December 2, 2022

You’re the Boss Blog: When the Customer Is Not Right

Thinking Entrepreneur

An owner’s dispatches from the front lines.

I have a friend who has an 18-year-old son. He is a big kid, with a friendly disposition and a kind and respectful demeanor. He has a very good part-time job at a respected restaurant in an affluent suburb of Chicago. He works at the carryout counter where he reviews customer orders, asks the customers if there is anything else he can get for them, and then asks if they need help carrying their food to their cars. He has worked there for more than a year, and I’m sure the training and support he has received will serve him well in future jobs.

Recently, I happened to ask his mother how the job was going, and she gave me a disappointing report. Last week, she said, a customer came in to pick up an order, looked at her son and asked him to say, “What’s happening!”

Did I mention that the young man is African-American? And for those too young to remember, there was a well known character on a 1970s sitcom called “What’s happening,” who was black and obese, wore a red beret and suspenders, and would go around saying, “What’s happening!” His name was Rerun, and he was played by an actor named Fred Berry.

Now some of you may think, “What’s the big deal?” — but I hope not many. To most people, this is offensive, and whether you consider it stereotyping, ignorance or racism doesn’t matter. What does matter is that this teenager went home, related the story to his mother and cried. He doesn’t understand why someone would ask him to do that, as if he is there for their amusement.

But here is the worst part, the part that makes me sick as a boss, as a father and as a friend. He felt obligated to say the line, because he was trained to take care of customers, to do whatever he has to do. His mother told him that he should have said, “I’m not really comfortable with that.” And that is certainly a better answer than I came up with. But her son is not sure what the company would think of that response.

And I understand why he feels that way — even though I happen to know the owner of the company, and I am pretty sure he would be horrified to hear the story. I believe the owner would give him advice similar to his mother’s.

This is not the only uncomfortable situation he encounters. His mother tells me that about once a week, after he reviews an order with a customer in his charming and pleasant manner, and leaves the room (but remains within earshot), a white customer will say to the white cashier something like, “He’s so nice! I didn’t expect that.”

I’m not sure what’s worse, thinking it or saying it. But I’m very sure the cashier is uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure these customers are clueless about what they are doing. Granted, no one is getting shot, pulled over or accused of a crime, but there is damage done. I asked his mother what she says to him when this happens? She said she tells him that there is racism in the world and that it will always be there. I cringed. I asked if she was sure it was racism and not ignorance. She said it really didn’t matter — it hurts either way. She said that for the first 14 years she did say it was ignorance, but at some point she got tired of defending ignorance and painting a rosy view of her world. It gave me a different perspective.

As a boss, I believe I have a responsibility to make sure my employees understand the difference between dealing with an angry customer and dealing with abusive behavior — or perhaps in this case, ignorant and rude customers. The white cashier could ask “Why would you be surprised?” This might actually do the customer a favor. As for the “what’s happening?” customer, I’m sure that he’ll be back, and I’m sure he will do it again — because he probably thinks he’s being funny and friendly. I am hoping my friend’s son will muster the nerve to say, “No, I’d rather not.” I think he needs to speak with his boss.

What would you tell your employee?

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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Corner Office: Brooke Denihan Barrett on Family and Business

Q. Tell me about the first time you were somebody’s boss.

A. I grew up in the family business, so one of my first paying jobs was working at the front desk of a hotel. I thought the way you got things done was by telling people what to do. That’s where I learned what not to do. I spent a good portion of my time telling people what they did wrong instead of really encouraging them about what they did right.

I used to think that was just the way that you managed people — telling people what they were doing wrong. As I got more comfortable with my own skills and grew to understand that nobody is perfect, I learned to cut people a little slack. But early on, people would shudder when I walked into a room, thinking that I was going to find something negative.

Q. How did you learn to take a different tack with people?

A. It was trial and error, and really watching as other people came into the organization. I realized that you get a lot more with the carrot routine than the stick routine. I also realized that you really needed to explain the “why” of things. You need to give people a little bit of space to come around, and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” before you really engage them in what needed to be done.

