A Question of Trust

Credibility. Does management have it? Perhaps more important, do employees perceive that management has it?

May 31, 2002


A.J. Paron-Wildes, DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen

Photo: Steve Woit

Credibility. Does management have it? Perhaps more important, do employees perceive that management has it? Management sets the tone for the entire company, and at small companies that’s especially true of the owner, who’s often the president.

Although trust is an intangible concept, there are a number of concrete ways to go about creating it. Several companies on the 101 list pointed to a mission, vision and/or values statement put in writing and distributed widely so that everyone, including the owner, can be held accountable to it. A.J. Paron-Wildes, general manager of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen by Worldwide in St. Louis Park, Minn., says her team reads its code of values every Monday morning at a weekly production meeting that even the trades attend. Key phrases include: “We must re-earn our positions every day in every way,” and “Speak calmly and respectfully, without profanity or sarcasm.”

“The most fun is when we get to fire our boss!” Paron-Wildes jokes. Slip-ups, such as not handling a phone call properly or swearing in the office, can draw a “You’re fired” or “Code of values” comment from anyone on staff.

Employees at Finished Basement Co. in Denver wrote their credo, together with management, at a company retreat. Their admonitions include “Assume complete ownership,” “Be unreasonable/unstoppable in all aspects of the game,” and “Respect and empower others to fulfill the above.”

Finding people who believe in a company’s values and goals is another important piece of the puzzle. “Having disgruntled employees is like a cancer,” Paron-Wildes says. “You need to hire right, and you need to live up to your end of the bargain to make them successful. It’s especially important if they interact with the public — they have to believe in the company.” She uses personality profiles to hire and recently waited four months to hire a production coordinator until she found a person who fit DreamMaker’s culture.

Even having the right people isn’t enough to create an atmosphere of trust without good communication. Many companies start by having an open-door policy that’s figurative as well as literal. “Some of our best and most ingenious solutions to problems have come from the most seemingly unlikely person at times,” says Bill McConnell, president of Dunright Construction & Remodeling Co. in Toledo, Ohio. “By encouraging opinions on many issues from many people, our clients get the very best of the very best that we have to offer.”

Heather Melton, office manager of Archadeck of Charlotte in North Carolina, says company owner Barry Klemons makes a point of being “easy to talk to” and “approachable” and hearing everyone’s views. “He sets the tone, and we all follow in his footsteps,” she adds. “We communicate and work together. When there are problems, we talk it out and find resolutions.”

More formally, regular staff meetings and employee handbooks set expectations across the board, in addition to creating systems that allow work to continue even when key leaders aren’t in the office or on the job site. Documenting systems also heightens accountability. The paper trail required at DreamMaker, says Paron-Wildes, means “it’s pretty apparent if somebody’s not living up to their end of the bargain.”

Last but not least, everyone is a fan of empowerment. At its most basic level, that means letting employees make decisions in their areas of responsibility and giving them the training to be able to do so. Sandee Aga, office manager at Charlie Paterson Construction in Colorado Springs, Colo., emphasizes: “I enjoy working here because I am given the freedom to do my job without being micro-managed. Charlie openly listens to my concerns and ideas. I feel as though I have ownership of my position and am given the freedom and backing to do the best job I can.”

At the more extreme end of the spectrum, empowerment extends to open-book management. Usually individual salaries aren’t revealed, but just about every other aspect of company financials is.

“We have a profit-sharing program, and seeing the books helps us know why we’re getting what we do or why we’re not getting anything at all, which happened last year,” says Pat Michelson, marketing director of Strite Design + Remodel in Boise, Idaho. “People who work here get very educated about the money side of the business.”

DreamMaker has an annual planning process to determine company targets for the year and for each month. The entire staff meets once a month to review sales figures and the profit-and-loss statement. For Paron-Wildes and owners Lynn and Sandy Monson, one of the positive developments of open-book management has been that employees present them with solutions, not just problems. So when the designers approached Paron-Wildes about adding a staffer to lessen their load and streamline work flow, they proposed giving up 2% of their commissions to help cover the costs.

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