Know your surroundings Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2008

To lead his more than 60 full- and part-time employees effectively, Rich Milgram first needs to understand them.

That means understanding their personalities and then adapting his management style based on those qualities, says the CEO and founder of Beyond.com Inc., a network of online niche career communities that posted more than $8 million in 2006 revenue.

“Some people need more time and a hands-on approach; other people need hands-off, less time with you,” Milgram says. “You need to understand the people you are working with, understand their personality, understand what best motivates them.”

Smart Business spoke with Milgram about how to get the most out of your employees and how to show them you trust them.

Q. As a leader, how can you show employees that you trust them?

You have to be willing to let them fail — not that you want them to fail. In general, as a leader and manager, most people’s personalities, especially in the management role, is one of taking control and taking over.

There is a point that is appropriate, but you have to go beyond your normal desire to take over and let them expand. Let the individual expand their own mind and their own boundaries. If you are always taking control, they are never going to be able to grow and expand and work for your company that much better.

So, you have to be willing to understand what may happen as the result of you giving them more control, and then guide them along the way but not take over.

Q. Is letting go hard to do?

We have this running joke that I have separation disorder. Which is basically, I am having trouble letting go of certain aspects of the job.

As long as I realize that and as long as I am willing to share that with them, it sort of puts me on the same level with them. When you are coming into a new job, it’s change. Change to anybody is a little bit scary. Me telling them that, ‘This is change for me as much as it is for you,’ brings us on the same level and allows our relationship to evolve that much more.

You need that in order to grow effectively and run a good team. You need to be a person. Let them know you are human, and let them know that not every answer is going to be the right answer that I have. But it’s certainly going to be well thought out, and it’s certainly going to be planned, and it’s certainly going to be appropriate for our business.

But do I know the end result? No, because I can’t predict the future. I can measure and analyze and try and assure that result, but I can’t predict that result with 100 percent certainty. So, I can’t expect more of them than I expect of myself in that fashion.

Q. Do you think you would have been less successful in a working environment where there wasn’t as much joking around?

There’s no question. With all of our technology and the fact that we are a technology company, we are in a people business — matching up job seekers and employers. We are technology run by people, and that technology does not operate unless these people are happy and working effectively and efficiently.

I personally believe that if you can give people an environment, which is not just work but as a place they can say they have friends, as a place where they can feel comfortable, then they are going to be much more productive.

I was talking to one of our employees, who’s been here about three years, on the train the other day. She said it gives her parents such comfort that they know she doesn’t have a boss beating on her and expecting things she doesn’t expect of herself. To have a place where she can go and have a good work environment and not come home every day feeling like she was treated poorly gave them as much of a comfort as it did her.

Q. What are benefits of your management style compared to a boss who is beating down employees?

The productivity level of an individual that is happy in their job and feels like they are doing it for the company because they want to do it for the company and doing for themselves at the same time — you are going to be more successful as an organization. The organization is the sum of the parts. The sum of the parts is mainly the people. You can add technology in and you can add other things in as those sum of the parts, but a large part of that sum is people. If your people aren’t productive, you’re not going to be as successful.

HOW TO REACH: Beyond.com Inc., (610) 878-2800 or www.beyond.com