Q. Other leadership lessons?

A. To listen a lot. It’s easy to say that you listen, but active listening — really listening for understanding — is something you learn over time. Because sometimes you don’t see people’s body language. They might be saying one thing, but they mean another thing. That’s something you just learn by observing.

Q. What’s a bit different about your company’s culture?

A. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary in the hospitality business this year. And if there is one word I would use to describe our culture, it would be family, because we are a family-owned and -operated business.

But I always have to be careful when I use that word “family,” because a lot of times it can be misinterpreted as taking care of people to the point of not holding them accountable. You have to set certain standards that you want people to live up to. And if people need help, then we want to help them along the way.

I think people naturally want to do the right thing, and do their jobs well. Sometimes organizations can fall down if they don’t also ask: How do you give people the tools they need to be successful? How do you get that person to understand what change needs to happen, and how do you help them along the way? Because people can’t always figure it out on their own, and nor should you expect them to.

Q. What else about your culture?

A. We do something called round tables where we meet with our associates in small groups of maybe 10 or 12 people. I love to say to them, “Tell me something I don’t know.” And I’ll get comments like: “Oh, but you know everything. You’re the C.E.O.” It’s just a reminder of the perceptions that people have of the head of the company. But every time I ask that question, I learn something new.

Q. Other lessons you’ve learned over time?

A. One is, count to 10 before you say something. It’s especially true with e-mail today. People will share something and it causes terrible repercussions. You have to remember to take a deep breath when somebody says something that really ticks you off. A lot of times the context in an e-mail is so different than when you pick up the phone. And you shouldn’t “cc” the world, and don’t hit “reply” to everybody. That drives me nuts.

Q. A lot of C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed talk about the reluctance of people to have difficult conversations. How do you handle them?

A. We’ve tried something called “lessons learned” conversations. And we’ve had them facilitated a few times. So we might bring people together in a room who were involved in a project and ask: What were the things that worked? What were the things that didn’t? What could we have done differently?

And we’ve had some very spirited and cathartic conversations. You have to be able to let people put something on the table without actually pointing the finger. It allows things to come out in more of a nonaccusatory manner.

Q. Have you received any feedback over the years, especially since you’ve become C.E.O., that prompted you to adjust your leadership style, even in a small way?

A. I like details, so I will say a lot, “Give me the facts, Jack.” Because I feel so strongly about it, I might come across as being closed or defensive. So I really have to be mindful of my body language. When someone is saying something that I disagree with, I’m good at the listening part of it, but if I don’t really like what that person is saying, I have to be careful that my body language doesn’t stop the conversation. I have to make sure it continues to flow.

Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What questions do you ask? What are you looking for?

A. By the time somebody meets me, you can assume that the skills are there. So what I interview for is fit. And I’m always very curious to know, what is it about our company that appeals to that person?

There are people who are very professional interviewees. Every question you ask them, they nail it. But you kind of want people to not be perfect in their replies, because that makes them real people. You have to be authentic. We’re all works in progress. We have to improve each and every day. Because once you’ve become satisfied, you lose that urgency and that hunger to be better.

Q. What other questions do you ask?

A. How do you define culture? What kind of organizations have you worked for? What do you think is special about this culture? Tell me about a mistake that you’ve made, and how you dealt with it. How do you view yourself? If someone were to talk about you in the third person, how would they describe you?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Media Decoder Blog: CBS Renews 18 Prime-Time Shows

Flaunting the stability that has made it the top-rated network, CBS on Wednesday announced the renewal of 18 of its prime-time shows in one swoop, assuring that most of the network’s lineup will return next season.

Virtually all the calls were predictable because they included most of the ongoing hit series now on CBS. But for at least one show whose loyal fans may have been worried about the future, the news was surely a relief: “The Good Wife” will be back for a new season.

