When I started my first business, I was 32. I had run a small team before, but I had a boss, and that boss had a boss. I could pass ultimate responsibility up the chain. I had no partners. By design, I didn’t want to have to ask anybody’s opinion if I didn’t want to. I wanted to be free to mold my company and make decisions as I wanted. I had no voting board or advisory board, and my investors were all silent. I was young, dumb and arrogant.
At first, I loved this structure. Nothing I didn’t like got in, and only things I liked got out. As the years went on, the company grew, and I was overseeing three locations and about 40 employees. Through the complexity of decisions that started to face me, I realized I needed advisers, craved advisers. I began to rely more heavily on some of my investors to help me navigate the waters. Advisers helped, but still, I was the one in the company day to day reacting to issues that arose, dealing with HR, logistics, inventory, purchasing and other matters. In the moment, my decisions were still in a vacuum tested by the strength of only my logic.
I’m not a partnership fan. It has many strengths, but I operate better as a sole operator. So, how do you get your decisions checked by outside logic in real-time to keep up with operations? Enter the role of the dissenting employee. This is tricky. Some employees disagree with you just because they don’t like the decision. Some disagree to be complicated or prove a point. The valuable dissenting employee has thought about the decision, sees a possible better path, and questions the decision. Being questioned can be challenging. It can dent the ego. Here’s the thing, though — nobody is right 100% of the time, and if you can’t stand a few dents in the ego, you aren’t going to be very successful.
The dissenting employee will question you respectfully. You will see evidence that they have thought about this carefully and weighed the options. They will tell you why they believe a change in course will produce a better outcome.
I was fortunate to have several people in my employ over the years who dissented for the good of the company and everyone who worked there. I didn’t always handle these moments correctly. It was a learning process for me, but I can tell you that these employees made some invaluable contributions to our company. I needed people who could give me the unvarnished truth about what I was blind to.
Over time I learned to include this core group of employees in my decision-making process. I asked for their input before setting a plan in motion. Again, I didn’t always do this correctly. Like Frank Sinatra, the urge to do it “My Way” was strong. But I found so much value in these opinions when I listened to them. It didn’t weaken my leadership position as I feared. It strengthened it. Being a leader is hard, and it’s something that we are all continually working on. But take it from me. If you haven’t yet, take another look at that employee who disagrees with you, and ask yourself why? Take time to have a meaningful conversation with that person. You may have just found your new “partner.”
Brian O’Connell is the owner of Transworld Business Advisors of Northwest Arkansas, specializing in small business sales and acquisition. He sold two of his businesses prior to helping others with their business sales and acquisition goals. You can reach him at 479-717-7740. The opinions expressed are those of the author.