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Relationship management: Create an enlightened work environment and reap the rewards from your employees

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Relationship management: Create an enlightened work environment and reap the rewards from your employees

Employees are like plants. To bloom and thrive, they need to be rooted in the rich soil of a nurturing environment. They need to be watered with care and attention, and warmed by the sunlight of appreciation. Yet, too many seat-of-the-pantsers, unskilled in the art of human horticulture, treat their people like so many cacti. They expect them to flourish in an arid, remote atmosphere. Those leaders are in for a culture shock.

In a healthy culture, people:

* look forward to coming to work;

* feel pride in being part of the team;

* consider their co-workers friends;

* are excited by the organization's vision;

* gladly go beyond the call of duty when required;

* are personally satisfied when the team does well;

* are in sync with the organization's operating values; and

* believe their work contributes directly to the team's success.

The leader who neglects to grow his organization's culture does so at his peril. Yes, changing an existing culture is difficult, but doable. The pressure of running a company, store, or department can easily siphon attention away from employee-related issues. That it's difficult to stay focused on the satisfaction of employees, however, makes it no less necessary. The less attention paid to people's basic desire to offer value and feel valued, the faster spins the revolving door of turnover. (Of course, enlightened executives realize that without a healthy bottom line, morale may become a moot point.)

Break these cultural leadership laws and your culture surveys will be graded D for dreadful. Renounce your seat-of-the-pants ways and be an A+ leader.

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Honor employees. During a routine visit to a Tires Plus store in 1995, I asked a young salesman named Gabe Lopez how things were going.

"To be honest with you," he said, "not too well." Gabe said he had recently clocked a 70-hour week only to be told after the fact that he had been "promoted" from an hourly to a salaried position. He felt chumped, like he was owed the overtime money. He methodically climbed his grievance up the corporate ladder, but felt his protest had fallen on deaf ears.

On the spot, I called our human resources head and asked for an explanation. Gabe's situation was a "gray area," I was told, and we had a good case for not paying him the overtime cash. If there's a gray area, I told her, the employee should be given the benefit of the doubt; after all, that's what we do for our customers when there's a dispute. I hung up and apologized to Gabe. He got his check the next day.

"I was just a 19-year-old kid out of high school working in an entry-level position," recalls Gabe, now a Tires Plus assistant district manager. "The fact that Tom took the time to listen to me and resolve the situation without hesitation really wowed me. It's something that will always stay with me. If not for that, I would have left the company. Tom later pulled me aside a number of times to tell me I could really go far in the company. He made me feel valued as a person, and I wanted to show him his faith in me was well-deserved."

Gabe's story illustrates why you can't leapfrog your employees -- your internal customers -- and focus solely on pleasing your external customers. It's a simple matter of connecting the dots. Honor your people and genuinely care about their well-being and you'll be rewarded with deeply loyal employees who set a new standard for customer service.

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Be authentic. Regrettably, employees view bosses through a distorted lens; they see execs as subhuman and devoid of feelings. It gives employees an excuse to downplay their boss' good side and exaggerate his bad. Then, when job frustration hits critical mass, they can feel justified in checking out emotionally.

Unfair as it is, too many business owners perpetuate the stereotype. Let go of the notion that signs of emotion or fallibility are unprofessional. My relationships with employees grew healthier when I started admitting mistakes, revealing more of the real me, and being more caring.

Hand out all-access passes. Imagine you're a kid again. Somebody treats you like dirt, yet your parents won't listen to your grievance. You're frustrated and resentful.

As a boss, you've got to recognize that you're a surrogate parent for many employees. Make yourself available to employees when they need you. Give them your full attention, and their appreciation will show up in the simple metrics of productivity and turnover. "Anybody in the company, from a store manager to a tire technician, could meet with Tom about anything," recalls Dave Urspringer, one of our top managers.

I did have two stipulations. An employee had to first address the issue with his superiors (assuming it didn't involve family or health troubles). Second, he had to bring me at least one solution for the problem.

"It was an ironclad rule," Dave says, "that you come prepared with at least some idea about how to make things better. Knowing we'd be listened to at the highest level, that we'd be treated like our ideas really mattered, was one of the biggest secrets to our success."

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Snoop like Columbo. An enlightened executive roots out the truth like a gumshoe. If key details are missing, you can't make the right choice, solve the big problem, or launch the stinger strategy.

When employees told me things were fine, I dug deeper: "Anything I can help you with?" "If you ran things, what would you do differently?" Sooner or later, the answers spilled out.

"When Tom hit the field, we'd do everything in our power to make sure the stores were firing on all cylinders," says Jim Pascale, our first Iowa regional manager.

Before one of my visits, Jim asked all his store personnel over and over the questions I typically asked. "Sure enough," Jim recalls, "Tom ended up asking the same questions I had. But he got 20 new answers!"

Be relentless. Employees instinctively withhold bad news from the boss. Some try to protect underperforming colleagues, or hide embarrassing details. Other times, the truth remains elusive because no one's connected the dots between problem and root cause.

I methodically drill like a west Texas derrick to the core of problems. Beware, though. I sometimes hit nerves instead of veins.

