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Warren Buffett has stated, “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without integrity, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

My philosophy about hiring employees is this: I don’t want employees at all. What I want is peers with a congruent value system to share a personal and business journey. I want co-workers in a horizontal company who can teach me and make me a better human being and businessman. This means everyone, including the receptionist.

This journey begins with common values, particularly seeking out executive business associates who want their work to give back to the world through service and truth-telling to customers and potential customers. Under that rubric of shared values, I have always wanted to only hire executive colleagues who are better than me at both genuine caring for the client and creating efficacious results, in that order. However, the truth is we are all better and worse than each other in our variegated ways.

To me, the staffing ideal is a company that affords all associates the freedom to maximize their own service instinct and acumen with minimal interference from the big, bad boss (me). I’ve found that this philosophy makes for an enlivened, creative company and a happy business community. It incentivizes and vivifies autonomy as a core value.

Etymologically the term autonomy derives from the Greek word meaning self-governing. To be autonomous means to act in accord with oneself. When we are autonomous we all emanate service and salesmanship infused with energy, integrity, and a personal authenticity that sells at all points of contact with the public and with stakeholders.

Authenticity is compelling. Like the judge who, when asked to define pornography, said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Customers feel much the same way. They know authenticity when they see it. Stephen Colbert famously calls this quality “truthiness.” I see incentivizing “truthiness” in every associate as a primary leadership imperative. You want to activate truthiness, not just because it is moral, but because it is effective.

Therefore, part of incentivization is hiring people who innately share corporate values so they are always, without thinking, succeeding by propelling a corporate narrative from inside themselves. In my case I have hired educated, value-oriented, experienced people who are adults and self-starters.

Of course, everyone works for money. That has to be fair and appropriate. But I firmly believe that passion and commitment are not fundamentally incentivized by money. They are better motivated by a will to generosity, happiness, and autonomy.

As said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing you will be successful.” (Herman Cain frequently appropriated this quote when he ran for President of the US in 2012.)

Thank you, Albert.

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Lewis Schiff’s Inc. Small Business Council had its fall meeting last week in New York. The speaker on this occasion was the redoubtable Norm Brodsky, CEO of CitiStorage and small business guru. This was my first personal exposure to Brodsky, though I had heard of him through colleagues over the years.

Brodsky is a lovely guy–compelling, plain-spoken, generous. In answer to a Schiff question about his greatest entrepreneurial gifts he listed only one: “I can see the future.” And he proceeded to share a number of astute analyses of the future for small business, all of which warrant notice.

But one of his observations especially caught my attention–that being that it’s over for accomplished, well-remunerated, “at liberty” corporate employees in their 50’s and 60’s. Brodsky stated simply and bluntly that they mostly will not be rehired. Ever. Older workers are an unfortunate part of a permanent change in the employment paradigm, resulting from corporate belt-tightening and long-term recession. One of the results of this (along with many older folks simply falling through the cracks) will be a large increase in single proprietorships and consultants as these people scramble to cobble together a living.

I think Brodsky is unfortunately prescient in his dour predictions for older workers. But his view on this prompted the practical, Gordon Gekko-ish, opportunistic, Darwinian part of my entrepreneurial mind to ask, “How do I profit from this demographic catastrophe?

I have long and vociferously recommended to my clients and fellow entrepreneurs that they tap this underutilized subset of the employment pool. For years I have almost never employed an associate under 35 for my virtual executive sales company Corporate Rain International. Older employees have judgment, rich life experience (including the experience of hard knocks and failure, as well as success), proven skill sets, existential perspective, a work ethic, an ability to read people and sophistication on many levels. These unquantifiable qualities can only be learned over time. They cannot be taught in school.

With the unemployment situation as dire as it is for the over 50 crowd, the hiring of these folks should become increasingly cost efficient. Highly skilled, experienced older executives and managers should be increasingly highly available and affordable in this brave new world. Why not use them? I have for years. And with the coming tsunami of what may well be the dismantling of our increasingly unaffordable welfare state, the need for employment by older workers can only increase, with a concomitant downward pressure on costs for the entrepreneur.

The time for the utilization of the older employee is coming. And it should. As French existential novelist Albert Camus said, (Notebooks, 1935-42) “You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.”

Thanks Albert.

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My employees are more important to me than my clients. Yup. Even more important than my clients.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I can almost always gauge the health of a firm when I walk into a reception area. If the receptionist is happy, professional, and can tell you the basics about the firm, it is almost always a healthy company.

Employees are very much the real heart and soul of most service enterprises and, certainly, of my own company Corporate Rain International. This is not to say I don’t love my clients. I do. I work for them with passion and zeal. I worry about them at night. I like them personally. They often become my friends. However, I can get clients. What is harder is developing a cadre of associates that truly brands and inculcates my firm’s ethics, quality, and essence in their very being. That is Corporate Rain’s real value and capital, and why companies hire and stay with my firm.

Ken Makovsky

I was reminded of this in recently reading Ken Makovsky’s excellent blog “My Three Cents” (January 27, 2010 — www.makovsky.com/blog). He states, “Employees are the face of the company.  They are the ambassadors who make a difference.” Makovsky goes on to cite a study in The New York Times that found strong sales growth was closely correlated with employees who thought more highly of their company than did society at large. Ken Makovsky is profoundly correct.  I’ve always believed every employee should be a rainmaker and a P.R. touch point.

