The bosses who learn from past experiences

The type of manager you'll be depends a lot on your role models, writes Lucy Battersby.

The type of manager you'll be depends a lot on your role models, writes Lucy Battersby.

Starting a business throws up many challenges, including what kind of employer the owner will turn out to be - an inspirational entrepreneur or a bully whose workforce is sad and unmotivated?

Many business owners use their experiences as an employee to shape their behaviour as an employer. This affects how they treat staff, their attitude towards unions and what they want their business to achieve. This can be good, unless they perpetuate bad management skills learnt from a previous employer.

The global business development manager at Pyksis, Mark Gustowski, says past experiences are a good guide and motivator, so long as it does not go too far.

"Many company founders will go above and beyond in putting strategies in place to make sure their employees don't share the experiences they had," he says.

"As long as businesses are innovative and creative in how they use their past experiences, it is more often than not a positive experience, as long as they don't go overboard to the detriment of the company's bottom line," he says.

Personal experiences can change an employer's view of their role.

Craig Robinson was an active young man who suddenly found himself bedridden for two years after a rock-climbing accident in the Grampians, Victoria. A compound fracture in his left leg became infected after surgery and he spent 10 months on heavy antibiotics. When he finally recovered, he started a carpentry apprenticeship and now runs his own building firm called Dynamic Developments.

"I wanted to be more than just able to support my family by making a profit in the business - I wanted to do it ethically," he says.

Robinson pays staff to stretch their bodies twice a day, gives nutritional advice and puts staff through project management training with the aim of moving them on to better jobs after five years.

Staff are paid above-award wages and part of the bonus the company receives for jobs finished ahead of schedule.

He is also mindful that staff are the same age as he was when he fell off a cliff. "I know that young males are pretty invincible in their own eyes. But I learnt in a second-and-a-half that we [also] break pretty easily," Robinson says.

Other employers are determined not to repeat mistakes they saw and endured. "The reason why we wanted to start Energy Quotes was to look after people. We knew what was going to happen and we had an idea," director Troy Cockburn says.

Energy Quotes is staffed mostly by ex-employees of the electricity broker Energy Watch. The management team use the same business model but offer access to 24 electricity retailers, whereas Energy Watch dealt with only three or four and was ultimately fined for misleading and deceptive conduct.

Unfortunately, many staff are still chasing unpaid superannuation and wages after Energy Watch went into administration in May this year. Towards the end salaries were sometimes delayed or not paid in full. This means the workforce at Energy Quotes keeps a close eye on their pay cheques and are sensitive to any hint of a delay in wages. The employers know this and bend over backwards to look after their staff.

"We pay [employees] first. There are times when we have not been paid," says its part-owner and director of sales, David Perry.

Energy Quotes has about 30 staff, all permanent, and has rented offices in central Melbourne. They could move to cheaper premises, but are worried about staff walking suburban streets if they leave work late at night. Energy Quotes is also working with the Australian Services Union to draft an enterprise bargaining agreement - many of them, including management, turned to the ASU for help recovering wages owed by Energy Watch.

Meanwhile, another employer is trying to save staff from the same frustrations he felt as a salesman back in Britain. Tony Delaney's Brownie Points software turns internal reward programs from a subjective and secretive process into an accessible one.

"I was the top-performing regional sales manager for three years in a row. For some reason I never got recognised as the Manager of the Year and I never knew why somebody else always got that accolade," he says. "Nobody ever told me how they got it and what it was measured against."

All employees perform better when they know that exceptional work will be rewarded, he says.

The Brownie Points software tracks employees progress toward a reward or bonus and is available for everyone to look at.

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