That drama has scored marginal-to-worse ratings on Sunday nights so its renewal had been the subject of some debate. But it is also by far the most prestigious drama on CBS, a network that is otherwise dominated by pure crime dramas.

Less of a surprise was the new order for “The Mentalist,” though there had been some talk about CBS passing on one more season of that crime drama. But CBS is also well known for retaining marginal shows at least one year past when their demise is expected.

Another questionable show, the reality series, “Undercover Boss,” was included in the list coming back as well.

Notably, CBS did not include one hit drama, “Criminal Minds,” in Wednesday’s announcement, but that is likely only delayed by renegotiations of contracts for the cast.

Several other dramas which are considered to be on the bubble — as the term for questionable renewal is known — are not necessarily headed for cancellation just because they were not included on the list announced Wednesday. The long-running “C.S.I. New York,” as well as the first year crime drama “Vegas” were not on the list.

But the top CBS shows all were, including the dramas, “NCIS,” “NCIS LA,” “Elementary,” “Person of Interest,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “Blue Bloods.” The network had previously announced it will also bring back the original, “C.S.I.”

CBS renewed four comedies: “The Big Bang Theory,” “Two Broke Girls,” How I Met Your Mother” and “Mike and Molly.” Not mentioned: “Rules of Engagement,” which has bounced back from extinction several previous times, but finally may be facing its final curtain.

CBS also renewed its two top reality series “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” as well as its newsmagazines “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours.”

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You’re the Boss Blog: He Said, She Said in Web Site Redesign

She Owns It

Portraits of women entrepreneurs.

Beth Shaw, owner of YogaFitSuzanne DeChillo/The New York Times Beth Shaw, owner of YogaFit

In my last post, Beth Shaw, a She Owns It business group member, talked about the redesign of her company’s Web site. Readers provided thoughtful suggestions and comments, giving her plenty to consider as she moves forward. Since then, she has signed the contract with her Web developer, New Possibilities Group, which was preparing a mock-up of YogaFit’s new home page when I checked in with her.

The current home page had few fans. “It’s not a warm place to land right now,” noted one reader, a YogaFit customer who enjoys the company’s products. “Dull,” said another.

As several readers suggested, Ms. Shaw rejected the idea of creating two separate sites — one for yoga enthusiasts and another for professionals. Addressing other comments, she said the redesign would include a mobile site and incorporate a consistent image for the brand across its social media platforms.

Some readers were highly skeptical of the Jan. 1 deadline Ms. Shaw said she had been promised. “I suspect that if they meet this deadline it will only be because they are skimping on user research, testing, or some other component,” one reader wrote.

When we spoke again, Ms. Shaw acknowledged that it was unlikely the job would be finished by Jan. 1. I contacted her Web developer, Pete Czech, who said the “end of year” deadline was first contemplated when his company and YogaFit began negotiations around Nov. 1. He pointed out that he was still waiting for feedback on the home-page designs he provided YogaFit.

Readers were even more doubtful about something else Ms. Shaw said — specifically, that New Possibilities Group generally handles just one job at a time and would dedicate 10 people to the YogaFit account. “If you believe that your new Web site company only takes on one project at a time and will put 10 people on the job for 23K, than I’ve got some swampland in Florida that I’d like you to take a look at,” wrote one reader. Several others did the math, which didn’t seem to add up to the going rate for Web developers.

When I spoke with Mr. Czech, he said he was unsure where Ms. Shaw got the idea that his company handled just one job at a time and that it would place its entire staff of 10 on the job. “We wouldn’t be in business,” Mr. Czech said, if the company handled just one job at a time. As for a dedicated team of 10, Mr. Czech said it’s conceivable that all 10 of his people will touch some aspect of the project at some point — but not that all 10 would be dedicated to YogaFit.

Ms. Shaw said her information came from the YogaFit employee in charge of the redesign, who informed her that New Possibilities Group promised to put 10 people on the job and work on it exclusively. “I’m not sure where the disconnect is,” she said, adding that this would certainly be a topic of discussion in her next conversation with Mr. Czech.

