Managing from a distance

Author Keith Jennings
March 27, 2019 - 10:45am

One of the great things about operating a machine shop is the potential to succeed and thrive, whether the shop is small, midsize or large. You certainly don’t have to be big to be profitable.

Machine shops are often small businesses where employees personally interact with owners and managers. Many shops are family-owned, with employee relationships being more intimate than at larger companies. This presents unique challenges for shop managers, including how to maintain good relationships with employees, earn their respect and show concern for their well-being. At the same time, managers must not allow themselves to become too involved with employees’ personal lives. They should remain objective and manage from a safe distance. That balancing act between professional and personal can be difficult.

At our shop, 12 employees have been with us for at least 10 years. These workers are almost like extended family. Managing a smaller shop requires balancing family-like relationships in a fair, unbiased manner. This is not an easy job, and it’s important to show respect and even empathy for employees’ personal difficulties. However, establishing boundaries is essential to ensure that employee relationships remain appropriate and aboveboard.

Prior to his retirement from managing our shop, my dad employed people he knew personally outside work—or at least he tried. He was an involved, pushy boss, but he also was generous and gave a shot to people when others wouldn’t. This benefited the company at times, though not always.

One reason my dad succeeded at dealing with employees and balancing his personal and professional relationships was his ability to compartmentalize situations. Even if it was a reprimand or an otherwise unpleasant experience for the recipient, he could block out the personal aspect of the relationship and move on. He had the capacity to handle such circumstances without causing distress.

I try to embrace Dad’s thoughtful qualities, understanding that some people deserve a second chance in life. The daily grind of managing a shop can make one cynical about people and their problems, but employees are human and have issues.

A related challenge arises when a worker is promoted to manage people who were previously his or her co-workers. It’s not an easy situation to tackle, and much thought should be given to how this arrangement may impact employee relationships. If you’re climbing the career ladder to become a manager but finding that doing so causes friction with other employees, maybe your management ambition would be better applied at another company. But if you are capable of incorporating my dad’s knack for compartmentalization and aren’t overly sensitive, managing friends and peers can work. There are many examples of shop owners and managers who were once regular employees at those shops.

Small businesses, including machine shops, employ tightknit groups of people who must find a way to operate in a professional manner. If you’re able to put personal history aside for the benefit of the company, you likely will be far more successful at managing your team.    



Manager's Desk Columnist

Keith Jennings is president of Crow Corp., Tomball, Texas, a family-owned company focusing on machining, metal fabrication and metal stamping.