Shop Owners: What Your Employees Want You to Know

A good friend of mine quit his job recently.  I worked with him for many years at a previous employer.  He is probably one of the most dedicated, skillful and talented people in the decorated apparel industry.  During our conversation he elaborated on why he chose to leave.  In a nutshell, the owners suck.  Year after year, they made dumb decision after dumb decision, and he just couldn’t take it any longer.  He told me that the day he quit, a huge wave of relief and happiness spread over his entire body.  As he drove away, tears of joy ran down his face.  That’s quite the reaction.

For any company, the key to success lays at the feet of the employees.  Without them, nothing happens.  Sure, the employees get paid and they hopefully all do a good job, day in, day out.  But what separates the basic clock puncher mentality with the rock-star employee?  What motivates someone to stay an extra couple of hours to get that critical job printed so it ships on time; versus someone that just walks away from their press when their shift is over?  What makes a truly wonderful employee dread coming to work each day?

You do.

The decisions that you make as a shop owner affect everyone that works for you.  Whatever you say or do will be talked about, non-stop, as soon as you leave the room.  Here are some thoughts that may help you keep the train on the tracks with your staff:

  1. Your staff are people.  They all have families, problems, and stresses outside of work.  Just like you.  If you are the type that draws a gigantic line in the sand over trivial matters it could lead to problems down the road.  Be fair and understanding.  Don’t get taken advantage of, but be understanding and helpful when your staff needs you.  Recognize that people are people.  Treat them better.  Walk a mile in their shoes.  How would you react to your own decision if you were an employee?  Does it pass the smell test?
  2. Everyone really wants to contribute.  They all have ideas; skills and dreams that could make your business grow and prosper.  Ask them what they think.  Implement their ideas if they make sense.  Reward accordingly.  If you are the type that stays on the phone all day, or worse, works across town somewhere else…but doesn’t invest the time to really listen to the people you have hired to run your shop you are doomed.  Get out of your cocoon and spend some time understanding the pain your staff goes through every day.  It’s your duty to make their job easier.
  3. Set clear expectations.  Are you the type of owner that gets upset when things don’t go according to your plan?  Have you shared that plan with the staff that has to make the plan a success, or is it still trapped in your head unspoken?  Were they part of developing the plan, so their input and thought is part of the results?  You can’t just set a number and scream “Go do it” and expect to hit the target.  There’s an old adage that states “Man supports what he helps create”.  You are not a general, and your staff a bunch of army privates.  You have hired these folks for their skill, hard work, and expertise.  Give them the opportunity to match their effort to the goal you have in mind by working together to develop the strategy that will get you there.  The key part of the word teamwork is team.
  4. Your staff wants to feel valued and respected.  If you start every other conversation with the phrase “Do me a favor” you are just digging a hole one shovelful at a time.  Have your employees nicknamed you “The Seagull”, because you fly into a room and basically just crap on everything you see and then fly out?  Your employees just want to be fairly compensated and not taken advantage of by their boss.  Open, honest and transparent dialogue at work…one that allows them to share their opinions without running the risk of appearing disloyal or getting in trouble is the atmosphere that your staff craves.  Only you can give it to them as you set the tone for the culture for your shop.
  5. Your employees want to be set up for success.  Give them the right tools, properly running equipment, training and support and they can deliver on your expectations.  The sooner you adopt a “servant leader” position, where your goal is to make it easier for your staff to do their jobs, the faster you will build a rock solid shop.  Constantly ask them what they need.  They will tell you their frustrations; after all they have to put up with the problem.
  6. Management.  As the shop owner, you have set managers in place for their ability to lead the shop towards the goals of success.  These positions are crucial to the overall ability for your company to deliver.  They are responsible for guiding, motivating, evaluating, and building your team.  So what happens when you hire the wrong people to lead?  It’s your job to correct that mistake quickly.  Want to drive great people away from your shop?  Get poorly skilled managers leading!!  You need to constantly ask your subordinate staff how their managers are doing.  Are they supportive?  Helpful?  Or do they just scream, “More! More! More!”?  The relationship between your staff and your management is critical for your success.  Don’t be lulled to sleep by what one manager may be whispering in your ear.  Get the real story from your staff.  A great way to ensure that this relationship is rock-solid is giving performance evaluations where the staff can evaluate their managers anonymously.
  7. The ability to learn from mistakes.  Do you employ a team of robots?  Probably not.  You employ people.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes these are just the dumb, “I’m not paying attention” variety.  Sometimes these are a result of your internal process, where maybe they didn’t understand the work order.  Sometimes, there was an unpreventable mistake, such as when a screen rips on press and the shirts are ruined with ink.  You need to set in place the culture in your shop that allows people to learn from their mistakes.  This is part of growth.  Usually human beings will learn more from making an error, than they will from doing something correctly.  Occasionally, these mistakes are going to cost you money.  They shipped the shirts to the wrong address.  Shirts were printed with the wrong color, or the wrong side.  The correct notes weren’t entered on the job.  One thing to do is to address the issue with the staff and use it to teach them the correct method.  Maybe your process was flawed, or the work order was unclear.  Did your employees have the right training?  Sure it sucks that there was a mistake, however try to drive the next steps to working to prevent it from happening again.  This is tougher to do than finger pointing and firing people, as it requires more thought and work.  And yes, sometimes you do need to discipline people with suspensions and termination.
  8. Get the right people.  Many shops have what I call “deadwood” employees.  These are the people that you are constantly talking about, and always in a negative light.  They show up late, do the wrong things; maybe they don’t quite fit in.  It’s your responsibility as the shop owner to set the tone for the company.  The sooner you have the courage to drop these employees and replace them with people that matter the better.  This includes your management staff.  Hiring and maintaining the right people in your organization goes a long way to keeping your drive going and the ability to achieve the success you desire.  Of course the other side of that coin is to keep the great people you hire motivated, engaged and rewarded.  Money goes a long way, but a simple thank you works wonders too.  Occasionally ask your staff what matters to them.  What are their goals?  Make sure what’s in their head aligns with the responsibilities they are given.
  9. Showing up is half the battle.  You need to be around.  All the successful shops that I’ve been to over the years all have one thing in common – engaged and active owners.  They don’t just make decisions from their office or from the top of the mountain.  They can make valuable decisions that keep the company moving forward as they keep their fingers on the jugular and know the pulse of the shop.  Trust, like respect, is earned not given.  Just because you own the shop doesn’t mean you have it.
  10. Shoot bullets not cannons.  Thinking about a change?  Try it small first.  Test it.  Talk to people in your company.  Want to alienate your staff quickly?  Roll out the new program as a surprise and dump it on them.  Worse yet, send a memo attached to their paycheck.  Remember, people work for you.  Have some courage and make a human connection.  Get the input.  Maybe you will come to the same conclusion and do the same program, but the difference may be that your staff feels more involved with the process and will support and understand how the decision was made.

So Shop Owners take a good look in the mirror and know that your everyday actions drive the culture in your shop.  Maybe this is a good thing, or maybe not…it all depends on you.  When key members of your staff quit, and their first reaction is a gigantic wave of relief, you have a problem.  That problem is you.

Lots of t-shirt shops have grown organically from a small garage company, to something bigger with some very complex challenges.  Many owners have little or no business training, and some may never have worked for anybody else ever.  Many ask, “How did we get here?”  If you find yourself micromanaging every detail in your shop, maybe you need some help developing processes that will allow your shop to succeed without you being there to oversee every minute point.  Contact me at and let’s discuss your vision of where your shop needs to go to be more successful.


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