Practice growth sometimes comes with resentment. Lucy Cohen explains how to overcome that tall poppy syndrome and embrace your success.
For anyone who has ever started an accountancy practice, or any kind of business for that matter, you know the struggle of the early days; the early mornings, the late nights, the networking, meetings and never ending juggling act of having to work in your business whilst also working on it.
No jokes, it’s exhausting and draining. And the burden of financial uncertainty weighs heavy on you. All. The. Time.
Of course, no one goes into to business hoping to fail. I remember in the infancy of my business I’d visualise the heady days ahead where I’d have staff and more money and fewer problems. Far fewer problems…
Fast forward just over 12 years and the startup problems have gone. Of course, they have been replaced with a set of entirely new problems, as anyone in a growing business knows. But that isn’t the point of this article.
The point of this article is - how do you deal with your (relative) success in business?
If you read that last line and thought “Oh boo hoo, whining about having some success. You don’t have real problems. You have nothing to moan about.”
- True. I currently don’t have the problems facing many. I have a good standard of living.
- That attitude is what the problem is.
The tall poppy syndrome in business
As a society there are only a few groups of people who we allow to be successful without resenting them too much. Those include sports people, comedians and people who win the X Factor. Pretty much everyone else is subjected to the rule that you’re allowed to do OK. You can be a little bit successful. But as soon as you start looking like you’re enjoying your life, we’re going to have to bring you down a peg or two.
It’s something I’ve seen over and over again in business. There have been a few businesses that ours has “grown up with”. South Wales from 2004 - 2008 saw the creation of a few startups that are still here today, and whose founders have what could be considered a degree of success. A lot of us know each other and there is a huge value in being able to speak about this sort of thing with your peers.
You can be a little bit successful. But as soon as you start looking like you’re enjoying your life, we’re going to have to bring you down a peg or two.
And why is that sort of thing important? Because some of your old peers won’t be interested in you anymore. If you’re lucky they just drift away from you without causing too much damage. If you’re unlucky they’ll express their resentment of you.
Resentment from your own team
The same issue can crop up with longstanding members of staff. Many growing practices have core staff that have been with them a long time and have seen the business grow and develop. You hope that they see the growth of the business as giving them future opportunities. Some will. But sadly, there will be some who grow to resent your success as the business owner.
It’s easy to see how it happens. Initially, when you take on staff you make sure they get paid first. It’s not uncommon in the early days of businesses to have staff taking home more money than the owners.
If you are a business that has bootstrapped without huge external investment, that might be a familiar feeling to you. Of course, as the business owner you never tell staff that. It’s your own dirty little secret. You never say to them “You’re getting paid this month but I’m not, again.” Why? Because no member of staff wants to work for a business that can’t afford to pay its owners. It would make them feel uncertain about the company. They might leave.
Initially, when you take on staff you make sure they get paid first. It’s not uncommon in the early days of businesses to have staff taking home more money than the owners.
So, business owners carry that burden quietly. Always putting on the veneer of calm togetherness, while inside there is a screaming an inferno of doubt and anxiety.
In those early days, you’re in the trenches with the people you employ. It’s all hands on deck. You’re a team. It’s stressful but exhilarating. Everyone gets excited as the contracts come in and things get a little bit easier for the business financially.
“We can afford the good loo roll this month. Hurrah!”
Everyone says they can’t wait for the business to be the biggest and the best: super successful and on the front of Forbes.
Then, as growth happens, there’s a shift.
Shift one - You want to make things better for staff. As the business owner you are hopefully continuing to keep staff’s pay in line with industry standards. You’re doing all the things you should be doing - reward and recognition, bonuses, pay rises, opportunities. That’s the shift that people love. It’s part of the reward of working for a small but growing business - no red tape and quick implementation of improvements.
Shift two - Your role probably changes. You may no longer be doing so much client work. Instead you are more strategic. Maybe you’re not as shackled to your desk as you used to be. You work on the business rather than in it now. That’s what all the books tell you to do. That’s the dream, right?
