At the New York Kids Club, almost all of my employees are young — proud, badge-wearing members of Generation Y. Gen-Y is very unique, in that praise is something which is lavished upon their young, impressionable egos. Praise is applied liberally and repeated as needed, all day, everyday. Consequently, praise is something that young people have come to expect (and deserve, when they perform well!).
Without trying to carbon date myself here, my own Gen-X was much more reserved in terms of praise. No news meant good news. So I, like many other Gen-X employers, had to learn how to interact and inspire my young Gen. Y team members. And expecting them to conform to my own “generation standards” was, as I have found, counterproductive. As I always say: in business, you have to be the river, not the rock. I realized very early on with the NY Kids Club that I needed to show the young people I work with that I can be savvy; I can be flexible enough to adapt to their needs. Nothing makes a business happier than happy employees!
Some time ago, I noticed when working with Gen-Y specimens that if I mentioned the traditional term “annual-review,” almost all bright eyes would immediately glaze over, as if to say: “Seriously? I only get a shot at a raise once a year?” To Gen-Y, a year is like a decade, and the term “annual review” is completely antiquated. And so that got me thinking…how could I do better for them?
Then, I realized: These young people, many of whom have just graduated college or are currently pursuing graduate degrees, are used to receiving feedback on their performances on a regular basis. That’s the structure they have been brought up with throughout their entire scholastic careers. I had to find some way to keep up that continuity and comfort zone, while still treating new team members with the respect they deserve as young, responsible adults.
And so the solution to this predicament emerged quite organically in the form of Semester End Reports; a report card, New-York-Kids-Club style! In this “report card,” we include marks for ten distinct categories which fall into three “grades”: Below Expectations, Meets Expectations and Exceeds Expectations.
Any grade that falls into the category of “Meeting Expectations” is accompanied by a comment from the employee’s direct supervisor, and a plan of action on how s/he can expect to move into the Exceeds Expectations category. Each “Meets Expectations” also has a dollar-amount raise attached to it, which really gets the fires going in young people — after all, dollar signs speak loud-and-clear to everyone! An employee’s “grades” determine the percentage raise which they are entitled to. So then the message on the airwaves becomes: Keep up your GPA and you will definitely get that scholarship.
With the program we have implemented, it becomes up to the individual to test their own drive and ambition. We are happy to give our employees as many opportunities to score raises as possible. That’s why we issue these Semester End Reports three times a year — Fall, Spring and Summer — consistent with the scholastic year. We give our employees every chance to determine their own destinies at the company, and we also let them do the math as to how much more money they could potentially be earning!
If someone Exceeds Expectations in every single category, s/he is eligible for a promotion to a salaried managerial position, with paid vacation and all the other perks that come along with joining the management team.
Funnily enough, someone recently asked me: “Doesn’t it get expensive when you have all these great, young, energetic people seizing the opportunities you offer to keep making more and more money?”
In truth, in the age we live in–fast times, fast changes, fast lives–I am thrilled to see people at the Kids Club gain earning power and climb up the ranks, because it means they have been with us for a while. Many people in their twenties change professions at the turn of a dime. The age of slaving away for twenty years until you earn your gold watch is gone. We want to give young people every chance for growth that we can. Be good to us, and we’ll be good to you. We can be “the river.” Flow with us downstream, and we will take you to some amazing new places.
This past Friday night, I was honored with a Stevie’s Award for Women in Business. The Stevie’s Award ceremony is fashioned somewhat after the Oscars, in that there are about 50 categories, which range anywhere from Best Blog to Best Website to Best Entrepreneur.
I was encouraged to attend the ceremony. By the time 49 awards had been given out, I hadn’t won anything. I was ready to pack it in and go home. It had been a nice evening, and I was content that my family had accompanied me for the evening. But then, the announcer said, “And we’ve saved the best for last. The most coveted award for Best Mentor goes to…”
…Yes, it went to Yours Truly.
I gave a speech and accepted my award. I was really thrilled.
When the initial excitement died down over the weekend, I got to thinking it over. I was so honored to have won the award for Best Mentor, but I have to admit that the people whom I mentor—the team members at my company—are really the winners. They are the greatest “mentorees,” if you will, because they absorb everything like sponges, they become smarter and savvier as much on their own as they do under my mentorship. In many ways, they have taught me just as much as or MORE than I have taught them.
So I concluded that if I am really going to accept this Stevie’s Award for Best Mentor, and if I am to learn to be proud of it, I need to rise to the occasion. I need to be worthy of my award. I have to take it to the next level.
I have recently been in contact with a wonderful organization called Student Sponsor Partners (SSP), which offers assistance to “at-risk” children. These are children whose families are living below the poverty line, whose grades are below average, who often come from single-parent homes.
