On Their Own

Give your independent thinkers space--but not enough to get lost in.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the June 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Ask employers what kind of person they'd like to hire, and you'll hear some familiar phrases: "A go-getter." "A self-starter." "Someone who can take the ball and run with it." Now you've hired an employee that fits the bill, and things aren't going so smoothly. What's the problem?

Steve Seiden thinks he knows. Seiden is CEO and director of marketing at Acquired Data Solutions Inc., an 11-employee engineering contracting firm in Alexandria, Virginia. He recalls hiring one ambitious, confident and independent-minded employee. "He wanted to figure out [the job] on his own," Seiden, 34, says. So Seiden let him do his own thing, thinking he could handle it.

As time went on, however, Seiden noticed that the employee wasn't working out. The independent thinker set his own deadlines and used valuable time researching project manuals rather than bouncing problems off co-workers for quick answers. Seiden's $1 million company was billing projects by the hour, and the employee's independence was becoming a bane to repeat business--the lifeblood of any start-up. Eventually, Seiden began to micromanage the employee. "It was a bad decision," Seiden says. "It was difficult for him to understand." The relationship was over within a few months.

Had Seiden made a mistake? "[Independent thinkers] need to feel they're in charge of what they do, when they do it and how they do it," says Barbara Moses, president of BBM Human Resource Consultants Inc. in Toronto and author of The Good News About Careers: How You'll Be Working in the Next Decade (Jossey-Bass), which contains information about various employee work styles. "The worst thing you can do is try to control them."

Results Are in

So how do you manage and motivate an employee who is working for you but needs to control his or her job? Focus on the ends and not the means. "Give these people macrostructure, not microstructure," Moses says. Talk about the milestones you want to reach, but let the employee decide how to get there. Other gestures, such as allowing employees to decide on the pace for reporting and planning sessions, also help make them feel empowered.

The control issue is often daunting for entrepreneurs. Daniel Miller, 41, has started two companies and now runs a third called BizTank LLC, a Sarasota, Florida, strategic planning firm that works with start-ups. He remembers employing an independent salesperson when he started his first company in the 1990s. "I was threatened by him doing his own thing," he says. "It took several months for us to reach a balance."

Miller should have sat down with the employee right off to discuss roles and expectations and how often they would communicate. Once they finally did, the work went more smoothly. "To do this all upfront is challenging," he says. "But if you [do], everyone knows how much control and flexibility they have. Within structure, there's freedom."

When creating that structure, assign small amounts of responsibility and increase them quickly as employees prove they can handle it, says Jana Matthews, president and CEO of Boulder Quantum Ventures in Boulder, Colorado, and co-author of Leading at the Speed of Growth: Over 500 Entrepreneurs Reveal the Secrets of Successful Leadership and Sustained Growth (Hungry Minds). Make sure workers understand they're a part of a team, not desperados riding the entrepreneurial range. Matthews suggests praising them for their independence and rewarding them for their sense of teamwork when they keep everyone in the loop.

What's Your Motivation?

Your independent employee will force you to confront your own delegation style, so know where you fall on the scale. Your level of delegation may be the simple "just keep me in the loop" or you may want daily progress reports. You may need to change your style to avoid conflicts and work more effectively with an independent worker.

And don't be skimpy with feedback. Just like everyone else, independent employees want to know how they're doing. Seiden has learned to ease them into the job to see how they develop relationships before letting them spread their wings. Then he takes a hands-off approach, checking in once a week and staying focused on results. "It's how you create the checks and balances that let you understand how they're performing," says Seiden. But once you get it, managing your independent go-getter may be one of your most satisfying management experiences.

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