Coaching your employees Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002
Search When his team suffered a loss on the basketball court, Michael Friedman was shattered, often mulling over the game in his mind long after the final buzzer sounded.

It was during those early years of coaching that Friedman noticed his players were often less discouraged about their performance than he was.

“We would lose a game and I would be demoralized,” recalls Friedman, founder and owner of Captain Tony’s Pizza and Pasta Emporium. “I would be devastated, while my players would shower up and go party with their girlfriends. I wondered how come they didn’t get upset.

“I learned a long time ago they didn’t have as much invested as I did. Coaching was my career. To them, it was a game.

Learning how to motivate his players ultimately led Friedman to coaching success at Cleveland’s small Dyke College, which has since become David N. Myers College. It also served as a powerful business proving ground.

So when Friedman left coaching more than 10 years ago to open his first Captain Tony’s at Shaker Square, he knew he would have to inspire his team of employees in much the same way he inspired his players. Though the opponents were bigger and the stakes were higher, the concept of competition was the same.

Today, Friedman owns six restaurants and boasts an annual turnover rate of 8 percent in an industry in which more than 100 percent is not unusual. Meanwhile, he has mentally and financially prepared six of his former employees to start their own restaurants.

“I would say I transferred my passion for dealing with people that made me successful as a coach into a different discipline,” he says. “Now, I play for profits instead of wins.”

Friedman’s secret is not the salaries he offers, because very often the Pizza Hut down the street pays more. Instead, he trains his employees how to be business owners and offers ownership opportunities to the ones that prove to be good students.

Here are the strategies that have helped Friedman grow a stronger and more loyal crop of employees than his larger competitors.

Be a good listener

Recruiting the right kind of employee is the first and most crucial step in Friedman’s process. Too often, he says, employers spend the entire interview telling a prospect about the company rather than finding out what truly makes that person tick.

Friedman lets the candidates do most of the talking, all the while looking for clues he can use to motivate them to succeed.

“The first question I ask everybody is what do you like doing when you’re not working,” says Friedman. “It’s a very powerful question. If you can’t be passionate about your interests, what are you going to be about working 40 hours a week for me?”

Candidates who criticize their former employers set off warning bells.

“If they criticize their ex-employer, it’s another red flag,” he says. “I want someone who was loyal to his last employer, no matter how bad it was, because I’m going to be their next employer.”

Fire up your employees

A long-standing business axiom is that owners must personally oversee their operations. For Friedman, who spends most of his time working behind the counter at his East 9th Street Captain Tony’s location, keeping a constant eye on his five other restaurants just isn’t possible.

To remedy that, Friedman schedules two meetings every week for each restaurant, where he can praise good work, gauge sales and remind his employees what kind of service he expects.

“Good managers are fine, but I had to create a culture of what I call employee ownership,” he says. “I need the employees and the managers to behave like me. When I walk out the door, I want the person in front to be like me, to watch the register like me, to take care of the customers like me and keep the place clean like me.”

Friedman gets employees and managers to take an emotional stake in the company by letting them make decisions about every aspect of the business, including hours of operation and even expansion — judgments usually reserved for the owner.

“What happens in regular restaurants is the employees gripe behind the owner’s back and everything festers,” says Friedman. “So I let them have tremendous decision-making power.”

Create a carrot

All the motivation in the world, however, isn’t going to translate into a strong work force unless there is a “light at the end of the tunnel.” To spur his employees, Friedman points to the six successful restaurateurs who started behind the counter at Captain Tony’s.

Friedman created this “carrot” in 1991, when he sold 20 percent of his first Captain Tony’s to four employees. Now he routinely lets his most dedicated employees buy stock in the business once he believes they are ready. Last summer, Friedman partnered with an employee to open a Captain Tony’s in Beachwood.

His five other “graduates” have opted for business ventures separate of Friedman’s gourmet pizza chain.

“These weren’t chefs, these weren’t culinary experts,” says Friedman. “These were people who came up through the ranks as delivery drivers and kitchen help. A 21-year-old kid without a college degree who busts his ass making pizzas, he needs something like that or else he is going to leave me.”

How to reach: Michael Friedman, Captain Tony’s Pizza and Pasta Emporium, (216) 781-8669

Jim Vickers ( is associate editor at SBN.