Karen Sager’s Thoughts and Experiences on How to Build a Good Team

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We've been there before. We know what it's like to feel overwhelmed by the process of hiring, managing and growing your team.

There are so many things to think about as you're building your team, such as: Who should I hire? What kind of culture do I want to create? How do I find the right people? What kinds of tools do I need to manage my team?

Luckily, we've got someone who knows all about those questions and more—it's Karen Sager!

Karen Sager had a lot of experience with team building. She's gone from working in corporate banking to building a multimillion-dollar organization. In the process, she's had some successes and some failures when it comes to team building.

She's got some great advice on how to make sure that you're on the right track when it comes to hiring and managing your team for today’s episode.

Read the Full Transcript

Atiba de Souza: Imagine going from corporate banking to building a multimillion dollar organization. That's what my guest today, Karen Sager, has done. She's built a multimillion dollar organization. And in the process, she has had some highs and some lows with team-building and she's going to share some of her insights on team building today.

So guys, this was a wonderful interview and a wonderful time that I got to spend with Karen and just learning some of her history and some of the knowledge that she's going to share with you today. And as always, we are brought to you by Client Attraction Pros. If you are an expert in your field, but you are not a recognized expert, you know you're an expert, but you're not recognized, it's time to change that. Your industry, your company needs you to step up and become a thought leader in your field. And we at Client Attraction Pros can help you do just that.

Karen, I'd like to welcome you to Build Your Team today. How are you? 

Karen Sager: I am doing well. Thank you. 

Atiba de Souza: Good. Good. So we're here and we got here because we've been talking and sharing a lot of stuff and you've got some stories to tell about, well, more about managing staff, right? 

Karen Sager: Sure. 

Atiba de Souza: And, you know, my audience here is one where most of us here are either looking to hire our first staff or looking to grow our teams.

And so we're in the beginning stages. And what we do here on Build Your Team is really talk about some of those lessons from those beginning stages. Okay. So first before we get to your stories I want to go all the way back. Do you remember what it was like to hire your first person? 

Karen Sager: Oh, yes. Because it's a complicated thing to do only in the sense of you've been the person driving everything, right?

So you wear your cheap cook and bottle washer wearing every hat. And I guess the first person that you look to hire is, like you can be a kid in a candy store, what is it that I actually need help with? And I think from most people's perspective, they start with, "I just need to replace me. I need another me, if I could just clone myself, it would be absolutely perfect."

But in reality, that doesn't happen. 

Atiba de Souza: Right.

Karen Sager: And, so you know, you spend your time saying, "Well, let me just get help for a couple of different areas." And then you've got to go through the process of interviewing and everything. And in my case, as I got started, I was working at home. I was going to have bring somebody into my house to work with me.

I had a home office set up. And I was very sensitive to who I would bring in because I just didn't want just anybody. And I was also willing to kind of limit the hours, at first, to see how this was all going to go. So in my case, I specifically targeted moms that were looking for time during the school day that they can work so they can show up at close to 9:00 and leave by 2:30 and still be out the door to meet their kids, but I got some work done. So that was probably the first person that I looked to hire. And the first person I did hire was a lawyer, by trade, who, just, again, just fit that thing. Like I need something to occupy myself. I can't just sit here. I don't want to go back into law, it's too complicated. They never give me the hours I want.

And it turned out to be a very good hire. I would say a lucky hire in hindsight. 

Atiba de Souza: Well, that's great. And it's always good to have luck on your side when you're hiring. 

Karen Sager: That's true 'cause it doesn't stay all the time. 

Atiba de Souza: It doesn't stay all the time. And I think , we do need that. And wow, bringing someone into your home and I know that it has to be tough. One of the things guys that, you know, Karen and I have talked about is kids in college. Right? Cause we both have kids either going or in college right now. And just that transition. And so that means that you had probably kids at home. When you were looking at bringing someone. 

