From Gallup polls to the Harvard Business Review, the evidence shows that most businesses struggle to manage their employees well. Large or small, most companies have not “cracked the code” on this critical part of business operations. Yet, I dare to think I can give you the keys to doing it well over a series of blog posts. Am I full of, well, something? Or can I really help you, a business owner, manage your employees well? Read on and let me know what you think!

Let me start by quoting Ray Dalio, founder of the world’s largest hedge fund: “The ‘who’ is more important than the ‘what’.” The first key to managing employees well is…who does it? For my money, this is an easy answer—the employee’s manager must manage him/her. This may seem self-evident, but many owners fail to understand or implement this, particularly as their business grows.

If your company is small and everyone reports to you, then managing them is obviously one of your (many) responsibilities. However, as the company grows and you hire managers, THEY are responsible for managing their employees—and YOU are responsible for holding them accountable to do it. Of course, they need support to do it well, especially if they are first-time managers, but you cannot and should not do their job for them, any more than you would do any other part of their job.

The second key to managing employees well is to become comfortable with paradox. On the one hand, you need a system, so that you are not just winging it. On the other hand, each employee is different, so you need to treat each one differently—which can feel like winging it. See the paradox? In the rest of this post, I want to look at WHY you need a system. We’ll look at when and why to flex from the system in a future post.

General Eisenhower was in charge of planning what is probably still the most complex operation the world has known, the Normandy invasion. Something so complex had to be meticulously organized, with the movements of hundreds of thousands of men and millions of tons of supplies and equipment carefully synchronized so that the right “stuff” showed up at the right time, in the right order. At the end of it, he observed, “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.” By that, he meant that the system for planning was far more important than the end result. Similarly, your system for managing people is more important than any particular decision you make.

Taking a systematic approach to the entire employee lifecycle—recruiting, hiring, onboarding, managing, promoting, firing, and retiring—gives you the foundation for making the adjustments and one-off decisions you must inevitably make. Having (and following) a system provides consistency to the employee experience and reduces the number of decisions you must make along the way, which frees time and energy to focus on the key decisions. 

There is a second paradox to consider—a decision about an employee is never just about the employee. In fact, often the impact on the particular employee is the smaller concern. Every action a manager takes, every decision a manager makes, will be observed and assessed by the rest of the team. Their assessment criteria will be some variation of these two questions: Is what just happened just? How would I feel or react if it happened to me?

If the action or decision is perceived by each employee to be aligned with your company’s values and culture and to be for the greater good of the entire company, then it will accomplish several very important things. It will reinforce your company’s values, it will strengthen your company’s culture, and it will increase your employees’ engagement and desire to remain an employee. The opposite is of course true—if the action or decision is not aligned with the company’s values or culture, or is perceived to not be for the greater good of the company, then the company’s values will be seen to be mere window dressing, your culture will be weakened, and employees will start to consider their long-term employment plans.

My hope is that this post was thought-provoking and helpful. In my following posts, I will describe what your system must include. Stay tuned for news!