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Empowerment for Workers Is Boss’ Credo

Zack Schuler started a computer training and education company called PC Literate when he was 21. He started out making about $500 a month. After a change in focus and name, the Cal Net Technology Group now does about $40,000 in labor and equipment sales monthly. Schuler has managed much of the growth of his business by using a policy of empowering his employees. He was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.

The majority of our increase in business has come during the last year, as we have gone from handling three computer network maintenance contracts and making $5,000 to $6,000 a month, to handling 23 contracts and increasing that revenue almost tenfold. In the last nine months, I’ve hired two full-time consultants and one part-time consultant, all three of whom tell me they could not be happier with their positions or income.

Their main focus is setting up and maintaining computer networks for small- to mid-size businesses. We are on contract to provide these companies with so many hours per month when we go to their offices, check their servers to make sure their backups and other systems are running properly and address any user issues. We then walk around the office and ask the users if they are having any problems. As we get to know the company, we assess the ways computers can make their businesses operate more efficiently. From here, the consultant makes recommendations on new pieces of software/hardware they can purchase to achieve their efficiency objectives.

The first gentleman I hired, a 24-year-old at the time, came from another, slightly larger consulting firm. He considered himself--and was considered by others--to be a “drone.” He would be faxed a work order, then show up and do his job, never having any interaction with the client. If the client needed additional help, the client was not allowed to contact the consultant directly but had to call the company, which would again dispatch the drone. The turnover at this company was extremely high.

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I run this operation a bit differently. Not only do I encourage interaction between my consultants and our clients, I try to get involved only when I have to. If any of my employees comes to me with a question, the first thing I ask them is “What would you do?” They tell me what they would do, and nine times out of 10 it is exactly what I would do. So my response is, “If that’s what you think the best move is, I’ll trust your judgment.” After I’ve said this a few times, and they realize they know what the right response is, they stop asking.

All of my employees feel like they are running their own businesses. They are paid well and are treated with the utmost amount of respect by both the clients and myself. They have a high degree of independence. For example, if the consultant wants a day off, they don’t even have to ask for it. As long as their clients are taken care of, and they know what to do in an emergency, the consultants can have the day off.

Even the terminology we use is empowering. I could easily call the people who work for my company “employees” (they are full-time staff members), but I choose the name “consultants” instead, as another form of empowerment.

This empowering attitude does a couple of things. First, if the consultant feels more responsible for his actions, he will take his career more seriously and do a better job, making the clients happier. The independence, as well as the pay, help ensure that the consultant will not leave and steal our clients because there is almost no reason for him to do so.

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One disadvantage of the system is that whenever I am less involved in the decision-making process, things don’t always get done the way I’d like. Obviously, the consultants have to have more than just technical skills. They have to have, or develop, decision-making skills as well as knowing how to interact with the clients.

Computer consultants are a rare breed and do not always have these interaction skills, so a large part of my job is teaching my consultants how to deal with clients on a personal level. I also have to continue to train them to make decisions that are in everyone’s best interest. If I’m not happy with the outcome of a decision that one of them made, I will go over with them how and why they did it, and let them know what I would have done. If a client becomes unhappy for any reason, then I take immediate action to correct whatever wasn’t done to their liking.

So far, this form of management empowerment has worked extremely well. But what about when my company has 20 full-time consultants? This is a question I ask myself on a daily basis. I feel that if I hire a management team and instill this style of management in them, it could continue to work as the company grows.

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AT A GLANCE

* Company: Cal Net Technology Group Inc.

* Owner: Zachary Schuler

* Nature of business: Designs, implements and maintains local and wide-area computer networks

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* Location: 9249 Reseda Blvd., Suite 105, Northridge, CA 91324

* Founded: December 1995

* Employees: 3

* Web site: https://www.calnettech.com

* E-mail: zschuler@calnettech.com

* Annual revenue: $410,000

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If your business can provide a lesson to other entrepreneurs, contact Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016 or at kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number.

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