, being accountable for failure is a necessity.
“Right out of college, I was an assistant receptionist for a big-time entertainment executive in New York,” recalled Kirsten Helvey, now the chief operating officer of Cornerstone OnDemand in Santa Monica, Calif. “One day, I got his lunch order wrong.”
It wasn’t long before Helvey’s boss called her and screamed at her for the mistake. Despite the fact that any of his other assistants could have corrected the issue, he wanted to make sure she knew she’d messed up. “At that point," Helvey went on to say, “All trust was broken: his trust in my ability as his assistant and mine in his temperament as a manager.”
Luckily, her boss had a change of heart. About 30 minutes later, he called Helvey back. He apologized for his behavior and said there was no excuse to speak to her that way. The incident turned into a life lesson Helvey uses now that she’s part of the C-suite.
“It showed me that even if you’re at the top, you can still mess up and damage the trust between you and your employees. But, if you hold yourself accountable and make amends to the people your mistake has impacted, you can recover, grow and even strengthen that relationship.”
As a leader, you may find it difficult to let go of control of any aspect of your company. But, to be a trusted leader, being able to delegate is a must. Otherwise, employees may believe that leaders doubt their capabilities.
“When I first hired employees for my small business, I found that it was challenging for me to let go of certain tasks and trust that my employees could handle them,” said Rachel Beider, CEO and founder of Massage Williamsburg and Massage Greenpoint, in New York City. “I was used to doing everything myself and at a certain standard.”
However, it wasn’t long before her micromanaging began to take a toll. “I think it drove everyone a little crazy at first,” Beider said. “We weren't being as productive as we should have been at that time.”
Once she decided to take a step back, however, things began to run more smoothly, she said. Her employees began to feel trusted, and she was able to concentrate on the company’s growth and long-term goals.
To make delegating easier, take a moment and think: Is there anyone else who can successfully do this task? If the answer is yes, pass it on to that person and focus on big-picture strategies.
3. Empower your employees to ask for feedback.
Things move fast at a growing startup. There is always something to do, and sometimes, providing employees with feedback gets overlooked. But that in turn causes them to feel forgotten by their leaders.
After working in a fast-paced company, following college, Steffen Maier soon learned this lesson firsthand. Whenever his manager actually did find time to give him feedback, months had typically passed since the project was completed. This time gap left him unsure of his own personal career progress.
“The interesting thing is that after I left my job to pursue a master’s degree in strategic entrepreneurship, I was surprised to find that many of my peers had faced a similar experience," said Maier, now the co-founder of Impraise in New York.
As a result, he and a few others teamed up to create Impraise, a platform designed to make it easy for employees to ask for and receive feedback. Using this or similar tools allows employees to continue to feel supported and connected with trusted leaders.
4. Put trust above all else.
Never forget that a huge part of organizational trust is communication and honesty -- without them, employees find it impossible to know where they stand. And that creates a division between those in the know and those who aren’t.
“For us, success begins with trust,” said Tom Morselli, senior vice-president of people operations at PulsePoint in New York. “Trust in our leadership, trust in our mission and trust amongst the team: It takes hard work and must be earned by ‘walking the walk,’ keeping promises, following through and aligning one’s leadership style with the company’s core values.”
All of that happens through clear and consistent communication at all levels of the company. Luckily, there are multiple, easy-to-use tools that help keep teams connect. One option is Simpplr. The platform offers organizations an intranet that promotes and maintains productive information-sharing. It gives employees access to company news and a way to formally and informally interact with one other.
Employees should also recognize, however, that all of that talk needs a follow-up.
“The most empathetic and best-intended talk is hollow if it isn’t followed by action,” Morselli pointedout “Trust erodes quickly if you consistently fail to meet your commitments.”