As entrepreneurs, we have to do unpleasant things. We have disagreements with clients over invoices. We have to let go of underperforming employees. We are placed in situations that encourage us to treat competitors as adversaries. And in those unpleasant situations, we are constantly being judged by how we respond.
We work hard to build businesses that benefit our employees and make the world a better place, so it’s hard to believe we’re the ones everyone is talking about at the water cooler. But, sometimes entrepreneurs do turn into jerks. So the next time you look in the mirror, do a quick self-assessment and ask yourself these 10 questions. You might be surprised. I know I was.
1. Do you underpay whenever possible?
You’ve bootstrapped your business from the ground up. You’ve worked 18 hours a day for the past two years on nothing but a dream and your neighbor’s WiFi. You’ve sacrificed steak for hamburger and sushi for yesterday’s microwave fish. But you shouldn’t expect your employees to do the same.
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It is sometimes difficult to pay a competitive wage, especially in the early stages of your business. But if you can pay your staff well, you should. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also benefit your bottom line. Well-paid employees are happier and more efficient, so you’ll boost your productivity. You’ll also decrease turnover, which is another profit killer.
2. Do you drop names to look good to other entrepreneurs?
Of course, some name dropping is necessary in business. It helps you position yourself in terms of your expertise in the industry and allows you to capitalize on the relationships you’ve developed. But when you’re dropping names out of context, the conversation can go from classy to tacky pretty quickly. Other entrepreneurs might pretend to be impressed, but you’ll quickly earn a bad reputation among your peers.
3. Are you condescending?
I once went to lunch with a white, male CEO who said, “It’s ok that some companies give women preferred vendor status. You know why? Because we don’t need it.” I was stunned that he would be condescending enough to say it in front of me -- a female entrepreneur. I wasn’t offended. I just pitied him for being obtuse.
If you’re an entrepreneur, being condescending isn't just bad form. You’re also hurting your business. Clients and employees don’t like to be talked down to, so they’ll go somewhere they feel valued. They might be offended, or they might just feel sorry for you. Either way, they’ll take their business elsewhere.
4. Do you tell people how much money you have?
I know an entrepreneur who has it all -- money, power, a beautiful family, exotic vacations and a lot of vacation time. What he doesn’t have, however, is the respect of his colleagues. Why? He’s flashy.
Sure, telling the world that you have $10 million in the bank will cause a stir, but not among the kind of people you want in your corner. To earn the respect of your colleagues and employees, keep your personal wealth to yourself -- unless you’re giving it away.
5. Do you consider what’s in it for you before helping someone?
As an entrepreneur, you have to focus on driving revenue. You may feel that the machine will stop running if you take your eyes off the prize -- and you may be right. But some entrepreneurs become so focused on money that they are unable to give without expecting something in return.
Giving has many benefits. In addition to helping you balance your life, it can also lead to positive outcomes for your company. In Marc Benioff’s 1/1/1 model, for example, Salesforce gives one percent time, one percent resources and one percent technology to charities. This model has lead to higher revenue and increased employee engagement -- a win-win for both Salesforce and the communities that benefit from it.
6. Do you blow up before listening to all of the facts?
Stories of evil entrepreneurs going off the rails on innocent employees abound. But if you’re an entrepreneur, you might have a different version of the story. The pressure to build your business is immense. The pressure to financially support tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people -- and their families -- is debilitating. And sometimes employees are underhanded, dishonest or negligent and do things that impact the company in negative ways.
But, you have to be extra careful. Everyone is watching you, and they are usually taking your feedback personally. Something that would elicit nothing more than an eye roll from one of my kids would deeply offend an employee, just because of the difference in the relationship. So, I discuss important matters at the beginning of the day when I’m fresh and try not to use email or texting to communicate, as it can be easily misinterpreted.
7. Do you use intimidation to gain the upper hand?
Often disguised as “straight talk,” intimidation may work in some business dealings, but it will cost you the respect of colleagues and employees. If making people cry makes you feel powerful, then you’re a jerk. Enough said.
8. Do you see culture as a necessary evil?
A positive organizational culture has a proven enduring influence on employee morale and productivity, as well as the company’s bottom line. Even the most selfish entrepreneur should see the benefit of creating a positive working environment for employees. It doesn’t mean that you have to shell out thousands for an exotic cruise to the Bahamas. But it does mean that you need to do what it takes to promote a happy, safe, enjoyable work culture.
9. Do you get personal in an argument?
Healthy discussion, even debate, is necessary in a business to find the best solutions and fully engage your team. But by going below the belt and using personal or private information against someone in an argument, you shut down communication that could be essential to problem solving. You’ll fracture business relationships, destroy friendships and end up eating lunch alone.
10. Do you think about what’s legal instead of what’s right?
It’s obviously important to stay within the law when running a business. Besides the fact that it’s the law, compliance will save you from some lawsuits, audits and a world of headache. But there is an ethical component to business as well.
The difference between a strong, ethical leader and a jerk boils down to one thing. Are you out to lift, strengthen and promote the people around you? Or are you in business to aggrandize yourself?
As entrepreneurs, we can deeply impact the way our companies develop. While I am flawed, I am doing my best to be self-aware and make frequent course corrections. So, the next time I walk out of a meeting thinking, “What happened to me? I used to be so nice,” I’m going to read this article to myself in front of the mirror, and go make amends. I’ve worked too hard to let a jerk ruin a great company.