SSP accepts 400 children per year into their program, and, through donor support, places children they consider “at risk” in private schools in and around New York City, to encourage them in a fresh new environment, to inspire them to reach for the stars. I n addition, SSP also assigns each child a mentor, with whom they meet on a periodic basis throughout the year.
I decided that in order for me to be a good mentor, I need to encourage my mentorees to become mentors as well! I approached my team at every single Kids Club location, and I told them: “We are willing to pay the tuition for one child per every New York Kids Club location to go to private school for four years – IF your location team agrees to fill the role of mentoring a child. There is no obligation.”
We would become actively involved in these children’s lives, I told them. We would meet them on a monthly basis and we would talk to them and listen to them. We would take them out for social time, to a ballgame or to the park. We would be dedicated to having a positive impact on their lives.
“So,” I asked. “What do you say?”
The response was tremendous. All six locations were emphatically, hands-down, IN! We snapped into action and mapped out spreadsheets and schedules, and special events we will take the children to. On days off from school, the children will spend time with us at the New York Kids Club and might even become our special summer interns!
NOW, I can be a proud owner of my Stevie’s Award. The fact that I took my award for Best Mentor seriously, that I have found success in inspiring my team to become mentors to others, gives me a sense of pride I can hardly even describe.
Yes, I have been tooting my own horn relentlessly in this post, I don’t deny it. I wholeheartedly admit it! But I am not without a cause. I’m not just tooting for the sake of tooting. I’m tooting in hopes that others will join the band!
– Dianne Stacey
In some ways, being a good company leader is analogous to being a good parent. You must be strong and encouraging, attentive and yet authoritative. And both roles share another commonality: the need to learn when to let go.
I used to think that being a good leader meant being a one-woman show. In the early days of the New York Kids Club, I was determined to fill the roles of director, producer, cast and crew – all on my own!
So there I found myself every day, hauling heavy boxes, setting up for birthday parties, handling payroll, shoveling snow. Whatever the task, I was right there in the thick of it. (Funnily enough, I even had a full staff at the Kids Club by this time, so my self-inflicted angst was not due to any shortage of manpower!)
Unbeknownst to me, I was going through a strange form of denial. Why was I so resistant to delegating?
What I have come to realize over the years is that delegating responsibilities successfully is one of the trickiest lessons to learn as a business owner. Many employers find themselves stuck in the mindset of:
- There is no one else to delegate these tasks to.
- I don’t know whether I can trust someone else to do this.
- I know I can do this better myself.
- I am the only person who knows how to do this.
- I don’t want to give up this project because I like doing it.
- I don’t have time to show anyone else how to do this.
These excuses, though they make total sense to the mind using them, can often yield negative results — feelings of being constantly overwhelmed, decreased productivity, miscommunications with staff members — all which can lead to the suffering of work quality or general dissatisfaction with one’s job.
Overcoming the “one-woman-show” attitude doesn’t happen overnight. It is a work-in-constant-progress.
1. There is no one else to delegate these tasks to.
2. I don’t know whether I can trust someone else to do this.
These are the most crucial demons to exorcise when starting out on the Road to Delegation. I caution that in either finding new or trusting current team members with added responsibilities, you do need to be mindful with what you are entrusting – and to whom. For instance, it may not be wise to delegate a responsibility concerning the business bank account numbers to an employee whom you sense might be leaving the company. Be mindful, but not paranoid. If you have reason to be that concerned about compromising your sensitive information, then you may not be working with the right people to begin with.
3. I know I can do this better myself.
Chalk this one up to ego. If you trust people enough to work for your company, you must accept that their styles will invariably differ from your own. And so they should! You should want a diverse team of intelligent, creative people! Your success at a task doesn’t necessarily mean that your way is the only right way, or vice versa. Be prepared to accept these differences and celebrate them!
4. I am the only person who knows how to do this.
If that’s really true, it can’t possible be good, in any context. What if you are sick and can’t come in to accomplish this special task that only you know how to accomplish? What if you are finally able to take that vacation you deserve? If you or one of your staff members is that set on being the only one possessed of certain knowledge or skills, then the problem likely runs deeper than the task at hand.
5. I don’t want to give up this project because I like doing it.
If you enjoy doing a task so much, then why be selfish? Give the gift of fun to a team member so s/he will be able to join in and share in such a positive experience. Being part of a team means sharing the tears and the laughs. Why would anyone want to withhold a great joke? To keep it from getting passed on?
6. I don’t have time to show anyone else how to do this.
The reason you don’t have time to show someone else how to do it is because you never took the time to show someone else how to do it! The more time you spend training team members, the more freedom you will have to delegate responsibilities. The more time invested showing someone else how you accomplish a set task, the more time you will eventually earn for yourself! And the more energy you will have to conquer each new day.
Be specific when communicating to your team the results you desire, but try not to micromanage the process itself. I think George Smith Patton Jr. summed it up quite nitely when he said: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.”