We will let you know what they decide — and also update you on developments with the other businesses in the group.

You can follow Adriana Gardella on Twitter.

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You’re the Boss Blog: What It Takes to Crack the Lower Middle Market

Creating Value

Are you getting the most out of your business?

When people think about small businesses, they often think about those in what is known as the lower middle market. These businesses typically do more than $5 million a year in sales, and they often have more than 25 employees. It’s good work if you can get it. For one thing, if your business is in this group, you are likely to get regular offers from people who are interested in buying your company.

But a lot of people don’t realize how tough it is to get there. Of the 27 million businesses in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, there are only about 300,000 with more than $5 million in sales. And there are only 150,000 businesses that manage to do more than $10 million in sales. It’s often when a business moves beyond $10 million in sales that a line is crossed: You will either have learned the skills of being a lower middle market business owner or you will fall back to being a traditional small business again.

Actually, there is another possibility. If you take the leap and add overhead to handle the extra sales you are expecting but those sales don’t appear, your business can easily fail. Overhead is easy to add and very difficult to cut.

The lower middle market is where business becomes more complex. To move upstream from a microbusiness requires that you become a manager. Taking the next step to being a middle market business requires that you learn to manage managers. Successful business owners in the lower middle market have learned to work through and with others. The better you can do this, the more successful your business will be.

Hiring is always important, but it becomes even more so in the lower middle market. The owner can no longer be involved in every decision and having the right people in the right places can often make the difference between success and failure.

This issue almost sunk my vending business. In 1995 when I ended my career in the vending and food-service business, we had built our company to four branch operations, 90 employees and about $6 million in sales. That put my business and me solidly in the Lower Middle Market.

But along the way, when we opened our second branch, I made a huge hiring error. The manager I selected was not very good at his job, and I wasn’t very good at managing him. Luckily I had a stable structure in our main branch, which allowed me to fire this manager and take over his responsibilities.

Eventually, I learned that hiring was more science than art. I found that if I followed a system, instead of using my gut, I could improve my hiring efficiency from 30 percent effectiveness to more than 80 percent. I also added systems for delivering service, managing cash and creating new business. This was all part of putting together a dashboard that allowed me to monitor what we were doing.

The real change for me was learning how to manage. I couldn’t do it by brute force. I had to learn to set standards and then to inspect to make sure our standards were being met. My dashboard was part of the solution. The other part was providing face-to-face feedback and learning to hold others accountable.

That required learning to trust and to allow our managers to make mistakes. When we were a small company, mistakes weren’t O.K. They happened, but no one would admit they happened, least of all me. As we grew I had to learn to let others make decisions and then learn from their mistakes. The key was keeping the mistakes small enough that they didn’t sink the business. The better I got at allowing myself and others to learn from their mistakes, the better my company became. And the more I removed myself from day-to-day operations, the more I was able to focus on strategic issues and initiatives.

A nice side effect of this is that cash flow often becomes more predictable. And that allows you to make plans, such as how to expand. As a business becomes more predictable, banks get more interested in you as a customer. This can create a source of financing for growth that may not have been available previously.

The best thing about being a private business owner is that you get to choose what type of business you want. My father has said for years that you are only limited by your ability and your ambition. I think he’s right.

Some owners believe that being a middle market business owner fits their needs. For others, staying a microbusiness is best. If you like the idea of being a traditional small business where growth is not your mantra, you can choose that route. Success isn’t guaranteed, and sometimes events get in the way, but part of successful business ownership is being able to take advantage of good luck and manage bad luck. It’s part of the deal you make when you decide to work for yourself.

Where do you want your business to go? What challenges have you faced along the way?

Josh Patrick is a founder and principal at Stage 2 Planning Partners, where he works with private business owners on creating personal and business value.

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You’re the Boss Blog: Do You Track Your Site’s Conversion Rates?