Dr. Steven Balder of NYU (In Crain’s New York Business) has noted that great workplaces have in common a sense of community that  is built upon respect for the employee.  He says,  “People are seeking more than just a job.  [Good companies] are validating people and making them feel respected.” He goes on to state that such firms are much better suited to survive the current recession. (I personally  try to be bluntly honest with my own associates in explaining my company’s financial basics, as we work our way through this “Great Recession”.) There is mutual respect and a sense of a communal shared risk in embracing this process. A culture of respect and equality activates the acceptance of entrepreneurial vision and leadership and the empowerment of collaborative, creative, vibrant business enterprise.

If you are interested in reading further on this subject try The Power of Respect by Deborah Norville, the anchor of Inside Edition.  She concludes her useful book with these words:

“If you run a business, why wouldn’t you want your employees to be more creative, to be more loyal, to give that little extra to their job—especially when all it takes to encourage it is to let people do their jobs with a little acknowledgment of what they do and recognition of their efforts….Consideration, deference, and inclusiveness require nothing but a respectful mindset.”

Thank you, Deborah.

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Lida Askew with daughter Kathy

My mother, Lida Askew, died yesterday of Parkinson’s Disease. She was 83. My four sisters and I took turns holding her desiccated body and stroking her waxen features as she slowly shut down. The end was a gentle, hospice assisted descent into the sweet arms of…whatever comes next.

My mother was a good old girl who lived a full, useful life and she died without regret. She enjoyed her life to the end.  She enjoyed herself even while confined to a wheelchair and shaking with Parkinson’s. But, particularly interestingly, hers was a most conscious and generous death.

My mother was very decidedly not an entrepreneur. In fact, I think she looked a bit askance at my late in life embrace of capitalism. But she was a tremendous long-term planner, and, as such, an inspiration to me in thinking about succession in my own life and in the life of my company. She foresaw and directed every aspect of her own end. This included a very rationated, specific splitting and dispensation of her estate to prevent family friction, as well as detailed instructions on how she wished to die–that is, in her own bed and not in the hospital. She was very precise about pulling plugs and not extending her life artificially. (My sister Kathy has chronicled this process in her excellent blog www.thenewelder.com.)

I want to have the forethought to create an equal grace around the succession and inheritance issues of my firm Corporate Rain International. I don’t know much about those issues yet, but I want to be just as smoothly efficacious and wise in thinking about my employees, my clients, my family, and myself when things end. In her modest way, my mother created a splendid suggestive road map.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how I deal with very bad days. Harking back to that posting, I remember being depressed and distraught one day years ago and turning to my mother for solace and advice. (I think it was about a failed love affair). She was appropriately sympathetic, of course. That’s a mother’s job. Then she said, “But you know, Timothy, there’s little I can say that will cheer you up.  There’s only one thing I know to do on really bleak, dark days. The only thing I know to do on such hopeless days is spend that time cleaning my toilets.”

Thank you, my dear mother.  Goodbye.

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Here’s a headline from the New York Post last year. MOST WORKERS WOULD FIRE THEIR BOSS! According to a survey conducted by the website badbossology.com, almost 50% of workers would fire their boss. The poll is based on the responses of 1,118 employees who elected to fill out a questionnaire on the site.

While this might not be the most compelling scientific study ever conducted, it is buttressed by other more authoritative studies. For example, a recent Gallup Poll of more than one million employees found the biggest single reason cited for why people leave a company is a bad boss.

Bad bossism is one of the things I try to avoid by fostering a sense of community and equality within my firm. There are several ways I do this. One, I genuinely try to never hire anyone who isn’t better than me. Two, I hire people who are self-starters and who think like a boss; that is, who think in terms of the whole company and not just their part of it. Three, I practice an open door policy and actively encourage advice and creativity from everyone in the company, including secretaries and  interns. And, whenever possible, I try out these suggestions, giving full credit. Four, I avoid hiring yes men and timid souls who are not comfortable with autonomy and responsibility within the boundaries of ethics and appropriate business process. I sometimes tell clients of my firm Corporate Rain International that we are as close to a communist company as you can get and still be a functioning capitalist entity.

One night several years ago I was watching The Sopranos. In this particular episode Tony Soprano was worried he was being yessed to death by his subordinates. He asks his wife about it. She replies:

“They go around complementing you on your new shoes, tell you you’re not going bald, not getting fat. Do you think they really care? You’re the boss! They’re scared of you. They have to kiss your ass and laugh at your stupid jokes.”

I recently read an interview (January 31, 2010–New York Times) with Mark Pincus, a serial entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Zynga, who speaks of turning each of his employees into mini-CEOs. He recounts, “One thing I did at my second company was to put white sticky sheets on the wall, and I put everyone’s name on one of the sheets, and I said, ‘By the end of the week, everybody needs to write what you’re CEO of.” That’s how it should be.

One of the ways I judge a company when I first walk into a new office is what the receptionist says when I ask him or her about the company. If they can tell you with clarity and verve what the company’s about, it is almost invariably a well-managed, integrated firm. In a sense every employee should ideally be a salesman and PR representative for the corporation by securely embodying and articulating the corporate trope.

We entrepreneurs are passionate, driven, intense people, often with big egos, so it’s not easy. But I feel it’s worth a patient effort to bring a tonality of genuine openness, collegiality, and dialogic creativity to business. Surely, this form of corporate communism is not antithetical even to the ubercapitalist spirit of Ayn Rand’s John Galt.

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