What do I have to manage? # 5 – Hiring & Keeping good employees – Part 3

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

In my previous newsletter I made this closing statement:

Your employees are actually all you’ve got. If you’re not paying enough attention to them, it’s quite likely you’ll not have a business too much longer.

Before you do anything else, pause for a moment and just think about this, relative to your own business and the way you do things.  Then, I suggest you develop the following leadership habits:


Bosses with the greatest ability to get top-quality work from their employees operate according to one basic principle:

Most people will perform best if their supervisors assign projects in a way that makes them feel their contribution is important.

This advice may sound like I’m asking owners to start ‘mothering’ their employees, yet many bosses get so caught up in juggling daily crises they lose out on opportunities to put this fundamental knowledge to work.

Everyone wants to know that one’s life has meaning – has purpose.  Everyone has a desire for something greater than what they have accomplished to date.  That is why we adore super heroes, and follow pop-stars; always striving to be better looking, slimmer, faster, taller and brighter than the person we actually see ourselves to be.

I remember an incident many years ago, while working for a construction company, and being troubled by the desperately poor productivity of one particular labourer who had been given the task of digging a large hole, just outside my office.  He was just going through the motions, slowly swinging the pick and loosening the soil; then picking up his shovel and one-by-one emptying shovelfuls into a wheelbarrow until it was full.  He would then – slowly – climb out of the hole and – slowly, lift the wheelbarrow’s handles, and (guess what?) trudge slowly to a ever-growing pile of soil, and would tip the barrow’s contents out, before – slowly trudging back to his hole in the ground. 

After a while, I could no longer concentrate on my own work and made up my mind to go outside and give him a good old-fashioned kick in the butt!  Then, on my purposeful way, I thought to myself, “What if that was me doing that meaningless, tiring, mind-frying work out there?”  And then I realised the answer: I needed to give him some direction, some sense of purpose, so this is how the conversation went:

“What are you doing out here?” I asked.

“Digging a hole!” he replied, as if I was stupid or something!

“Why?” I asked, as if I was still stupid!

“I don’t know! I was just told to do it,” he whined. 

 So I told him to stop what he was doing for a minute and to listen to me.  I then told him,

“We are about to build a large factory building on this property.  The building will be constructed of steel, and the framework will consist of large steel uprights which will need to be anchored on a number of solid concrete foundations.  These foundations will be placed in large holes in the ground.  The first foundation is the most important because it creates the ‘cornerstone’ of the whole building.  You are digging the hole for this foundation.  If this one is not correct, then the building will never get off the ground.  Therefore, my dear friend, the success of this entire project rests on your shoulders (and strong arms and back). 

He looked at me for a few minutes until the import of what I’d said had sunk in.  His eyes visibly brightened, his sagging shoulders squared up, and I’ve never seen a hole dug faster and more carefully since. Well, that’s how I remember it anyway!

The point for him was – it’s not what we do but our attitude to it that matters.  The point for the employer is – people need purpose!  G.K. Chesterton once said, “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.”

Don’t just throw work at your people.  Spend a little time telling them about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how it’s going to contribute to the overall success of the business.  You’ll be surprised what a difference it will make.


 Andrea Nierenberg, head of “The Executive Coach” has these suggestions for motivating employees:

Time your approach. When you’re making a sales pitch, it only makes sense to pick a moment when the client is most receptive. Similarly, introduce employees to new projects when you know they’ll listen best, and they will be more likely to understand the project’s goals and fulfil your expectations.

At a 40-person media buying services company I advise in Chicago, one of the executives supervises two staffers with similar titles. One employee works best in the morning; the other perks up in the afternoon. Two months ago, the executive decided to factor this into the way she dished out assignments. She’d give the "night owl" any projects that would take up most of the afternoon and were due before the close of business, rather than hand them off to the "lark," whose energies were flagging by then. Consequently, she’s found more projects have been turned in on time and with fewer mistakes.

Understand how your employees think. Some of your best staff members may view the world in a way that’s completely different from the way you do. Perhaps they’re highly analytical and you’re creative—or vice versa. By presenting information to them in the way they process it best—and letting them express themselves—you should find they’re more motivated to give you what you need.

At one company where I do management training, one of the supervisors on staff was very analytical. He’d been very successful in bringing in new business by approaching clients with pitches that included charts and graphs to illustrate his points. He was frustrated because he wasn’t able to persuade one of his most talented salespeople to incorporate this approach into his pitches. I recommended my client accompany the salesperson on a sales call but remain silent and see how his subordinate handled the situation. Although the salesperson talked his way through the meeting without using charts and graphs, they got the sale and my client chose to relax his approach. Since then, the salesperson has increased his territory by 20 percent.

Take time to listen. Meet after major projects to find out what worked and what didn’t work for your employees. Listen carefully to their feedback. Not only will it help you find better ways to work in the future, it will give you valuable insights.

At a magazine where I’m doing sales training, a supervisor was upset with a salesperson for losing a piece of vital business. While the salesperson began to explain what went wrong, the manager, instead of listening intently, began to open his mail. Finally, the salesperson said, "It’s really hard for me to explain this to you because you’re not listening." Realizing his employee was correct the boss began asking questions. He soon discovered he hadn’t provided clear instructions. Together, they went back to the client and regained part of the business.”

No boss should tiptoe around employees’ every mood. But by taking time to understand how the individuals on your staff work—and what motivates them—you will be able to increase productivity.  This is particularly important in South Africa, where we are faced with huge disparities in culture, language and race – and all of which will impact on your relationship with your employees.


I can’t finish off this newsletter without first commenting on the impact of the organised labour movement in South Africa – the Trade Unions – and the divisive nature of their activities.

First of all, let me say that I don’t believe there is anything wrong in employees having formal representation.  It’s so much more practical dealing with four or five representatives of an employee body, than it is trying to communicate with a hundred people.

The Trade Union movement in South Africa has historically been a political one – an active member in the struggle against apartheid.  At present, most trade unions are affiliated to one of the larger associations of unions, and the most effective one is COSATU.  This affiliate has aligned itself with two political parties – the ruling ANC and the South African Communist party – both of which grew out of the struggle.  Quite frankly, the alliance is much more important for the unions and for the SACP, for without it, they would have very little representation in the country.  The ANC, in my view, could well do without the idiocy of its smaller partners, but knows that it would rather have them close by where they could control them, than as opponents where they could gain the support of the poorer masses.

Like any political party, the Trade Unions owe their success to their membership, and at present they are on a drive to increase that membership.  The underlying aim is not so that they can better represent workers to corporate South Africa – the aim is to gain power, political power – and through it, to influence government.  This is not what trade unions were meant to be!  These aims are driving a wedge between employees and employers – especially in the small to medium sized business environment.  Employees are made promises that the unions cannot possibly keep, and encouraged not to dialogue with employers without union direction.   In some cases, they are even coerced to join these unions.  Employers are put under more and more pressure to raise wages, and improve working conditions, in most cases, beyond their capacity to do so.

The result – more and more businesses are either automating and laying off workers – or just calling it a day and closing down.  This is especially relevant in the manufacturing industry.

So – what’s the answer?  Well, I believe that employers must keep their heads and not react emotively to this development.  Furthermore, if you’re maintaining good employment practices, treating your employees well, respecting them and let them they matter, and seen to be consistent and fair, I believe, inevitably, the truth will out!  Employees are not stupid, and ultimately, they will get to know who really cares about them.