Today’s Question

What small-business owners think.

Last year, Dr. Stephen Bracci, owner of Verve Medical Cosmetics, realized that his Web site was doing a better job attracting visitors than it was converting those visitors into customers. As Katherine Reynolds Lewis explains in a small-business guide we’ve just published, there are a lot of things a business can do to improve its conversion rates.

Last year, Dr. Bracci and his wife Michele, the company’s director of marketing, redesigned the site to emphasize the qualities they believe make the business stand out from other nonsurgical medical aesthetics companies. They added before-and-after photos, emphasized Dr. Bracci’s qualifications and 12 years of experience, put their clinics’ physical addresses on the home page and made the offer of a free consultation more visible. They also moved the company’s phone number to the upper right corner of the home page, with a prominent encouragement: “Call Us.”

After the redesign, Verve had a 20 percent increase in the number of qualified phone leads from the site and an 18 percent decline in the average bounce rate — the percentage of visitors who left the site after visiting just one page.

What have you tried to increase conversion rates on your site? What has worked? What hasn’t?

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You’re the Boss Blog: Further Thoughts on Why Our Health Rates Fell

The employees of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.Courtesy of Paul Downs.The employees of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Staying Alive

The struggles of a business trying to survive.

First, thanks to everyone who encouraged me to keep writing (see my last post). The encouragement was, well, encouraging. I’ll do my best to keep it real, with numbers when appropriate.

Which brings me to this week’s post, a response to the comments on my post about my health insurance rates (executive summary: they went down, perhaps because of the departure of an older, sicker worker). The comments fell into several groups. Some people wanted to know more about whether I discriminate in hiring and how I manage information about my employees’ health status. There were a lot of comments about how insurance companies set rates, and as usual, they were contradictory. And there were pleas for me to weigh in on the policy debate regarding our national health system.

Here are a few highlights, starting with questions about how I treat my workers:

From Aimee: “Kids get sick too — so what do you do exclude people with families? Or women in their 20s and 30s may get pregnant and have complications — do you exclude them? Some groups have a higher tendency towards common chronic illnesses — do you exclude them?”

I want to make this clear: I do not discriminate based on family or health status, in hiring or afterward. I hire based on ability to do the job, and the applicant pool is limited to the people who answer my ads. We’re not a big company, so our employee population does not reflect the diversity of this country. Of the 14 employees, 12 are men, with ages ranging from 24 to 50. Both of the women are over 50.

The company will buy health coverage for any employee who asks for it — and the employee decides how many loved ones are covered. The company picks up two-thirds of the cost, the employee pays the rest. Obviously, the employees’ costs vary depending on what type of coverage they choose. In 2012, every employee but one will be covered by my policies; two who used to be covered under their wives’ policies were left without insurance when their wives lost their jobs. This will increase the company’s costs by $14,848. I’m not thrilled about it, but what can I do?

From Coakl: Do you get any discounts for ensuring your workers are nonsmokers and keeping their weight in check?

Not that I know of. We have only one smoker, and the physical nature of the job tends to keep people in shape (that’s a photo of all of us above, standing in front of an almost finished table). I don’t recall being asked to provide any information about this, other than one time in 2005 when we investigated switching health insurers. Then we had to fill out a fairly detailed census form to get a rate quote (turned out, no surprise, that the rates were identical.)

I presume that insurance companies have a pretty detailed picture of everyone’s health status based on the doctor visits and prescriptions. Even if I did run programs about smoking and weight, I would have no control over my employees’ families.

From Chilling: Do your employees have any privacy in regard to their major health issues? How is it that you know who is causing your rates to go higher and lower?

They have all the privacy they want, but in a small company the reason for sick days is going to be discussed with the boss. My employees are a genial and friendly bunch, so I presume that they discuss some things with each other in the course of ordinary conversation. I don’t keep any records about health status or the reason for sick days. We don’t even have sick days per se — we give out personal days, which can be used for any reason. (We offer six in the first year of employment, with one day per additional year of service to a maximum of 16. This is in addition to six federal holidays.) I don’t actually know how our rates are set — it’s a huge mystery. In the previous post, I speculated that our rate drops were related to the departure of a heavy health care user. But I don’t know that for sure.

