Rick Gaan

Managing Young Employees Yields Insights for All

June 21, 2006

Case categories include: Human Resources   Leadership   

By Robert Sher
“This is not high school,” repeated Rick and June Gaan to the team of 12 teenagers and young adults that were running LeMans Karting, an indoor go-cart racing business.  Rick had bought the business in a troubled state, where the prior owner hadn’t controlled the culture or even managed the business closely.  It was what you would expect in a high school if the teachers and principal were absent for a few months and the kids were left to manage themselves.  You get the picture.  Scary.

This was one rag-tag employee team.  These kids had troubled pasts – some even with jail time.  Many struggled in school, and did not have a well-developed work ethic.  Cliques and power bases made team work difficult.  Surprisingly, Rick and June decided not to change out the entire team, but to deeply engage each employee, training, mentoring, and in all senses parenting them in an effort to develop the good they saw in each person. 

Going one-on-one
Sales were low, so Rick’s first move was to offer sales incentives.  It helped, but with more sales, operations needed work to bring return customers.  June worked individually with each person, showing them how they could make their job easier.  Much of it was basic job training, and the rest was building solid processes and procedures.  But the self interest to each young employee was played up – doing things better to make their job easier.

As work got done more timely, and the operational aspects improved, the Gaans worked to develop pride in performance.  They taught and preached how good it feels when you achieve a goal, when a person works as good or better than expected, and when customers say, “Wow!”  They were teaching a value set, something most businesses don’t consider their responsibility.

In doing so, they had to get personal with each employee, and were explicit about their concern for each as a person.  Sometimes that meant cutting an employee’s hours back when they had poor grades in school. That meant meeting with parents to discuss parent‘s concerns about their kids.  They set the terms of their relationship with their employees as being genuine and honest.  In return, the employees were open with their hopes, dreams, problems, thoughts and feelings.  Through this and many other actions, the Gaans made it clear that they cared about the employee as a person, and by and large, the employees responded with care and concern for the Gaans’ business.

Investing in their team worked.  Within a year, ten of the 12 original employees remained, the other two were dismissed.  The seller note was paid out of operations, and revenue and profits were up over 300%.  The headcount stood at 30.

We’re all the same
This is not an essay about employing young people.  Adults have the same feelings and thoughts that young people do – they just hide them better.  Adults have learned the workplace rules better, but the rules don’t motivate performance – it’s the underlying attitudes that really drive performance.  No matter how old the employee, if we can get attitude and emotion in the right place, performance improves.

I have to wonder what each manager in the average business knows about each of their employees, and what each employee knows about their manager.  How can two people care about each other if they don’t know much about each other’s lives?  Now this may sound patently obvious to some, but I think that as many of us rush around faster and faster, working more and more digitally, this basic building block of human relations is being neglected.  Most employees that have a mutually caring relationship with their manager know that the manager really cares about the business’ performance, and do their best to help their manager achieve that goal.  I’m not advocating unconditional love.  I am suggesting a few minutes every week where you find the time to chat about personal issues.  It is amazing how quickly bonds form with a little effort.

Set boundaries
Work rules and their enforcement are critical too.  Any parent knows that creating boundaries for kids is critical, and it’s true in the workplace.  But the younger your team is, the more critical it is to explicitly state the rules.  Be prepared to enforce the rules, even if it means dismissing people.  That’s what happened to the two employees at LeMans Karting that didn’t make it.  Although they were sincere and communicative, they couldn’t follow the rules consistently.

While a malicious act by an employee is an instant ticket to dismissal, expect mistakes during the training process.  Sometimes delayed learning is the fault of delayed training, as it was for the Gaans.  With the openness that youth often brings, the Gaans were able to see deeply into each employee.  They tailored their approach and style of interaction to each employee.  What a great reminder to us all:  Get to know the person and what makes them tick, then respond appropriately. 

The workplace is not high school, but the personalities are the same.  Engage each employee as a person, and watch them care for your bottom line.

• Taking a personal interest in your employees increases their value – regardless of age.
• Being genuine and honest with your employees ensures you’ll get the same treatment in return.
• All employees need to clearly understand and respect the rules and consequences of the business.

Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: LeMans Karting
Person: Rick Gaan, CEO
Alliance Member since: 2006
Product: European-style indoor go-cart racing
Written: June, 2006
Address: LeMans Karting, 45957 Hotchkiss Street, Fremont, CA 94539
Phone: 510-647-5900