Vending Times has been around long enough to have encountered a number of entrepreneurial vending operators who started out of their garages or basements. Many went on to build operations running 15 routes or more. A longstanding concern for these companies (and for members of other predominantly entrepreneurial businesses) was the unwillingness or inability of the founder and boss to develop "middle managers" who would take over responsibility for day-to-day operations, leaving the founder free to do some long-range study and planning -- able to work on the business rather than in the business.
NAMA has done a good job of addressing that concern with its supervisors' development courses and its executive management education programs at MSU. But I wonder whether, now that the boss is free to think strategically and conceptually, does that mean that the people who work for the company necessarily know that this is what he or she actually is doing? And do they understand that it is important? And if they don't, might this be a potential problem?
We have always been told to lead by example. Sounds easy and obvious, right? But what if you're leading and your employees aren't right there to watch you doing it at first hand? Are you still leading?
This is not a trick question. You know you're on the front line even when you're not out in the field, but if you're not physically present, in the minds of other workers, are you carrying your weight? If they don't recognize that you are, that notion can lead to resentment and sullen routinism, producing an unfavorable environment for teamwork. With the ability for many employees (and managers) to work remotely these days, this issue may be more prevalent than it ever has been.
An advantage that smaller vending companies have had, especially companies led by a former route driver or mechanic, is that the boss trains new workers in filling, servicing and maintaining the equipment; takes service calls if no one else is available; runs a route if somebody doesn't show up; and generally is known to be the most capable person in the organization. But it can be difficult to maintain that perception as the business grows and the boss is able to delegate those tasks to middle-management personnel. Some operators are aware of this, and endeavor to keep their hands in by sometimes running a route or taking a service call. And they often learn useful things while doing it.
But even if the boss no longer is better than his technicians at repairing the newest machines, and no longer runs routes, it will be worth his or her while to set aside some time during the week to chat with the technicians and drivers, and to publicly acknowledge that what they are doing is essential to the continued success of the enterprise.
At one time or another, most organizations will experience some conflict between "line" and "staff." The former may refer to the latter as aloof "ivory tower" intellectuals, unfamiliar with the real world and incapable of doing much of anything, while the latter regard the former as unimaginative plodders, so bogged down in menial tasks that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture. But in my humble opinion, there really are no "menial" tasks in an organization. There are jobs that need to get done -- and, if something doesn't need to get done, there is no reason to do it. If an assignment must be undertaken, then it should be completed by whoever is available. A team leader must work toward building productive awareness among those who can influence a situation, so that all can take collective action to work toward the common goal.
Perhaps you're thinking that you've got more important things to do. You've worked long and hard to earn your stripes, so why should you need to prove your value to anyone? Unfortunately, no matter how much time and energy you've invested in the business, or what you've accomplished, that's all yesterday's news.
You can say whatever you want, but it is your observed actions that demonstrate who you are to your employees. People will notice a positive work ethic, if they have the chance to see it in action. Better yet, if you help others along the way -- either by teaching them or by setting them up for their own success, then work (and life) acquire greater meaning.
"I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts," said the British philosopher John Locke. This is a variation on the old adage "Watch what I do, not what I say" that turns up in many ages and civilizations (Confucius said: "Example is better than precept.")
One of the most attractive aspects of this industry is the camaraderie formed within small teams, each member of which can see the others' contributions. Those in large companies who remember that group spirit are more effective leaders, and reap greater rewards.