Yes, staff can handle truth; even if it’s hard to swallow

March 11, 2009
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Stimulus gets doubtful marks before it kicks in.

There are seven major mistakes that managers make in an uncertain economy, as identified by Robert Half International. The first is when managers think their staffs can’t handle the truth.

“Don’t try sugar coating the message,” Diana Infanti, regional vice president in charge of Robert Half operations in Grand Rapids, told Business Journal reporter Anne Bond Emrich. “Each of us has an investment in the organization in which we work. Treat employees like business partners and talk openly about things.”

Another mistake managers tend to make in a recession is blaming people at the top. It’s no fun having to deliver bad news involving changes or cutbacks, so some managers find it easier to point the blame at the executive team. A lot of companies are forced to make salary cutbacks during hard economic times, Infanti noted, but hard decisions have to be made.

“That is a business decision based on cost management, what’s going on in the marketplace, and what is the most cost-effective strategy to control costs,” Infanti pointed out. “I think it kind of goes back to being honest.”

Managers also err when they try to make employees feel they’re lucky just to have a job. On top of that, managers sometimes make the mistake of piling on extra work, making their employees’ jobs “mission impossible,” according to Robert Half research. Both of those moves are morale busters.

Managers may not think of asking for employees’ help in expanding the company’s customer relationships — another common mistake. Everybody represents the company and should be involved with nurturing those relationships, and everybody can make a difference, Infanti said. In a recession, it’s particularly important for managers to shift the focus to the frontline employees who are directly involved in day-to-day dealings with clients, she added.

In an uncertain economy, managers may put off trying new things, sticking to the way they’ve always done business when perhaps more creativity would help them do their jobs better, Infanti said. 

She said there are inexpensive ways managers can help boost employee morale during troubled economic times, such as team-building exercises. Employees might volunteer to take on a charitable project as a team. That builds employee relationships because doing good makes people feel good, Infanti said. Just recognizing an employee for a job well done is one of those little things that go a long way to lift spirits, she noted.

“In the tough times we’re faced with now, the more that we can all pull together as teams, the more successful we all will be,” she concluded.

Women-owned firms a force

More than 280 attendees at last week’s Top Women Owned Businesses celebration luncheon last week (see revenue category winners, page 3) heard keynote speaker Kim Lavine tout a form of leadership that has commonly taken hold throughout the West Michigan business community.

“It’s time to take our share. Don’t call us feminists; call us boss,” was the refrain that gathered the most applause as the author of “Mommy Millionaire” and president of Mommy Millionaire Media urged women business operators to support and mentor each other “in creating the Googles and GMs of tomorrow.”

Lavine recounted her observation of the large number of impressive entries in this year’s WOB program, for which she was one of three judges.

“I was blown away by the nominees’ heart and passion, who by using every tool they can to become successful entrepreneurs are becoming today’s heroes and providing tomorrow’s employment and investment opportunities. It represents a true economic revolution,” Lavine said.

Lavine, a best-selling author who operates a multi-media company focused on developing new media opportunities in publishing, television, radio, social networking and digital formats, also is president of Green Daisy, a lifestyle brand focused on “balancing life with love.”

In recognizing the evolution of a “communication revolution” in which women entrepreneurs can “create influence and power,” Lavine suggested using “the tools of social media to find opportunity for yourself,” Lavine said. “Courage and attitude is key. And crisis is a part of the process.”

An unexciting stimulus

That's how U.S. Congressman Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, sums it up. 

Gov. Jennifer Granholm said in late February that within a matter of weeks, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will provide $853 million to Michigan for road and bridge construction.

"Ottawa and Muskegon county are getting very little road money out of this thing," Hoekstra told the Business Journal last week. "At least, this is what I've seen from the preliminary list that came out of MDOT: $40-some million going into Kent County and, I think, $3.5 million to Ottawa and $4 million coming to Muskegon County. That's pretty unexciting."

He also said he thinks the money will be spent over a period of 36 months — "not a lot of immediate expenditures."

Hoekstra had been in touch with the Chambers of Commerce along the lakeshore, whose members wanted to know all about the stimulus money.

"I think they thought there was all kinds of money available, that if they walked in with these shovel-ready projects, they'd have a good shot at getting these things constructed," he said. But he told them that a "good portion" of the stimulus money will be "going through standard formulas like schools, AmeriCorps, National Endowment for the Arts. … They were a little surprised."

A waiting game

MerchantCircle’s nationwide survey of 11,000 small business owners across the country, which was released recently, includes 313 small business owners in Michigan. Of those, 310 responded to the question: “Does the new stimulus bill do enough for small business owners?”

Their response: 196 said “no,” 12 said “yes,” and 103 said they didn’t know enough about the plan to form an opinion.

Asked about the health of their businesses, 49 of the 313 Michigan respondents said their business was in danger of closing; 100 described their business as “unhealthy”; 118 said their business was in “average” health; 39 described their businesses as “healthy”; and 14 described their business as “very healthy.”  

“I think what this survey shows is that the nation’s local businesses are struggling and are still unsure about the future of our nation’s economy,” says Darren Waddell, vice president of MerchantCircle.

“The local business owners we surveyed overwhelmingly disapprove of the stimulus and don’t believe it does enough for small business owners. Clearly, the messages of hope and recovery are not resonating with local businesses all across our nation. Part of that may lie in the fact that the administration has not done enough to explain the impact and benefits, as nearly 27 percent of business owners say they don’t know enough about the stimulus.”

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