I’m a strong advocate for small business owners who take the time and patience to teach their staff why the work they do matters to the business. All too often, busy entrepreneurs tell their staff what to do, and walk away. Then they busy themselves with the next fire that needs to be put out or work that needs to be delegated.
More thoughtful owners realize the need to invest time in explaining how the work needs to be done. This might seem obvious when you read it here in black and white, but believe me, it’s not. I often run into owners and managers who complain about the quality of work or consistency of their staff. I ask them, “Did you tell them you needed this done daily/in excel/faster/by 4pm/with a summary/…?” No. They did not. What seems like the right way to do something may just be your personal preference or a best practice you picked up along the way, but was never shared or explained or mandated.
But more important than the what or the how is the why.
I was reminded recently of the importance of ‘why’ when I stumbled upon a TEDx talk by Simon Sinek from 2009. Simon is the author of the book Start With Why and he approaches leadership, product development and business success by starting with why. He believes that people follow leaders not because of what they do or how they do it – loyalty comes from people believing in why you do what you do.
While Mr. Sinek’s approach is much broader than my example, I believe in using ‘why’ to instruct, guide and motivate employees. It takes more time to explain to your staff all the ‘whys’ behind their work, but I’ve found it to be incredibly motivating.
When employees understand why a business benefits from tasks being done a certain way, two things happen: First, they go from thinking the task is menial to understanding its impact on a much larger scale; second, when they understand the reasons, they starting to think more independently. They stop trying to second guess what you and the business owner want them to do, and they start thinking about what the business needs them to do. When most or all of your team starts thinking this way, the momentum and leverage you get from all these individuals can be huge. After all, that’s what you do as the entrepreneur, isn’t it? You respond to what the business needs.
I learned my lesson on the importance of why when managing staff when I was 19. I was running my first small business and the first employee I hired was a part time bookkeeper named Traci. I had been doing all my own bookkeeping and was fiercely committed to top notch financial management. But it was time to delegate that work so I could focus on more strategic tasks.
Traci was just out of business administration school and already knew more about bookkeeping than I did. That said, I had certain aspects of the books I liked done a certain way: I liked certain expenses broken out in a way that gave me info I could use in management decisions, for example, and I like my vendor and customer files organized for easy access and follow up.
By her second day on the job, my first employee started questioning my judgment. Not in a negative way, but because she wanted to know why. I had told Traci what to do and in some cases how to do it, but I never bothered to tell her why.
But she insisted. She didn’t necessarily have a differing opinion, but in order for her to be comfortable in executing her responsibilities, she needed to how the business benefited from the processes I was requesting. It made her work more satisfying, knowing the business’ benefit to her sometimes mundane routines. Also, over time, she started asking fewer questions. She made her own independent judgment calls when exceptions arose because she understood not just the what and the how, but the why.
Thankfully this exercise with Traci served me well, and taught me how to be a better employer and coach. No matter how long you’ve been in business, you can see the results of implementing why in your day-to-day management of your staff and your business as a whole.
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.