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LEARNING CURVE: Business Lessons From Southern California

Making Sure Communication, Mutual Respect Stay Priorities

Technology firm owner involved in hiring former welfare recipients says mentoring, equitable treatment are key.

May 12, 1999|KAREN E. KLEIN | Karen E. Klein is a freelance writer

Because of her involvement in hiring former welfare recipients and encouraging other businesses to do the same, Rena Burns won this year's SBA Welfare to Work Small Business Owner of the Year Award. She says that making communication and respect among her employee teams a constant priority keeps her customers as well as her workers happy. Burns was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.

As in all organizations, we have workers that cross the spectrum of skills, from technology support to documentation, to research, sales, administrative and technicians. Each group is valuable in what it contributes, and each has its weaknesses.

In the past 2 1/2 years, I have hired six former welfare recipients into entry-level clerical jobs. I keep their background information confidential because it is very important that they be viewed as peers. I work closely with them and assign each a mentor to help them in a low-key manner. The mentor typically becomes that person's support system, not just from the business perspective but also from the soft-skills perspective, such as how they dress, how they handle themselves in an information technology setting.

Being sufficiently professional is something I work with them on also. Many times, an office setting is new for them, and they have to learn a different demeanor. I try to give them feedback in a positive manner, which I think has been key to retaining people and seeing them grow in their positions.

So if I'm giving them what might be viewed as a criticism, I tell them that I'm mentioning it because I really value our long-term relationship and want to help them develop professional skills.

I was surprised at how easy it was to hire welfare-to-work employees and how responsive they were to the job demands. Two of my employees have decided to go back to school to further themselves, and others are moving up into contracts administration and human resources. Once I see they have the skills and really can do the job, I invest in sending them to some courses and giving them extra training.

The whole idea of respecting everyone in the office carries through from the welfare-to-work employees into our professional teams as well. We've found at times that different employee groups sometimes develop different goals. The technologists, who are senior systems engineers that design and program the sites, sometimes lack respect for the marketing people, and then marketing gets frustrated with the technologists. What happens is that they forget they have common goals related to the company as a whole.

When that respect is weakened, we lose the ability to focus on the customers because we're dealing with the internal battle, and we lose the efficiency we need to achieve the goals of the customer. In the end, both quality and project time lines start to slip.

I emphasize that this company is like a three-legged stool. Without one of the critical pieces, the rest of us cannot fully succeed.

I have had to consistently reinforce, as part of our organizational culture, that no individual or group has more value than the others. The challenge in giving out this message is to do it in a manner that our professionals will learn from and accept without becoming defensive about it. When there's a specific problem, I sit down with them one-on-one, and I present concrete examples to show them when this has happened. I try to reflect it back to them by asking them how they would feel if they were in the other person's shoes. When they think about it in those terms, they develop empathy and they can feel the impact on the other person.


At A Glance

* Company: Automated Data Sciences/Cadscan Inc.

* Owner: Rena Burns

* Nature of business: Information technology systems and application design

* Location: 2800 28th St., Suite 338, Santa Monica 90405

* Web site:

* E-mail address:

* Year founded: 1986

* Employees: 50

* Annual revenue: $3.6 million

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