Most of my career was spent in management at a big national retailer. I have managed hundreds of people directly and thousands in a regional position. So when I changed careers and became the human resources director at a smaller company (under 50 people), I had to figure out what I could take from a big, structured organization to help a much smaller team build an engaged culture.
What I found out was that the things that engage employees at a big company translate very well to organizations with even a fraction of the employees.
Here are five strategies that I took from my days managing hundreds that helped us create a strong organizational culture with a much smaller group:
Connecting to People Still Matters
Simply put, they have to get to know you, and you have to get to know them. In my previous life, that meant getting out of my office and talking to people. Every day. I used to call it “Management by Walking Around.” Ask people how they are doing or what they are up to. Not only do you learn about the business, but you learn a lot about the person as well.
At a smaller company, it’s no different even if no one has an office. You still have to talk to people and ask how they are doing or what they’re up to. Make a connection, and people will be more open in what they share with you.
I also schedule “Harry Chats” with every employee every quarter. This is a time for the two of us to get coffee, and they can tell me what’s on their mind. Sometimes, the person is pretty content and we get to catch up on things that are going on outside of work. But sometimes, they have something that has been bothering them that they want to talk about. Perfect.
Learn to Listen
This is the partner to Management by Walking Around. You can walk around all day asking people how they’re doing, but if you’re not really listening to what they say, you’re just wasting your time.
The rules that I follow to be a good listener are pretty simple: shut up and listen, stop trying to prove how smart you are, ask good questions, and if an issue does come up, ask how you can help.
In whatever way you ask for feedback — from one-on-one conversations to formal employee opinion surveys and frequent “pulse” surveys — you have to follow up on the information you collect.
At a big company, this could be a time-consuming process, involving multiple meetings and input from lots of layers. However, you still had to get back to your employee or employees with a response.
At a smaller company, it’s often easier to just go to the CEO and come up with a resolution, cutting out a lot of time. However, in both big and small companies, the reality is that you will not always be able to resolve an issue in the manner the employee wanted. But if you’re authentic and honest, they might not like your response but they can understand it.
People can smell a phony a mile away. You have to be who you are and be consistent in your style, or people won’t trust you.
In my management role, there were definitely times when I had to execute something that I didn’t like, such as layoffs. I learned that I could be true to myself, even in tough situations like that because I genuinely cared about what happened to that person.
The same thing is true at any size company. The key is making sure your actions follow your words and that you are consistent in what you stand for. Anything less and you will be the one they smell a mile away!
Be Honest and Transparent
Employees at every level of an organization are smart and can process and understand why business decisions are made. They also know when things don’t make sense, so I have always worked to be as honest and transparent as possible.
At my current company, our CEO believes in sharing as much of our business strategies and results as possible. That makes it so much easier to do my job because the employees are aligned with goals and objectives and are more engaged in helping find the solutions and opportunities.
When you put this all together, you’re talking about building trust between the employee and yourself (the company). That bond lays the groundwork so that you can build a really engaged culture — from 10 people to 1,000 people.