Back to basics: Trust, open dialogue, mentorship keys to small-business success

A small-business leader must be a good listener while providing an environment where opportunities for mentorships can flourish and create a path for future leaders.

How do you foster mentorships and ensure you are listening to new ideas?

For some, it pays to have an open-door policy, step out of your comfort zone or react differently to how you are listening to employees at all levels of your company.

Building a sense of trust also goes a long way.

“Listening, for me, is a key core competency any leader must have,” said Andrew Plank, owner and president of Blue Eagle Logistics, a company that provides freight and warehousing services in Upper Macungie Township, near Allentown. “You need to have formal and informal processes in place to really hear what is going on in your business.”

Leaders need to hold formal daily or weekly meetings to review the business and raise concerns, Plank said. Just as importantly, take the advice of management guru Tom Peters in what he calls “managing by wandering around,” which he introduced to companies nationally in the 1970s.

“You need to be wandering the building to see people informally to see and hear … A simple ‘how’s it going?’ conversation starter can provide insights that people may not be comfortable sharing in a group environment,” Plank said.  “It takes both styles to listen and learn.”

Listening also requires patience.

Daniel Laws, principal of DaBrian Marketing Group in Reading, suggests leaders listen first and come back to the conversation later.

“I think in terms of listening to new ideas, it’s having people you trust and taking the time to understand before you respond,” Laws said. His firm employs 10 people.

Laws learned more about comprehensive listening during meetings at Vistage, a leadership peer program that he belongs to. Being part of that group allowed him to practice listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.

“You’ve gotten some practice, so you can leverage that practice,” he added.

Sharing ideas also is essential for growth. Without them, companies remain stagnant and fall behind.

“Your workforce is your product, if you are not sharing new and better ways to do things, you aren’t growing,” said David Saba, director of public relations for SWBR Inc. in Hanover Township, Northampton County. “We are always looking at everyone to bring new ideas to our attention.”

SWBR, a marketing and advertising firm that employs 20 people, encourages a culture where people want to bring forth ideas, said Ernie Thomas Stiegler, the firm’s director of business development.

Industries change all the time and leaders have to be ready to adapt. By participating in conferences, seminars and webinars, leaders and employees stay on top of new ideas and trends.

“Especially for senior staff members, you can get a little comfortable so it’s really important that you are educating yourself,” Stiegler said.

Open door is welcoming

For Juan Vidal, managing director of Offix Systems in Allentown, an open-door policy is the key to a healthy workforce, and it helps create an environment where people want to come to work.

Some companies where Vidal worked in the past believed that withholding knowledge gave a leader power. The opposite is true, Vidal said.

Creating a level of trust between leaders and employees and among co-workers allows them to feel comfortable sharing ideas.

“I’m a firm believer that the sharing of knowledge gives you more power and helps make you the best mentor,” Vidal said.

Ideas do not have to come only from the inside either.

Now in its 10th year in business, the owners and operators at The Knitter’s Edge in Bethlehem encourage fresh ideas from their staff, their customers and other local business owners.

It’s an approach that has worked well for the mother-and-daughter team that runs The Knitter’s Edge.

JoAnne Turcotte handles the more creative side of the business while her daughter, Amanda Evans, tackles the business end. The business employs 12 part-time workers.

They trust their employees to come forward with new ideas, often with no formal process.

“We also give them a lot of latitude,” Turcotte said. “I’m always willing to try new things. In here, I discovered over time, you don’t know ahead of time whether something will work.”

The small knitting shop offers about 30 classes a week and in a newsletter that goes out to about 8,000 people, the owners encourage their customers to send them ideas for new products, projects or classes.

They see mentorship running both ways. Turcotte and Evans work closely with local business owners by selling their products in the store, and collaborate with them on new product ideas. For example, the store works with a local yarn dyer and a local soap maker.

“We mentor with each other here and outside the company,” Turcotte said.

For Plank, whose company employs 28 locally, he’s also had some key mentors in his life.

“Sometimes I think they have found me,” Plank said. “I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to some really good people who were willing to share their experiences.”