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Your Employees Shouldn’t Like You All the Time

I like it when my employees seem to like me, but I don’t allow myself to seek their approval. And you shouldn’t either.

What’s the purpose of your business? To service your customer, right?

The fundamental relationship in business is not between employer and employee, but between the business and the customer. It is that relationship that creates the revenues that everyone — employers and employees — enjoys.

Seen from this perspective, it’s clear that employers and their employees are on the same side. Their job is the same: to create products and services that are useful and pleasing to the customers.

What is the best way to do that?

By constantly improving those products and services. And how do you do that? By setting high standards which, once attained, are raised again. Some employees don’t like high standards, because they create a lot of work — especially the kind of work that nobody likes: the do-it-over-again kind.

Let’s say you are the publisher of a sports magazine. You have to put together 70 pages of editorial every month by a very definite date. To get that accomplished, you create a schedule of a dozen deadlines — giving every writer of every essay ample time to submit his drafts, have them edited, revise them, and then make final submissions. What do you do if — 24 hours before the deadline — half of the articles are good but not great? Do you accept what you have as “good enough for now” and send out a memo suggesting ways to make things go better next time? Or do you call everybody in at 4:30 p.m. and tell them that if they want to keep their jobs they have to work till midnight? And if you are tough enough to take that “unreasonable” stance, what do you say to your top editor who tells you he has an anniversary date with his wife and children?

Setting high standards will make you a somewhat disliked boss/leader. Enforcing high standards will make you positively despised. Don’t tell me that it is possible to create a system in which products and services can be constantly improved without some stress and strain on your employees. If you believe that kind of thing, you are either a teacher, a consultant, or unemployed.

In the real world, getting from good to great requires extraordinary effort. It demands more time than you want, more energy than you have, and more cooperation than any normal person can be expected to contribute. That’s if you want high standards. If you are willing to settle for the merely good — for what you have achieved already — then you can indeed provide a relatively stress-free environment for everyone. But your business will eventually stagnate if you do. Because while your products and services may be extraordinary now, your competitors will eventually catch up and exceed you. The only way to counter that, and stay ahead, is to demand better and better quality.

I’ve just returned from a really sensational group conference for AWAI (our sister company) and ETR readers. Everyone on the staff pitched in and did a terrific job. Conference attendees were very, very pleased. Although I’m sure we’ll get the best ratings we’ve ever gotten, I’m equally sure that we need to make next year’s conference even better. Because what was great this year will be nearly very good next. And what’s very good next year will be merely good the year after. Giving our customers a great conference pleases them . . . and that’s good. But it also raises their expectations for next year.

That’s inevitable and it’s good. Because next year, the conference will be even better.

So I’m going to thank everybody for all their good ideas and hard work. And then I’m going to ask them to do better next time. I hope I can say it in some way that doesn’t make them despise me. But I can’t be afraid to raise that bar.

As I say, our customers will raise the bar even if we don’t. The leader’s job is to raise the bar before the customers do.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]