This past week, something hit me while I was reading emails from my employees. They all seemed to have something in common: there was a bit of a nervous, overly deferential tone. It was only then that I realized that over the past month, I’d been in swept up in a whirlwind of operations tasks–new hires, terminating contracts, working with legal, sales, and accounting. I must have given off a harried, “don’t poke the bear” impression.
My upbeat, approachable demeanor–something I’ve always really valued and tried to maintain–must have dipped. Instead, I realized I was silently terrorizing my team. To my alarm, I realized the change for the worse had occurred pretty rapidly. My next thought was, “How do I fix this, and fast?”
When I first started my company, my goal was to create a culture where everyone actually wanted to come to work, including me. I never wanted an employee to feel as though the company didn’t care. I promised myself there’d never be anyone standing outside in the morning dreading walking through the doors. There should be no hushed powwows by the water cooler about management’s misdeeds.
I was fortunate not to have had many of those experiences while working for someone else, but still enough to recall how awful they felt. I believe that it was Maya Angelou who wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
With that in mind, I came up with these five strategies to get back in touch with my employees, no matter how busy things became.
Reporting directly to a CEO can be nerve-wracking. If you’ve ever done it, you probably remember how you’d finely craft emails in order to deliver only essential information in the most direct yet unobtrusive way possible. Place yourself in your employees’ shoes. Email is meant to be a concise form of communication, but that’s no excuse for a gruff reply or a snippy tone. Take the time to care about how you come across, and read emails from your team members thoughtfully. Whether you need to start work earlier in the day, block out time just for that, or tackle them at the end of the day after you’ve cleared away other tasks. It’s imperative your employees know they aren’t talking to empty space, and don’t risk being shut down by raising their voice.
Plenty of things get left unsaid as CEOs rush from meeting to meeting and call to call each day. Personally, I roll a lot of these ancillary thoughts around my in head in the evening and think about what I didn’t get to during the day. What should I do about this one thing? Should I talk to that person? How should I handle this hot-button topic?
If you need to address something one-on-one with an employee, the wait-time is an essential factor. Wait too long and the lack of communication can have a cancerous effect. They’ll share their concerns with other employees in the downtime, and it can drag down morale. Your team member might even end up feeling needlessly insecure about their position. And that in turn will affect their day-to-day performance.
Abide by the two-day rule. If an employee needs to be spoken to about an important matter, make it a point to do it within 48 hours. This only applies to important matters, not minor ones–and it’s your job to know which is which.
On the flip side, the talk you need to have might not be about a problem at all. It could just be a short chat to thank someone whose work you’re impressed with. Praise is just as important and constructive criticism. Or it could just be taking the time to say, “Hey, I know this account is difficult, do you have any questions or feedback about it that I should know about?” Those talks will let your team know that you are present and that you care.
If your team seems shaken or unsure how to proceed, take a step back and see if they need some additional resources or support. If so, don’t wait to implement it. Effective training in the digital age isn’t hard to come by. Sometimes video tutorials or online training courses can be useful tools for getting past a technical problem, and they can be passed along to everyone on a certain team. If you invest early in the time and materials to train your employees properly, you’ll be able to head off issues further down the road.
As your company grows, the last thing that you want to do is become disconnected from the day-to-day work. Whether you lead a service-based business, a retail company, a trash disposal operation–it doesn’t matter. You need to know how it feels to put in the grunt work. And you need to experience it regularly.
Why? For one thing, it’s your business, and you need to see where any holes might be. And for another, your team will see you getting your hands dirty and know that you get what it is they’re dealing with. In my view, the worst thing a CEO can do is fail to understand the work that the employee at the lowest rung of their business is doing.
Employees who work for me know that I rarely say the words, “I’m sorry” in business. Unless I feel that I or a member of my team have truly messed something up, I tend not to apologize. In her book, Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, Lois Frankel writes that “apologizing for unintentional, low-profile, non-egregious errors erodes our self-confidence–and, in turn, the confidence others have in us.”
And I agree. But there’s an important caveat to add. It’s exceptionally important to acknowledge to your team when you’ve made a real blunder, wrongly jumped to a conclusion, or been unnecessarily rude.
There are times that I have gathered my staff and told them, “Listen, I was having a bad week, and I want you to know it had nothing to do with any of you. I’m human and have some things going on that are adding to my stress.” There have been times when I’ve apologized for being too curt to one of my best employees via email, saying, “I’m sorry that I snapped at you. It’s late. You’re always responsible, and I should’ve known you had everything taken care of.” And she cheerily replied back.
Why did I apologize at those times but not at others? Because being rude to team members is not a “low-profile, non-egregious matter.” How you interact with your employees matters deeply. Try and remember how feels as an employee when you know the head of the company is just downright wrong. Fess to up to it. Your employees will respect you for it, and your company will be stronger.
Monique Tatum is the CEO of Beautiful Planning Marketing & PR. With offices in New York, California, London, and Canada, her firm works across industries including fashion, beauty, lifestyle, corporate communications, and events.