In my view, tightening the purse strings on the consumer’s part doesn’t automatically have to mean the kiss of death for business owners. What the current economic downturn does mean for business owners, large and small, is that they may find themselves under increased pressure to retain their current clientele. Slashing prices is one way to stay competitive in the game when clients are forced to tighten up their own spending budgets. ADDED VALUE is the route I personally prefer to take at the New York Kids Club; giving clients MORE during times when they have LESS spending flexibility.
Last week, I sent out a newsletter to all of our New York Kids Club families, for the sole purpose of relating understanding and compassion to them, on behalf of myself and my team. I also detailed what savings and added value packages the New York Kids Club is offering throughout the Fall and Winter.
The response to my letter was immediate and tremendous. We received an overwhelming outpouring of support from New York Kids Club families — letters thanking us for facing the problem head-on; expressing gratitude that we are doing what we can to treat our clients with care and respect; letting us know that they value the efforts we are putting forth; assuring us that with the added value we are providing, they will be able to stay on with the Kids club, despite the economic ebb.
Above all, based on the incredible response we received, it gave me such great pride to realize that the New York Kids Club, a successful business, nevertheless still remains true to its core values. One of our main objectives at the New York Kids Club has always been to foster a community within our clientele. To see that component of the original vision come alive right before my eyes – to be able to draw upon the strength of an entire community that bands together in better times and worse – truly inspires me.
In the weeks leading up to the Grand Opening of my very first New York Kids Club location, I had stuck floor-to-ceiling signs up in the windows of our new space that read: “New York Kids Club Coming Soon!” But I knew that wouldn’t be enough to generate a buzz in the neighborhood. It was the first location, so no one could be expected to even know who we were, let alone to be excited about us!
So I had to find other ways of generating publicity. I enlisted the help of my brother and several others, and I set a personal goal for myself: I was going to tell 50 people a day about the New York Kids Club, in any setting, it didn’t matter. 50 people a day.
“Psst!” I whispered to the lady next to me in the checkout line. “Did you hear about that new place opening on 87th Street? It’s called the New York Kids Club, and they offer all these great classes for kids!”
“Psst! The New York Kids Club is coming, and they’ve got wonderful teachers and the space is just terrific!”
I told the man in Harry’s Shoe Store. I told the lady at the nail salon. I told people on the playground. People at the meat counter. People at the street fairs. People on the bus.
I talked up a storm. I handed out flyers and pamphlets. I fielded questions. I struck up random conversations. I told and sold the New York Kids Club on anyone willing to listen to me. Short of shouting from the rooftops or renting a blimp, I was EVERYWHERE.
And I don’t feel that I was secretive about it or that I was operating in stealth. I was fully prepared for people to ask me, “How do you know about the Kids Club?” And I was going to say, “I started it. I’m the Founder.”
But funnily enough, no one asked me.
Then the calls started coming. The NY Kids Club didn’t even have a phone system yet, only an answering machine. I would listen to the messages and return the calls. I gave the spiel and sold it hard. I took pre-orders. I swiped credit cards. I filled the classes.
Come Opening Day, the New York Kids Club had generated enough revenue to cover all costs of the construction which had gone into preparing the space. It was an incredible relief to know that I had survived the mine field of getting my business up and running.
I never underestimate the power of advertising or the power of internet marketing. I am a full advocate of jumping on the bandwagon and adapting to new marketing platforms. But I firmly believe that the best, certainly the most personal form of reaching out to customers has always been – and always will be – by word of mouth. And not only is it possibly the best form of advertising, but it’s also FREE!
Now I should mention that it’s not all wine and roses. There is a definite downside to setting ablaze the type of wildfire that spreads by word of mouth. But that’s another story, for another day.
I have a very good friend who is an accomplished concert pianist. She once told me that she never pushes her two children into the music world, because she feels that if they do find their way into music, it needs to be their own decision, by their own accord. She won’t even teach them!
In listening to my friend’s perspective, two things grew abundantly clear: One, my friend holds a wonderfully kind and understanding approach to what some may consider a very “sensitive” parenting issue. And two, I realized that I AM THE COMPLETE AND UTTER POLAR OPPOSITE.
I am always pushing my four children into business, and I am not afraid to admit it! But before I get myself written off as the “pushy-mom” stereotype, I would like to clarify that I do draw a very distinct line between “advising” and “investing” in my children’s business ventures.
I won’t lie. The day they came to me about opening their First Lemonade Stand, I could hardly contain my excitement. We sat down to discuss the idea, and worked together to draw up a rough business plan.
“Location is key,” I told them. “Where do you plan to open your stand?”
“Duhh,” came the reply, “in front of the house of course!”
I argued that we live on a quiet side street in New York. How much profitable patronage could they expect to attract with such low visibility? After huddled discussion, the four of them concluded that 86th Street at the entrance to Central Park was prime real estate. I agreed.
