Small Business Hiring: Live Your Values, Reward Great Employees

‘A Company Becomes Bigger Than a Single Entrepreneur’

When you’re a small business owner, hiring can feel like a leap of faith.

After all, how do you hand someone responsibility for helping you build your dream?

But David Royce, founder and chairman of Aptive Environmental, has turned hiring into an art. Aptive is the fourth company he has founded, and at each stop along his entrepreneurial journey he has learned invaluable lessons about what it means to hire employees, earn their trust and reward their loyalty.

These lessons, he tells us, have become big competitive advantages for him and his company. We had a chance to speak with David about his hiring practices, his methods for rewarding top employees and how these have informed the growth of Aptive.

Extra Space Storage: Your recent Inc. piece stresses experience and incremental improvements. What have you learned about putting together a great team through the process of building your past businesses? How do those lessons translate to your role at Aptive?

David Royce: Selecting the right leadership team determines how far an organization can ultimately expand. For example, a single manager can make or break our organization for an entire city. This is because managers drive the overall culture, pace and performance for each location. That’s a lot of responsibility, so it’s important to choose wisely.

When hiring managers, I’ve always preferred promoting from within, not just because our team members have a proven track record but because they understand Aptive’s unique culture and mission.

Building an organization into an industry frontrunner doesn’t happen overnight, and searching out leaders who will instill this vision in their team members is paramount. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

EXR: What motivates you as an entrepreneur this time around, and are those motivations different than they were 12 years ago when you founded your first company?

David: What motivates me most about Aptive is the opportunity to build a brand that will outlast its founder. At some point a company becomes bigger than a single entrepreneur, and I think it’s really important to reward those who take our organization to the next level as a household name brand.

To do this, we’ve provided every manager with a long-term incentive plan to ensure each leader has a stake in the business. I’ve always enjoyed providing opportunities to future leaders and helping develop talent. Ghandi once said, “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.”

While growth has always been a motivation of mine as an entrepreneur, what’s motivated me most over the years has been building a better company, not just a bigger one.

EXR: All of your companies have emphasized finding and rewarding good employees. As you grow to dozens, to hundreds and then beyond, how do you not lose sight of that mission? How do you scale philosophy, ethics and company culture?

David: Our company’s ethos and values are a unique competitive advantage. They are the secret sauce that has helped us maintain the quality of our organization while scaling into a national brand.

I started with a single location, so maintaining that personalized family feel of a small business has always been important to me. However, seven years ago I read the book Delivering Happiness by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh which taught me the true value of culture. It was as if a light bulb turned on. To create our own company core values, we sent out an email company-wide asking for our employees’ help. After receiving a couple hundred responses, our management team summarized our employees’ proposed values into the core values we share today.

Core values aren’t something that can be framed on a wall and just expected to be followed. It takes a unique effort to build a unique culture. Focus is a key ingredient. When hiring, our core values now determine the primary characteristics we look for (as opposed to work experience or who the individual knows in the company).

Our values are emphasized during each new team member’s training period in manuals, videos and quizzes. Our managers recognize employees, both publicly and in private, as they exemplify our values throughout the week. We also provide incentives and performance bonuses to keep our values at the forefront of team members’ minds. With constant focus, our values have become part of our daily vocabulary and created a passionate culture primed for expansion.

David makes several great points in his responses, so let’s summarize:

  1. Leaders are important in any business, so choose your managers wisely.
  2. Rally your team around a shared set of core values. These will energize everyone’s effort, and they will help you identify good candidates when you need to hire.
  3. Promote leaders from within when you can.
  4. Reward loyalty and outstanding performance.

By the way, we explore some other hiring and leadership lessons David has learned in his previous ventures in our post What It Takes to Make It In Small Business.

images by: Raw Pixel, Climate KIC