Shift three - You’ll probably start doing something else too. You’ll (gasp) start paying yourself a bit more. Fair enough! You will hear no criticism of that from me. As long as it’s not at the exploitation and underpayment of your staff go for it. Take that reward. You earned it!
And there’s the rub.
Becoming the boss
No longer one of the foot soldiers, you suddenly just look like (dramatic pause) The Boss. The boss who swans around and isn’t in the office and doesn’t work as hard as everyone else but gets paid more. You’ve suddenly gone from just doing OK, to being successful. People don’t like that.
It really hurts to know that people who used to sing your praises might well now resent you.
How not to deal with success
So how do you deal with it? Do you even have to?
The answer to this very much lies in how you feel about yourself and how you’re interacting with your team. The temptation is to try and demonstrate to your workforce how much work you actually do. Maybe you send that email around to everyone at 10pm to show that you don’t clock off when they do. Perhaps you make a point of answering emails or remoting in while you’re on leave - just to show that you never really get to switch off.
The best way to deal with any underlying bubbling resentment is to not address it directly or try to overcompensate.
Actions like that are futile. Deep down people know the pressures that go with running a business. It’s part of the reason why they don’t do it themselves.
The best way to deal with any underlying bubbling resentment is to not address it directly or try to overcompensate. Any effort to try and blatantly show others how hard you work and the responsibilities you shoulder can come across as a desperate David Brent-esque “please, please, like me”.
How you can deal with success
So what can you do? I’m not going to suggest that you pay yourself less money, be in the office all day every day or that you shouldn’t enjoy the fruits of your labour and sacrifices. But there are a few things you can do in the workplace that may go some way to help matters:
Make your policies fair and universal. Everyone has an allocated annual leave allowance, including you. The boss has to book their leave in the same way as everyone else. The same goes with calling in sick.
Your diary is visible to staff. That way if you’re not in the office, they can check if you’re working from home or in a meeting. It doesn’t just feel like you have decided to have a lie-in or taken a day off on a whim.
Ask for staff feedback on morale. Act on it.
In appraisals ask what people’s goals are - both in and out of work. See if you can do anything to help them reach them. Demonstrate that any perceived gap between you can close rather than widen.
If there is a company dress code, you abide by it too.
It’s not them vs us. You’re a team. But there should be a clearly defined organisational hierarchy so that people know who they should be reporting to.
It’s OK to have your own office. Just make sure that the door is open most of the time and ideally, you’ll be on the same floor as the majority of your staff.
Think: would I like to work here if I wasn’t the boss? If you honestly think that you have a great place to work, then carry on. If you think you can improve, then work to do that.
If you go to sleep at night satisfied that you’ve been a good person, you’ve been fair and kind and you’re pursuing your vision for your company in good conscience, know that is enough.
If you are doing all of the above then the chances are that you’re being a fair boss and you’re handling your success with good grace. Conversely, if you’re sending your staff selfies of yourself on a yacht, swigging champagne on a Monday afternoon while they’re doing bank reconciliations in a back office - then maybe you need to think about your style of communication a little...
The final thing you need to do is accept that there are some people who simply can’t be happy for another’s success. Learn to self-validate. If you go to sleep at night satisfied that you’ve been a good person, you’ve been fair and kind and you’re pursuing your vision for your company in good conscience, know that is enough.
Often where there is a person who simply can’t get on board with the idea of your success, the problem lies with them and not you. Perhaps they haven’t figured out what direction they want their life to take yet, or they are unhappy in their choices. Maybe they haven’t achieved success by their own metric and so find it hard to rejoice in that of others. You can’t fix that and you can’t fight that battle for them. It’s also not your job to placate them, dumb down or minimise your achievements to make them feel better. Be sensitive for sure, but don’t be less than you are.
Ultimately, success is relative. Everyone’s version of it looks different. You worked hard to achieve your own type of success. Don’t let anyone else take the shine off that for you.