Which brings us to these comments about how rates are set:

From Art: The cost of your plan is determined more by the state you live in.
In New Jersey, small group plans (less than 50 fulltime employees) do not have medical underwriting. So if you had medical claims they would not affect your rates. On the other hand New Jersey takes the average age of the group and prices the plan on that. So older workers drive the price of the plan higher

This would be great if I were in New Jersey. Or maybe not. My employees stay with me for a long time, and we gain greatly from a stable, experienced, productive work force. But it’s remarkable that our system essentially puts a special tax on my company for offering people long-term employment (by charging more for older workers). If health costs keep going up, it might be cheaper at some point for me to change to younger, lower-skilled people who are replaced on a regular basis. Investing in technology would be one way for me to do this. That’s not a business model I’m eager to implement, but why does our system offer such incentives? And what if I couldn’t make a profit any other way?

From E.G. Penet: Yes, premiums are down a bit, including mine own BCBS in Michigan. However, deductibles and co-pays are going up, fast. Every good thing costs something somewhere along the line. Just wait until your employees get their bills.

It’s not clear whether you are a boss or employee, but here’s how it works for me. I get offered a variety of plans from our insurer, with different types of coverage and different co-pays. The cost of the policy to the company varies greatly with the size of the co-pay, the amount of prescription drug coverage, and whether it’s an H.M.O. or not. I choose two that I think are the best fit and that I can afford, and that’s what the employees get to choose from. I make a decision, they live with it. I’d prefer not to be involved with this decision at all, but I’m stuck with it.

From Excellency: Next time you write on the subject maybe you could explore the following possibility: You put $5,000 per year into a Health Savings Account for each of your employees insured with you and get a group account with lower premiums and a $5,000 deductible. If your employee does not use the $5,000 for health care it just accrues in his account like an I.R.A. or 401-K. If he uses it he will keep whatever portion he does not use and when he goes over $5,000 per year the insurance kicks in. Would this make sense for you as a businessman and your employees?

We were offered an option for a policy with a $6,000 yearly deductible (per family) which was somewhat less expensive than the H.M.O.: $805 a month versus $971 a month. This may or may not have been intended for us to set up an H.S.A.

Here’s why I didn’t even consider it: plans of this sort put each worker in the position of having to negotiate pricing for medical care with doctors. Those least capable of doing this will get the worst, most expensive health care. I’m an experienced negotiator, and even I don’t want to touch this.

If doctors had easily accessible price lists, it might be different. I checked my doctor’s Web site. The practice is part of the University of Pennsylvania Medical System, which I presume is a well-funded and technologically savvy organization. I searched for “pricing” in the search feature, and turned up no results. I searched “price for doctor visit” and got boilerplate about how to prepare for the first visit. There is no price information, or any indication of how to find it. How are employees supposed to negotiate pricing for an emergency room visit? If you’re filling out paperwork with a bleeding 4-year-old screaming in your arms, you’re going to sign anything put in front of you, which will subject you to whatever the hospital feels like billing you. That’s not a system I want to participate in.

And now for my opinions on current policy. I’ll keep it short. I agree with this, from MHF:

You shouldn’t have to be in the health insurance business at all. That statement has nothing to do whether I support a government backed program or not — it’s just that most business owners don’t have the knowledge/expertise to manage the health care options of a large number of people. Business owners should be running businesses not playing doctor.

Amen to that. And not only would I prefer to shed this responsibility, but think of the wave of creativity and entrepreneurship that would be unleashed if people weren’t tied to crummy jobs just to get insurance. That’s the way forward for us as an economy. Unfortunately, the existing system is too large, with too many stakeholders, for us to change. I think we’re stuck with it.

