Kill the Employee Mindset or your Business is Doomed


Guest Post by Ronn Hanley:
On paper my business is three years old.

In reality, it began more than 30 years ago.

The desire to own my own business isn’t new. I’ve always known that I have less control of destiny if I work for someone else. The problem is, early education, a large portion of average home life and life’s general experience doesn’t prepare you for being your own boss.

When I started my company, I did everything wrong. I gave away time and service for free. I sometimes forgot previous scheduling and had to backpedal after realizing that being in two places at the same time really is impossible. I obsessed over having to tell clients no. Despite all of this, I managed to survive by realizing that beginners have a lot to learn and trying to give myself a break.

Despite all of my ‘growth pains’ one constant thought has run through the whole process of getting to where I am now. I’ve made it a goal to be mindful that I’m doing something outside of my ‘training’.

Early life and school seem to be designed to turn us into good little automatons. We’re told to get good grades, do the right (safe) thing, graduate and then join the workforce. We’re taught to do our best for the group. Individuality is frowned upon in most instances. I’m not saying its like this for everyone, but for the great majority of us, it is.

When you start a business, no matter what kind it is, it’s very possible you are attempting to break out of 15 to 20 years of indoctrination. If you spend time in the workforce before starting the business, the problem is even worse.

When I started my company, I had been an ‘employee’ for 30 years. All I knew was how to ‘wait’ for work to be brought to me. Like most employees, I was somewhat proactive, but I never really went out of my way to do things. This was the result of being burned for trying to think outside the box in corporate settings.

My biggest issue to overcome – and if its your’s as well, you’ll understand – is putting the employee mindset in its proper place.

I’ve consistently caught myself saying WE towards my clients, as if I were something more than a vendor. It’s hard wired into me to make myself part of the ‘group’.

On the face of it, the mindset isn’t a bad thing. I’m able to quickly acclimate myself to whatever setting I find myself in. It allows me to connect to my client and get the job done faster with less awkwardness.

The problem is, once its time to sever that cord and move on to the next job or client, I sometimes run into an emotion wall. This issue tends to show up with my long term clients or for those that I have intense daily interactions. I tend to blur the lines of what a client should be. I look at the client more like a co-worker than what they truly are – a client that’s paying me for a project or my services. I’ve never noticed this issue with clients I don’t have daily interaction.

My largest client is also my oldest. In a lot of ways they are more like a job than a client. I know their goals, strengths and weaknesses. And I honestly wonder if I should know what I know about this client. If I’m just supposed to be a vendor, shouldn’t I keep it in the realm of – do a job, invoice them and keep it moving?

But that’s not what happens. I find myself emotionally entangled with their company goals and problems. During meetings or jobs I find myself saying WE a lot.

And this was my original point. The WE comes from my training to be a good team player. 30 years in corporate and private America has left its mark on me. Chances are you have a similar story.
If you’re wired this way you have to be actively aware every day that a certain distance is necessary – this means home user clients as well as businesses.

It doesn’t mean you have to be some kind of emotionless machine. Your clients are people who need to see the confidence and humanity you bring to the table as a problem solver. BUT the minute you violate that boundary you set yourself up for all kinds of problems. Their issues aren’t your issues (to the extent that their issues don’t interfere with your ability to do what they contracted you for).

I remember a conversation I had with the very first IT contractor I ever met. I was working for a heating and cooling company in Portland, Oregon and he had come by to fix some computers. During a break, I found myself talking to him and I mentioned a problem that we were having in the office. He stopped me before I really got going and said – “Please don’t tell me about the problems here, I don’t involve myself with my clients internal issues. I don’t have the time or energy for it.”

At the time I thought he was being an arrogant jerk, but now, all of these years later, owning my own business, I get it.

Your business lives or dies based on the way you conduct yourself around clients. I don’t mean just acting like a professional, I mean actively keeping yourself from getting drawn in and sidetracked by clients internal issues. I can’t imagine a faster way to reach burnout than ignore the trained in employee mindset while you’re trying to build a business.

A few things I do to help me ‘keep it real’ include:

  • Plan for my business to solve problems for more than one client. If I wanted to help only one entity I’d get a job.
  • Realize that my clients have issues have NOTHING to do with the growth and continued operation of my company. (I know this sounds like Duh, but its harder than it looks when you truly care.)
  • Realize that my clients can only see within their own little world. As a business owner I have to see in different spectrum’s.
  • Stay mindful that my employee mindset is a trained response and its stronger than it seems
  • Remind myself (sometimes daily) that one client won’t pay the bills or allow for me to grow this business to what it could be, no matter how nice they are or how much they seem to need me.

Good luck.

Guest Post by Ronn Hanley: Ronn is a technology enthusiast from way back, during the dark ages of the Arpanet and the Purple monochrome monitor screens. His first computer was a Commodore PET and his first laptop was the size of a suitcase. Despite that, he loves computers and technology to distraction and has been working in the tech world for almost 10 years full time, currently as the owner of a Desktop and Network support company in Atlanta, Georgia.


