Maintaining a winning team

Oct 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

Stress, change, and limited resources are all part of a fast-growing catalog company. But if you don’t manage these side effects, employee burnout, low morale, and high turnover will slow your growth. n Building team spirit and encouraging workers to have fun can go a long way in preventing burnout and slowing turnover in a company that’s growing aggressively. As the founder and CEO of the five-year-old portable batteries catalog 1-800-Batteries, I can attest to the strain that accompanies high-growth start-ups: Our 2,300% growth since 1994 has generated incredible stress and change for our teammates. When your resources are stretched to the limit, dealing with these challenges can be difficult and scary. But we’ve found three key strategies that have worked for us: developing a nimble problem-solving attitude; recruiting the right people using personality screening; and making fun an official duty.

Change your attitude During our early years, we viewed problems and change as bad. I can remember complaining to our original seed investor about all the problems we had encountered during a particularly tough week in 1993. Our three main suppliers had told us their product lines covered 95% of the battery market for laptop, cellular, and camcorder batteries. Naively, we believed them and quickly placed ads in trade journals and inflight magazines even before our first catalog came out. The telephones soon started ringing off the hook; unfortunately, for every 10 callers we had only enough batteries to fill two orders. So we were paying for the advertising, the inbound 800-number calls, and the telephone reps’ wages, yet we were generating dismal sales.

Our investor was wise enough to tell us not to worry about the sales, and he pointed out that every problem is really an opportunity for improvement in disguise. “The hardest part of a new businesss is getting the phones to ring,” he said, “and your phones are ringing like crazy.” He then told us to focus on the bottleneck by building a supplier base and a better battery cross-reference database. And rather than measure sales, he suggested we benchmark our progress in eliminating the product bottleneck.

With this advice, our team poured most of its energy into developing our supplier network and building a cross-reference database. For the next year, I faxed this investor a weekly graph that showed our progress on supplier and product database development. Today, our company has an extensive battery cross-reference database, and we can satisfy 95 out of every 100 callers.

We believe our investor’s advice saved the company, and from that day on, our team has embraced problems with a smile and a positive attitude. So don’t look at “problems” as bad, because they are really only part of the process of building a company from scratch.

Match the people to the job While skills and experience are crucial considerations when hiring, so is personality-especially when you’re a new or small company experiencing tremendous growth. Not everyone can embrace problems and change-it takes a certain personality type. So just as you wouldn’t hire a carpenter to fix your plumbing, you shouldn’t hire rigid personality types to work in a fast-growing, fast-changing company full of problems…no, let’s make that “opportunities.”

We have all seen great people stuck in the wrong job. What a waste! The employee is miserable, the company management is unhappy, and the negative energy from the mismatch can spread like wildfire to other workers. I firmly believe that everyone can excel so long as the environment suits his or her personality type. The key is to recruit people with personalities and traits that fit your company’s needs, which you can determine with personality screening.

We’ve found that personality screening processes are highly accurate and easy to administer using software programs, such as Predictive Index (PI) from Praendix Pacific. PI surveys take less than 10 minutes to complete, with job candidates checking off personality traits. Responses indicate levels of dominance, extroversion, patience, and precision.

Employers can use the responses to determine how well suited the applicants are for specific jobs. And personality-screening techniques are race-, gender-, and age-neutral and will hold up to the scrutiny of the current employment laws.

Since we implemented a PI screening system last year, our employee turnover rate has dropped 45%, and productivity in our mobile sales group is up 32%. More important, we believe job satisfaction and team spirit are soaring.

Elect a VP of fun Business can and should be fun. For instance, instead of flying to the last Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas, five teammates and I rented a giant Winnebago and drove the seven hours from our company’s Reno headquarters to Las Vegas. Sure, it was a long drive, and the Circus Circus RV park is not exactly posh, but we had tons of fun and bonded as a team by taking the road trip. (As a bonus, we cut our expenses in half.)

Fun is so important to our company that we have elected an official Fun Queen who plans monthly company-sponsored after-hours events open to every teammate, each of whom can bring a guest. Recent outings included snow tubing, bowling, and pottery painting. Seeing the wild side of that pesky accounting manager really changes the way you work together back in the office. We prominently display photos from these events in our call center, which reinforces the fun atmosphere in what could be a dreary job.

Does all of this work? We think so. Last year, when 1-800-Batteries relocated from Silicon Valley to the foothills of Lake Tahoe, 24 out of 28 teammates (about 86%) uprooted their lives and moved with us; the other four had significant others that made a move impossible.