Paul Downs founded Paul Downs Cabinetmakers in 1986. It is based outside of Philadelphia.

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Corner Office | Ruth J. Simmons: Ruth Simmons of Brown University, on Amiable Leadership


Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. Probably the first time I was a boss was when I was associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California. I was in my early 30s.

Q. Was that an easy transition?

A. It was. If I had to ask myself why, I would say it’s because I’d probably been building to the point where I was capable of doing those things without actually knowing that I could. And if you ask me how far back that went — this assemblage of skills and experience — I’d probably say that it went back to my childhood.

Q. How so?

A. I realized that I was an inveterate organizer from the earliest age. I’m the youngest of 12 children. And although I was the youngest, I tried to organize things in my family. When there were disputes, I tried to mediate. And I intervened in school as well to tell teachers what they were doing wrong, or at least to tell them what I didn’t like about what they were doing. I intervened sometimes in classes to take a leadership role. By the time I got to college, I was impossible.

Q. Why impossible?

A. I was impossible. I thought that it was very important to take a principled stance about various things, and some of them had meaning, and some of them probably didn’t mean very much.

I think somehow this sense of myself came from my mother, who instilled in us very strong values about who we were. And this was quite essential at the time I grew up, because in that environment, in the Jim Crow South, everybody told you that you were worth nothing. Everybody told you that you would never be anything. Everybody told you that you couldn’t go here, you couldn’t go there. She would just constantly talk to us: Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else. Always think for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. So we grew up with a sense of being independent in our thinking.

Q. And what about your siblings? What did they think of their confident youngest sister?

A. They didn’t like it very much. They thought I was not normal, because I was very different from everybody else in my family. My oldest sister went to my mother one day and said that she thought there was something wrong with me, and that something needed to be done.

Q. But at some point, particularly when you became a manager, you realized you couldn’t be so impossible.

A. It was living, frankly. And the experience of understanding that the ways in which I was trying to solve problems and to interact with people were getting in the way of achieving what I want. And that’s what did it for me. Ultimately, I came to understand that I could achieve far more if I worked amiably with people, if I supported others’ goals, if I didn’t try to embarrass people by pointing out their deficiencies in a very public way. So I think it was really experience that did it more than anything else.

Q. When the college promoted you into a management role, was it something you wanted?

A. I was stunned, and a little skeptical. In my early career, I learned to be very leery of people asking me to perform in these higher-level positions.

Q. Because?

A. Because this is coming out of the civil rights movement. The idea of taking somebody off their path to do something that is useful to you, as opposed to thinking long term about what they might contribute to the profession, was something I thought was a bit odd. When I was a Ph.D. student at Harvard, I was asked to drop out of my Ph.D. program and become a full-time staff member at Radcliffe. I was, first of all, the only black student in my Ph.D. program, and they wanted me to drop the program in order to become an administrator. So I just thought that was very odd, and I always remember that. I was skeptical of letting others create that path for me.

In the end, however, because there were so few African-American faculty at the time, I realized that I would see very few minorities in my classes. And that the only way I could influence what was happening with regard to minorities was to take a central position. And that’s why I ultimately did it. It never occurred to me that this would be a path that I would stay on or that I would accomplish anything at a significant level.

Q. What do you consider some of your most important leadership lessons?

A. I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.

Q. Can you elaborate?

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You’re the Boss Blog: Should Owners Have to Bet the House?

Today’s Question

What small-business owners think.

 Dean Cycon, founder of Dean's Beans Organic Coffee.Courtesy of Dean’s BeansDean Cycon, founder of Dean’s Beans.

An article we’ve just published focuses on how common it is for small-business owners to tap their home equity to start, expand and maintain their businesses.

