Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

An angry place to work

I stopped in to my favorite bakery recently and I asked about the business next door, which had been a successful deli and gourmet shop. It had closed and the baker said that “It was an angry place to work …” There it was, a successful business — something of an icon in the neighborhood — and yet it was “an angry place to work,” and that started its demise.

I’ve seen this before. You can be the smartest manager, the best technocrat in your industry, and yet your business may fail because of the type of atmosphere it has. When my friend the baker said this to me, a light went off in my head. I need to write about this.

One of the keys to a successful company is creating a team of workers, not a group of employees. Look at sports teams to see some verification of this. This season, the Toronto Blue Jays spent more money in the free-agency market than any other team. Yet, at this writing, they are languishing in last place in the American League East. That is because they bought players and did not form a team.

Owners and managers cannot afford the luxury of hiring a group of players and hope they become a team in the future. Owners and managers need results now, not two or three years from now.

So the question is: How do you form a team?

The first part of my answer is that, generally, the team is already in place — it just has to be coached and nurtured. There may be some people on the team who don’t belong there and a manager’s job is to recognize this problem and eliminate it. The rest of the employees can be molded into an effective working group.

Calling a group of workers a team does not make it so. Having a team means that every person believes in and roots for the success of one another and therefore roots for the success of the company as a whole.

I used a variety of tools to make my group a team, and every team is as different as the individuals on it, so different strategies work with different groups.

Most people hate meetings, for example, so we took every effort to reduce meetings to a bare minimum. In the meanwhile, people love to stay informed. I solved the problem by scheduling one brief meeting each week — same time, same place. We start out with bagels and coffee. We use the meeting for general announcements and also to bring the rest of the group up to date on each person’s area of work. There, we are in and out in 30 minutes or less.

A tricky area is discussing personal information. It is so much better for team-building to know some personal information so you can ask sincere questions of your employees. These are not to pry but to show that you care.

I heard a story as I was writing this, about a friend who is going to Wimbledon for the British Open Tennis Championship. Nobody she works with knows about this (and she is very excited to be going). The atmosphere she works in does not seem right to her, so she has not opened up. She has worked there for 15 years. That’s sad.

Another way to build a team is to sponsor events for your employees. Our company has an annual Christmas party and a summer picnic. Every employee we have from five states is invited. Experience has helped us cope with questions such as alcohol and long travel times, but we are able to see our team members in a less formal setting and with their families.

Your employees need to know that you care for them and then your team will come together. •

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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