Contributed Column

Personnel Points, by Dave Mount, Westaff

Not long ago, I guest lectured in the family business class at the University of Vermont. I have done this three or four times and have met some pretty interesting students. This time, I met a young man who kind of disarmed me. He asked the perennial question, “Can you give me some words to live by in business?”

I can’t say I had never thought about this before. As our company achieved success, I opened a Word file called “Mantras” for lack of a better name. Every time I thought of something I considered profound, I would type it into the file.

I shared some of them with this student and it gave me an opportunity to think about the things our company has done over the years that helped us achieve success. It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list; it is just the things that worked for us and that I remembered to write down.

Hire Smart People.

To paraphrase Andrew Carnegie, by hiring people who are smarter than I am, I am ensuring my own success. I seek out the smart ones — the ones with that sparkle in their eyes — and I listen carefully to what they have to say to me. In an interview, I go all over the place. I can check performance, I can check education, and I can check a person’s knowledge, but how do I check a person’s intelligence? We talk about everything under the sun. I like to hear opinions and how they were formed. That way, I know if I am talking to someone who is smart — and smart is what I want. You can teach a smart person almost anything, so specific experience is less important.

We had a meeting of our company managers in October. There were 11 branch managers and three regional managers. Eight of them had been promoted into their current positions. By allowing that kind of upward mobility, we also have a longer tenure among our employees.

Compensate People Fairly.

Too many entrepreneurs try to keep as much money as they can. After all, they took the risks. But sharing that money with our employees goes a long way toward creating even greater success. Spread the wealth; it will come back to you two- or three- or fourfold.

One size does not fit all.

I learned this lesson the hard way. One of our sons once told me and my wife that he was quitting UVM and joining the Army. We wanted him to finish college so we asked him to go up to the university and join something — anything. He did, and graduated as the managing editor of the Cynic. I was a genius.

Two years later, a second son came with the same deal. Aha! I know how to deal with that! I made the same proposition, but he left the university at the end of the semester. One size did not fit all.

In a large company, it is often necessary to make rules that apply to every employee. In our small businesses, we often find that that does not work.

Take, for example, a young mother who has a great work ethic and company loyalty but cannot get to work on time due to the demands of child care. Being flexible with that kind of employee helps to build loyalty and enables you to keep the very best. The point of this “mantra” is that we need to be flexible.

Don’t worry about other employees’ complaining about your so-called favoritism. It won’t happen with good employees, and the bad ones are going to complain about everything, anyway. The good employees will have empathy for the employee with the child-care problem and they will be grateful to you for what you’ve done, knowing that it could have been for them.

Next time, I will write about other “mantras” — I have about 10 of them. •

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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