Dean Cycon, for one, is a passionate believer in using home equity. “It’s been what made this business what it is,” said Mr. Cycon, 58, founder and chief executive of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee in Orange, Mass. Mr. Cyco regularly uses his home for business financing and recently took out $500,000 in equity loans on his home and vacation houses to pay the cost of raw ingredients for his $3.5 million-a-year company (he’s since paid the loans down to $300,000). “That’s stepping up to the blackjack table, isn’t it?” he said. “I stand behind this business; my house stands behind this business.”

Using home equity can be both easy and inexpensive. “Here’s the great thing: My home equity loan is 2.4 percent,” Mr. Cycon said. “I can’t get a business loan for 2.4 percent. And  using your money keeps the vultures off your back so you don’t have to sell it. I’ve had this company for 18 years, and I’ve never had to give it away for funding.”

Unfortunately, whether because of bad planning or a bad economy, not everyone ends up as happy as Mr. Cycon. To see what can happen when things go wrong, please read the article — and then tell us: do you have a lien against your house? Do you think it’s reasonable to demand that small-business owners bet the house?

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You’re the Boss Blog: Turning Thanksgiving Day Into Black Thursday

Thinking Entrepreneur

An owner’s dispatches from the front lines.

I have spent my entire life in retail, as did my father and both of my grandfathers. I have always thought of it as an honorable profession.

But it has changed substantially over the last 50 years. In some ways it has gotten better, with more choices and lower price points. And in some ways, it has hit a new low. First came the lower level of service that accompanied those lower prices. Fair enough, it was a trade-off. Then came the phony pricing schemes, with the constant 50 percent sales, or the “buy one, get one (or two) free” sales. That was irritating enough. But this year, I think we crossed a line.

It wasn’t good enough for the biggest retailers to open the day after Thanksgiving at 5 or 6 a.m. This year we finally went mad. Some of the big stores started their sales at midnight — or even at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. This means that the employees had to get to the store right after their Thanksgiving dinners.

Forget the question of whether this is really necessary. It isn’t. The world won’t come to an end if people have to wait until Friday morning to go shopping. This is about decency, fairness and even safety. What do we think is going to happen when thousands of employees drive home after a full day’s work and after having lost a night’s sleep? Almost 200,000 Target employees have signed a petition asking corporate headquarters to allow them their day off.

I have admired, respected and shopped at Target for years. But I wonder what they are thinking. I can tell you what they say. They say they need to remain competitive (in this blog post, an executive vice president discusses the decision in more detail). But in what regard? In the race to the bottom?

Target has led the market in having better products, better looking stores and more engaging ads. They were not the first big retailer to open early for Black Friday, and there are certainly companies whose labor practices have attracted more scrutiny. In explaining this decision, Target’s human resources director said that the company’s “guests” would prefer to go shopping the night before rather than have to wake up in the middle of the night to shop before dawn. I’ve got an idea. How about opening at 9 a.m.? It seems to have worked just fine for about 100 years.

Target likes to call its customers “guests.” They are customers, not guests (even if they are spending the night). I get it. Guests sounds classier. But this is faux class. Real class is treating both your customers and your employees well. How about taking the lead in stopping this  competition, which is turning Thanksgiving Day into black Thursday? Is shopping what we should be thankful for?

One hundred years ago, it was factory workers who were being taken advantage of, which resulted in bloody battles and the birth of many unions. Are we going backward? What’s next, working Christmas Day? Family values are not about saving money on a plasma TV. The retail employees and their families deserve to have their holidays off.

All retailers have to come to terms with what hours they are going to be open. No matter what time you open or close, someone is going to be unhappy. The owner of the business has to balance the needs and wants of the customers with the needs and wants of the employees. At the end of the day (or season in this case), it is a zero-sum game. Yes, sales were up for this year’s Thanksgiving weekend, but it’s likely those sales would have been made in the coming weeks even without the early openings.

The fact is, most retailers did not choose to open on Thanksgiving night. Why not? Wouldn’t it have helped them be more competitive? Perhaps it would have (I’ve noted that no matter what time we close, someone is occasionally going to pound on the door). But most companies would never consider it.

Would you?

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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