"There were times," recalls Wayne Shimer, head of retail operations, "when I wanted to reach out and say, 'Stop!' But, ultimately, Tom was right, because everything was out on the table all the time. And I don't care what anybody says, that's a healthy culture to work in."

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Face the facts. My passion for a project has been known to derail my common sense. I'd just want the darn thing done, the heck with the details. As New York Times film critic A. H. Weiler quipped, "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself."

Sometimes it took me months to realize a delegated project was doomed. Once I told Wayne Shimer to get popcorn into all our stores. He scratched his head, duly priced out the machines and supplies, and researched popping big-quantity corn. He also took every opportunity to tell me that popcorn wouldn't lure customers, never mind that managers had better things to do.

"Tom kept hounding me for six months to finish the popcorn project," Wayne remembers. "One day I dug in deep enough to get him to understand we'd need a food license, which meant regular city food inspections and plastic gloves for the sales staff.

"Finally, he threw up his hands and said, 'Fine, I give up.'"

A year later, I recognized a familiar look on Wayne's face when I handed him a new project. "This is another popcorn project, isn't it?" I laughed. That became our inside joke. "When something was too bizarre," Wayne says, "we'd look at each other and laugh, 'That's a popcorn project.' And we'd blow it off."

Look with fresh eyes. The status quo is a work in progress. One question always on the tip of my tongue was, what did you learn?

"If you didn't have a good answer," recalls Regional Manager Brad Burley, "you got a little tough love. Tom and I would visit stores together, and knowing he was going to ask me that question at the end of the day kept me very focused."

Another question that yanks people out of their daily grind: Assuming there are flaws in our customer service procedure (or ad-approval process or flextime policy), if we were starting from scratch, how could we make it more effective? The question often lit the fuse to innovation.

It's up to you to lead the fresh-eyes charge. Unfortunately, leaders are conditioned to project a know-it-all facade. Escape that trap. Admit when you're stumped. Be open to new ideas, not against them. It'll influence your people more than any lecture. Remember, the more you say, "I don't know," the more you'll hear back, "Let's find out."

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View mistakes as opportunities. In the heat of frustration, it may be tempting to rub employees' noses in their mistakes. I used to do just that. It should be obvious, but there's a whiff of sadism in shaming somebody who is already beating himself up. Besides, morale and confidence spiral downward when the boss chews you out, especially if it's done in a mean-spirited way.

Enlightened executives pose thoughtful questions until the light of understanding flicks on.

Partnering with an employee creates solutions both parties own, as opposed to one side feeling lectured to. Partnering takes a little extra time, but it preserves dignity and helps lessons sink in. And when employees use their own noggins to find solutions, they're more likely to execute them with gusto. It's human nature. People want to expand their capacities. They want those "Aha!" moments.

Be tough, not rough. One day, a shipment of high-performance tires arrived at one of our stores instead of its true destination -- our chief competitor.

Dave, the manager, quietly accepted delivery, only to be busted later during a routine audit. Pressed for details, Dave confessed that Jerry, his district manager, advised him to hang on to the $700 worth of tires.

I happened to be visiting my mother in Indiana, and was patched into a hastily called teleconference. Deliberations were rough. My heads of HR and loss prevention urged termination for both Dave and Jerry. It was as if they had broken into a rival's shop and stolen the tires, they reasoned. Two other execs argued for suspension because Dave and Jerry had clean records and years of exceptional customer service.

I broke in with a challenge: "I want the person who's never accepted too much change at the bank or grocery store to speak up, please." Silence. "Is what they did wrong?" I asked. "Absolutely. Should there be consequences? Of course. But it isn't just like breaking into another company's store. And don't tell me this is worth trashing the careers of two decent men. That's overreacting. Who among us has never needed a second chance?"

We returned the tires to UPS and slapped Dave and Jerry with two-week suspensions. Both men literally broke down when they learned we had spared their jobs. My management team also learned a lesson -- big decisions that impact the lives of our people ought not be made in the heat of the moment.

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Make amends. During an executive-committee meeting, Neil offered a suggestion I didn't think much of. I was in a foul mood and jumped all over him. It was not one of my best moments. When I returned to my desk, the devil on my right shoulder urged me to forget it. "So you were a little rough on him," he said. "You sign his paychecks. He'll get over it." But the angel on my left shoulder wouldn't let it go. "That was inexcusable," she whispered. "How would you feel if you were treated that way? Go to his office and apologize."

Gulping down a big slice of humble pie, I coached myself on the danger of letting my ego -- the size of a championship watermelon -- get the better of me. I had to pry myself out of my chair; my legs felt weighted down with lead. Swallowing hard, I knocked on Neil's door. "Neil," I said, "I am really sorry for the way I embarrassed you. It was inappropriate, and I promise it won't happen again." Fortunately, Neil accepted my apology.

For some reason, the words "I'm sorry" are kryptonite to leaders. But they're also two of the most powerful words in the leadership lexicon. They're a tonic for employees who feel wronged and cling fiercely to their resentment. Only a heartfelt apology can cleanse the hurt and repair the relationship. We all make mistakes, but not owning up to them ranks among the biggest mistakes of all.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company to Bridgestone/Firestone in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue. He was named MTD's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998. Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) in 2000 to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller, with more than 58,000 copies sold. He can be reached at tom.gegax@gegax.com or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).

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