“Cool!” they exclaimed. “Let’s go!”
I shook my head. “Nope, there are a few more steps we have to go through first.”
Next, we discussed products. There were a number of things they wanted to sell – lemonade, rice krispy treats, brownies, cookies. I convinced them to start out with two main products, both for inventory purposes and in the interest of maintaining top-shelf quality. Appeal gradually to customers, build interest before expanding. They decided on lemonade and cookies to start.
“Great! Let’s get started!” they said.
And I shook my head again. “Have you guys considered that you are going to need an investor?”
At this, my children just stared at me, bewildered. I wanted to laugh but I instead played it cool. “No, this is really important. You aren’t allowed to use my stuff. This is my kitchen and these are my ingredients, and I am not selling them to you, nor am I giving them to you. NOTHING and NO THING can be taken from this house, so someone has got to get to the store.”
A moment of silence passed, after which my children nominated me as their sole major investor. I politely declined. They went to their father and asked him to invest, an offer which he politely declined. “I am not fond of high-risk ventures,” he cited as his reasoning. “I do not feel that there is enough of a track record here to merit such a substantial investment.”
My disgruntled children finally found an investor in their young, hip uncle, who immediately said he would loan them the money – interest free.
With a budget in tow and supplies on the way, they defined their roles – cooking, manning the booth, advertising – their workflow, and a timetable.
“Now,” I said, “you’re ready.”
In a very short period of time, they had racked up $140 plus in profits, and The First Lemonade Stand went on to be a profitable first venture. I also took great pride as a mother and as an entrepreneur that I had been able to provide a good Business 101 course for them.
The final lesson in this series came to light in an organic fashion. 3 out of 5 buyers would ask the kids at their stand what the money was for. Was it for the Cancer Society? The Red Cross? Their college funds, perhaps?
When they asked me how to reply to such a question, I said, “Just be honest. Our family believes strongly in charitable causes. But this money is for you, and don’t be ashamed to say so. Money is great. And it’s NOT a dirty word!”
Prior to starting my own businesses, I held several different positions with several different companies, under varying styles of leadership. One stylistic trait that all of my former bosses and superiors shared was that NO NEWS MEANT GOOD NEWS. “News” meant trouble, so if you hardly ever spoke with The Boss, it meant you were doing fine.
Interaction with The Boss was generally brief and occurrences were sparse, to the point where on several occasions I had to wonder whether s/he even knew my name. There were no high-fives. No “good job”s. One boss (who, ironically, was my only female employer) said outright that “Lunch is for losers!” just before she suggested that bananas were the “best food to bring” because you could chew quietly and still man the phones.
It was hard to take the extreme absurdities seriously, of course, but these experiences did later contribute, even involuntarily, to the shaping of my own personal manifesto as an employer.
Employee praise did not come naturally to me at first. It was another Rock/River type of situation, and it took time for me to become enlightened by my staff. As an employer, I felt it was my responsibility to try and understand how to keep employees happy and excited about their jobs.
It all started evolving one day with the creation of a brand-new position at the New York Kids Club: The “Confetti Manager,” whose role was to shower confetti on an employee’s desk, three times in a single day. We started personally congratulating employees who would arrive on-time to the office, shedding a positive light on punctuality, as opposed to a negative gradient on lateness.
Also, when new employees joined the team, a common question I would always receive was, “When are employee reviews?” (a.k.a. “When can I get a raise?”) And I truly hated delivering disappointment, watching face after face drop when I would reply that reviews were conducted on an annual basis.
I realized that we had to do better than that. We had to provide our employees with INCENTIVE.
So, we instituted a new program that made all of our employees eligible for raises every seventeen weeks, based on a point system and reviews submitted by their peers. Award ceremonies were put in place. Dinners at my home. Plaques. High-fives. “Good Job”s. Pleasant notes. More confetti!
Almost immediately, we started to notice a change in the moods and levels of enthusiasm from our employees. The culture of our company morphed rapidly. We do not encourage competition for coveted “rewards,” but we do encourage maximizing personal potential.
Even when we deliver criticism, we try to soften the blow by giving a type-written note with feedback and suggestions, but we make it clear that our notes should not be misconstrued in any way. “It is not personal,” we make sure to say, “it’s business.” While this may seem tedious to some, saying it directly yields amazing results and puts employees at ease. As with so many other things in life, a little extra effort goes a long way.
While the explicit details of our “raise system” remain a well-kept secret along with our other strategies for reinventing employee recognition, the principle is the same across theboard, no matter what industry or field you might be in. The superior quality of your product or service is only as good as the team members who are selling it for you.
Team members want to feel opportunity. Recognition. Inspiration. Incentive. Community. And if you want them to do well for you, you must realize that at the very least they deserve all of the above, and probably much more.