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Comments (9)

  • Jim Carter says:

    Great article! It’s always nice to realize I’m not the only one dealing with the wide array of personalities that make up the general public. Unfortunately/fortunately (not sure which); I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize problem clients within 5 minutes of meeting them. Saying “no” is the toughest part, along with putting aside the mindset that if I upset one person…it will spell doom for my business.

  • Tony Scarpelli says:

    Employee mindset had me going in a another direction. To me the employee mindset is Come to work late, go home 5 minutes early and not take on any tasks the last hour of the day and basically put the needs of the company last. Basically not having the self motivation to be self employed. Self employed there is noone else to leave the work too so you just do it, everything, when it needs be done. You work days, nights, holidays and Sundays when needed. That is ownership mindset.

    On the other hand “don’t get sucked into politics of your clients” says it much more accurately for me. I agree with the goal kinda up to a point but disagree with the method. You need to make your clients comfortable with you and there is nothing wrong with using “we” in your conversations. It shows you are connected or online with them. Isolation is the number one feeling of many small companies and it helps them to feel connected to their vendors by using terms like “we will solve this.” Telling someone that you cannot get involved with internal affairs when they try to tell you something is absolutely the wrong way to handle this-IMO. If they are low level employees you got no business talking to them at all other than “what is your computer doing” type conversations or “what do you need to do your job better.”

    I never get into politic conversations with low level employees as they are not in the decision chain and I could care less to hear the old bla, bla, bla of some bitching employee with a poor attitude. I survive by the will of the decision chain. The decision chain is the owner, his/her managers and people that he trusts to define problems and sometimes solutions. I would never alienate one of these people by telling them I am not interested in what they want to share with me. Besides it is helpful for me to navigate the organization if I understand how it works inside so I welcome the information.

    I do listen to the conversations of decision makers and other high level stakeholders. Where I need to catch myself and cut off my participation in conversations with stakeholders is politics and sometimes religion…he,he..

  • Dave Toombs says:

    I agree that it is difficult to suddenly become the owner of a business and have to decide how to handle customers directly. It used to be that you could always bump the decision up to the next level and not have to deal with the issue. However once I became an owner of an office machine business back in the early 80s I quickly found out that the buck stopped with me and free stuff cost ME money. I soon learned what worked and what didn’t. Early arrival at the shop and late nights were the norm.

    What was really difficult was going back to work as an employee, after 25yrs of being an owner! I saw many things that I would like to do differently but my voice and experience was mostly ignored. My work ethic of staying until the job was done satisfied my sense of accomplishment but receiving no appreciation from the “boss”, soon became very frustrating. I lasted until i was at retirement age and then did so.

    So it is one thing to go from an employee “mindset” to an owner but going the other way(in the same industry), can also be difficult and very frustrating.

    I don’t regret it, it was necessary at the time, and now I can just relax, play with my computer, watch the boats in the marina and have a nap now and then.

  • elcompudoctor says:

    this article was a very good read.

  • Tankman1989 says:

    I think the use of “we” depends upon the relationship or position you serve in the company. If you are an outsourced system/network admin or IT manager then you have the responsibility to provide all the IT services to the business and that makes you part of the team, and then the use of “we” would be most appropriate. Also, if you are discussing a course of action where you are collaborating on a project with the client then I would think that the use of we would be appropriate as well.

    I do think it is important to use I and you when you are assigning responsibilities to the client or taking ownership of a responsibility to make it clear who exactly will be expediting the task.

    As far as listening to internal company problems, there is a significant difference between an employee complaining about mundane things within the office environment or if they are saying something like “every time I need to load files from the F: drive my computer locks up for like 4 minutes” or if they are complaining about tasks which the IT department could possibly provide a solution for, then it is your job to listen and help them remedy the situation, after informing the client of the issue and getting the go ahead to fix the problem. Listening to some of these internal problems might help you get more business/billable hours and help your client in the process.


  • Larry says:

    Tankman, I agree. I don’t want to hear about petty, insignificant gossip in the office, but I definitely keep an ear open if I see there might be an opportunity for me to provide a service to them. Complaints often turn into business opportunities because let’s face it – people put up with ALOT of computer problems without mentioning them to anyone… so sometimes you’re only going to hear it from a “complainer”. I often steer them and guide them into giving me the info I need by saying the magic phrase, “What is this problem preventing you from doing?”. It forces them to give me what I need instead of a 10 minute story about their brother-in-law who tried to fix their laptop and screwed up Windows.

  • subha nayak says:

    It forces them to give me what I need instead of a 10 minute story about their brother-in-law who tried to fix their laptop and screwed up Windows

  • Lloyd Bardell says:

    Ron – just about everything that you said is right on the money. I too have gone through or am going through just about every feeling and experience mentioned by you in the article.

  • Lloyd Bardell says:

    Ronn – just about everything that you said is right on the money. I too have gone through or am going through just about every feeling and experience mentioned by you in the article.

    Sorry about overlooking the extra n in your name.