My Corporate Management Style Didn’t Fly at My Small Business

By Kimberly Fowler | November 4, 2010

When you go from being a corporate manager to running your own business, it’s easy to think that you already know what you need to know about managing employees. I know I did.

I opened YAS Fitness Centers after having been the COO of a $200-million company (and a lawyer). I had proven management skills. My nickname at the company was “The General,” which I loved and took as a compliment.

Yet, when I started YAS, I could not keep employees to save my life. The first time I would speak to them in a way that I simply considered direct, they would take offense, thinking I was “snapping at them,” and quit.

I didn’t understand. I’d think, “What’s the problem?” as the problem quickly became my own, and I found myself working the front desk, teaching classes, and basically being the only employee I could count on.

But the real problem was my management skills needed adjusting. When you run a huge company and you say you want something done, it gets done (most of the time). You have a bunch of people under you whose job it is to make sure of it. As a COO, you mostly deal with VPs who deal with managers or directors who deal with workers. Not so with a small business.

There was no one between me, the owner/manager, and entry-level employees. And my COO management style was too direct for many of these employees. I was trying to run a yoga and spinning studio like a big company. It didn’t work.

So I adjusted. I worked on softening my approach with my staff. Here are three key things I did that had the biggest impact:

  1. I learned to listen to my employees. They are, after all, the ones managing the “front lines,” dealing with customers at the desk, and teaching them in classes. When they have great ideas, I encourage my employees to run with them. For example, my assistant manager for YAS East Costa Mesa, is great at marketing. She came up with the idea of doing contests, like the “30-Day Yoga Challenge,” and now we do the challenge at all four locations.
  2. I created a reward system: If someone has been with the company long enough and is excelling, they become a member of our “Green Team” (YAS colors are green and grey, hence the name). This is a prestigious title, in the world of YAS, and it means members also get a raise. I always compare them to the “All Blacks” in rugby. (The best of the best.)
  3. I made my employees brand ambassadors: This is a concept I learned when I was Nike’s Yoga spokesperson. I make my instructors brand ambassadors by outfitting them with YAS Yoga & Sportswear. They get free clothing in exchange for coming to staff meetings or winning marketing contests, like bringing in the highest number of new students in a month. It’s fun for them and it helps me advance the YAS brand.

It was a gradual process. But I now have over 100 employees after starting with ten. I also have a VP and several managers, which is great when I need a buffer between me and my entry-level staff.

YAS has been successful, but with that success, I’ve been confronted with another management challenge that I didn’t experience in my previous jobs: A few employees resent my position or my success. I’ll hear through the grapevine things like, “Why does she have a nice car? I’m the one making her business the money.”

It’s a frustrating situation. My employees did not take the risk in creating the business and do not bear the risk of keeping it afloat. They didn’t come up with the successful concept, and they didn’t make enormous sacrifices to make that concept a reality.

They overlook the sweat and tears it took to build the business and instead see the press that I get as the founder of YAS, which makes it look like starting a business is all very glamorous. (Of course, it’s not.) I work like a dog. Fortunately, the majority of my employees see that.

Have you experienced a similar situation where your employees have founder envy? How do you deal with it?

Kimberly Fowler is founder/CEO of YAS Fitness Centers, a growing chain of yoga and indoor cycling facilities. A motivational/business/fitness expert, Kimberly’s a former pro triathlete and lawyer. Follow her on Twitter @kimberlyYAS