After successfully running and then selling a multimillion-dollar family-owned paint business, the most valuable lesson Don Strube learned wasn’t about corporate control.
It was realizing he had to shrink his ego.
If Strube hadn’t overcome his ego, established processes to hire and retain the right people and develop a positive company culture, success likely would have eluded him. He told Zenger he learned to become less involved in day-to-day functions, as well as overcome other challenges that leaders of growing businesses often face.
These include the fear of not being in control of all operations, learning how to hire, train, trust — and hold accountable — senior executives.
As a result of these lessons, Strube has been able to capitalize on a number of opportunities. After selling Color Wheel Paints in 2005, Strube and his brother founded Florida Paints in 2012 “from scratch.” Thanks to excellent executives, including younger family members, Florida Paints is projected to gross $50 million in 2021.
Last year, the company brought 22-year-old TikTok star Tony Piloseno and his then-1.6 million followers into Florida Paints family business to attract the next generation of paint buyers.
The fear factor
As small businesses grow, typically so does the owners’ stress levels. Many find they soon have more direct reports than they can effectively lead.
“Once you add a zero to the number of staff you’re leading, you must have good leaders who can manage and guide those people,” said Fortune 500 speaker Joey Coleman, author of “Never Lose A Customer Again: Turn Any Sale into Lifelong Loyalty in 100 Days.”
“Many people can effectively lead four team members; few — if any — can effectively lead 40.”
Coleman said many leaders of growing companies “get burnt out because they have stopped envisioning the future and are in the slog of managing people, calling it “office babysitting.”
“What they don’t realize is that empowering subordinate leaders creates new opportunities to foster a great team, establish productive relationships and paint a picture for the organization with new ideas and more growth,” said Coleman.
When it comes to relinquishing control, leaders often have a fear of letting go, said CEO coach Mark Silverman.
“Many CEOs compensate for a lack of trusted staff by working long hours,” Silverman told Zenger. “But at some point, you can’t compensate for not having the right people in the right seats. Systems break down, opportunities get missed and clients and staff leave. At that point, growth will only happen if the CEO overcomes fear and has the right team.”
The problem of ego –— a variation on the fear that only the leader can do the job — also must be addressed.
Strube said he got over his ego by having “a hard discussion with the man in the mirror. We agreed that if everything is to be done exactly the way I want it, the company will only have one employee.”
Once Strube addressed his ego issue, he sought senior executives who were dedicated to the company and their roles; who had the ability to solve problems with minimal friction; and who had common personal and professional beliefs, and — if possible — common spiritual beliefs and values.
And once they were in place, he held those executives accountable to “five or fewer” key performance indicators. He also incentivized success through equity ownership opportunities, performance and efficiency bonuses, and participation in monthly reviews of the company’s finances.
Letting go in order to grow
Jim Morgan, chair of C12 in Northern Virginia/MetroD.C., an advisory group for Christian CEOs, rose through the ranks to lead printing and graphics company Balmar to $50 million in annual sales. He told Zenger he made two common leadership mistakes: “holding onto things we enjoy and handling mission-critical areas where we don’t trust our leaders.”
Morgan said he was overly involved with staff issues and company sales.
“It wasn’t bad for me to be active with sales or staff, but the company needed dedicated executives and managers to build a strong sales engine, put out staff fires and allow me to truly lead.”
Using feedback to build a culture of success
Along with engaged executives who help a CEO grow the company, junior staff must also feel part of the firm’s family, business leaders told Zenger.
Josh MacFarland, market leader at Gallup, said that small businesses can accomplish this without lavish perks.
“Our research shows that when managers provide weekly feedback, employees are about three times more likely to be highly motivated and engaged at their work,” he said. “Feedback doesn’t have to be over-the-top or perfect; focusing on employees’ natural strengths and talents is best, but critical feedback is better than no feedback at all.”
Ahmed Ali, founder of TISTA Science and Technology Corp., told Zenger he values culture, but the term “is one of the most misunderstood phrases in the business world today.”
“For many growing small businesses, the culture is whatever the CEO or founder is feeling like that day,” instead of a consistent set of values and staff support, said Ali. “A CEO or founder cannot impress a culture upon 400 employees. Only senior executives, guided by the CEO, can do that to their direct reports, who carry it down to the lowest-level employee.
“A thriving, durable company culture is built to support staff,” said Ali, who has 800 full-time employees, a far cry from when he started as a one-man operation. “In TISTA, for example, we want a culture of altruism and giving. We surveyed staff to find out what was most meaningful to them when it comes to donations, and we used those survey results to provide opportunities for staff to volunteer for, and donate to, causes important to them.”
As for Strube, he is consumed today not by ego but by his desire to bring passionate, paint-loving people, such as Piloseno, into the company. And the results have been positive.
Since hiring Piloseno last year, Strube said he has been free to launch an online product line and experiment with new target markets through a growing numbers of followers on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.
Without Strube’s trust in Florida Paints’ senior executives, this match made in paint cans never would have happened.
Edited by Fern Siegel and Bryan Wilkes
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