August 14, 2022

You’re the Boss: Would Your Business Be Better Without Employees?

Thinking Entrepreneur

I recently visited a business owner’s facility. As our meeting ended, she turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could run a business without employees?”

There were no employees around. I smiled and gave the perfunctory head nod — but it was a lying perfunctory head nod, if there is such a thing. I know that many people have commented on this very blog that they prefer, or would prefer, to run their businesses without employees. I don’t feel that way, but let me state the obvious: employees can be a liability. Whether they are causing problems with customers, stealing, breaking things, suing you or doing something that gets you in trouble with a regulatory agency, employees can be trouble. And when trouble rears its ugly head, the owner cannot say, “I was only taking orders!”

Even if you weren’t the one who personally hired the problem employees, you are responsible for them. That can be a tough pill to swallow. So tough, in fact, that many people choose not to hire anyone. In some businesses, you might be able to get away with working by yourself. Mine is not one of those businesses. I have 105 employees. I’m guessing that some of you may be cringing at the thought of managing that many people, but I do not. I have less grief today with 105 employees than I did when I had 10 employees. This is not a riddle. It is the law of averages, at least the way I define the phrase. If you have a bunch of average employees, you will end up with an average business. Probably not growing much. Probably not that profitable.

I have written about this before (“The Dirty Little Secret of Successful Companies“), but it bears repeating: It is a matter of having the right people — and enough of the right managers to deal with the occasional baloney. But it can go far beyond figuring out how to run the business without having everyone make you crazy. It starts with hiring the right people, then training them, and giving them direction until they can operate on their own or almost on their own. This could be someone you groomed to give customer service, to run the loading dock, or to be the vice president of your company.

The process can take months, a year, or many years. It can work with someone who came in at a young age with no experience or someone who has years of experience, maybe more than you do. Some companies promote mostly from within, others hire “talent” from competitors. (And some think they are hiring talent from competitors when they are really hiring someone else’s problem. I’ve been both the giver and the taker in that equation.) There is an almost magical time after you have hired and groomed people who take over a part of the business. They do a great job. They develop confidence and the respect of others, and they earn a raise. They become a valuable part of your company. But there is more. At least to me.

I don’t pretend to speak for all business owners, but I know I am not the only one who regularly appreciates, respects, feels good about, and enjoys the fact that we have found and developed people who have not only done great jobs but have signed on to our adventure. This goes beyond the business. It gets personal. It’s about people buying houses, sending their kids to college, or even just providing for themselves or their family in a way that exceeds their expectations. I know pride is one of the seven deadly sins, but I am not sure why. Is it a sin to be proud of your people? Or is it a sin not to be?

Do you get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that you’ve given people opportunities, and they have succeeded — which benefits everybody? Does this make up for the employees who don’t succeed along the way, including the ones who do serious damage to your business or your psyche? Maybe. I hope so. It does in my case. Failure is fixable. Success can last for years. But it doesn’t happen on its own.

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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