The Secret Entrepreneur: It’s not a democracy

Don't be fooled into thinking your employees can be best friends forever. Leadership requires professional detachment, argues our mystery boss

“I’m a firm believer that you can’t run a great business without great staff, and that staff become great because they’re totally bought in to, and engaged with what you’re doing.

That doesn’t mean that they’re in complete control though. A business is not a democracy. As the leader of your business, if you want to succeed you occasionally have to play the role of dictator; usually because that’s the only way certain vital decisions will get made.

This was brought home to me recently when I had dinner with a government minister, who admitted (not for public disclosure!) that the government knew exactly what had to be done to get the UK out of the current economic mess, but that no-one would do it because it would be political suicide. They would never get re-elected.

That’s why democracy is a terrible way to run a business. Making the unpopular, but vital decisions is one of the most important roles a leader has to play. That’s why great business leaders would rather be respected than liked and learn to accept that sometimes you have no alternative than to really piss some of your people off, in the name of the greater good. It’s not enjoyable, but it is necessary.

I think that the need to be liked by everyone is why some people fall down when they are promoted into a management position (why, oh why, do people view a move to management as a natural progression – managing a process is entirely different from doing it). It’s also the root cause of a lot of office politics, although this almost always backfires.

Trading on friendship can work for a while, but unless it’s also backed up with a deep amount of trust and respect then things can rapidly fall apart when things get tough.

I’ve had this recently with a senior manager. They spent a lot of their energy trying to be friends with everyone, which then made it impossible for them to lay down the law and get their job done when they needed to. They tried, but the tension between the two roles made them come off as mentally unstable and ultimately completely undermined them.

It made the management position untenable and ego didn’t permit the person to move out from a management role to a production job. This was not going to end well. I prepared myself to do the necessary and wield the axe. I even reconciled myself to that fact that as they’d been with us a long time I’d have to offer a substantial golden parachute as an inducement to leave quietly.

A few days before I was going to do the deed, they came to the same conclusion and resigned. They said they respected me too much to stay in a position where it was obvious they couldn’t contribute appropriately.

Their decision saved me hundreds of thousands of pounds… which was nice!”

Read previous Secret Entrepreneur columns here on Startups.co.uk.

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