Karen Sager: Absolutely. And I think by the time I brought them into my home, I either had a child in daycare or in the school system myself. So that was less of an issue. But to be honest with you, now that I'm saying all this people are going to be like, "You brought them into your home, why didn't they work virtually?" Because nobody did at the time. The world of Zooms and all this technology that is designed for the home. The, you know, the virtual office just didn't exist. So it was face to face. So yes, my, has the world changed and for the better, I would say. 

Atiba de Souza: The world has changed for the better. I would say, and, so let's talk about that, as well, because one of the interesting things that also spurred our conversation initially was the fact that you're based in one place and you have offices around the country in different places. And you also have people working virtually from, correct? 

Karen Sager: Absolutely. Yes. So, by a meandering of way, in a series of events, I wind up having people in the Midwest working for me. And because of a bunch of things, like just the cost of running an office and it was the wrong type of office for us in the end, people are now working more virtually. So it has changed things. And, but overall, I mean, there are seven people working remotely just from the Midwest. There's people in New Jersey working semi remotely or in the warehouse because we do manufacture our own products, but it's kind of kept us, everybody, you know, safe through the last couple of years.

And, it's taken pressure off of people in ways that I think are good. And it's allowed me, I think, to hire better staff in the end as well. 

Atiba de Souza: Okay. Well, let's talk about that. Because that's one of the things that we talk about a lot here too, is once you go virtual, it does give you that opportunity to hire better staff, right? Because you're not limited to just the people in your backyard, you can really find the best people anywhere. Right? What have been your experience with that? 

Karen Sager: I guess I'm going to be kind of a hybrid. I had the benefit of everybody being in an office together for a while, at least the people in the Midwest. So as a unit, they had jelled, I had the opportunity to interview them in person. Meet them all in person, go out there regularly. And it really made for, I'd say a much more smoother transaction to virtual and I guess the benefit is that me going— they're all based in St. Louis, so I can just go out to St. Louis, find a location, we can do a giant meetup and we can have real face-to-face contact as well. So, that's a big benefit to me. 

Atiba de Souza: It is. It is. So, okay. So we got into a little bit of hiring. Now. I want to ask you, if I could, tell us a story. Let's talk about managing people in your years of doing this.

And what I'm looking for is a story that people think is uncommon when they go through it until they realize, "Oh, all business owners deal with these types of stories when I'm dealing with employees." And then maybe even if you had any tips or lessons learned on the backside of that, that would be great too.

Karen Sager: I'm going to go with the, go-with-your-guts story. And it's a story where— we talked about this actually before, and I'll tell it because I'd rather tell a cautionary tale that actually, not a cautionary tale, but one that, that is more of, "Gosh, I made a mistake, but I learned a lot from it."

So, I hired somebody who came with extremely impeccable credentials, came highly recommended, experienced like I'd never seen before to be a part of my organization. I thought they were a great fit for the team. I think everything was just like the stars had  lined up. But one of the things that I found was the person was extremely strong-willed and said, "I can do this. But just stay out of my way because if I'm going to do this, I have to do it in a way that I know how to put the pieces altogether." And respectfully, I agreed. I also had a husband who is in the background going— and my husband is a businessman too, we just worked, doesn't work with me. Who said, "You got this guy, you really, you know, you just don't want to hold them back and just let them go and do his thing."

So I did, and I found that over time, the level of communication, i.e. how much information I was getting back was lacking in certain places. And execution wasn't happening in ways that I thought made sense, but I kept my mouth shut and let this happen. Come a year and a half into the future things really weren't going well.

And the decisions that I thought weren't going to be good decisions, sure enough, I mean, again, I'm not an inexperienced person. I'm not new to the game I had— being in all those 15 years in banking. It's almost like being a consultant. Because you spend your time looking at things to help companies direct and the right direction.

So, sometimes as a big— I worked in big corporate banking, so Fortune 500 companies, but then I also worked in middle market for awhile. And as a middle market banker, you are the director of companies because in a certain extent, because they're looking to borrow money or something like that, and they might be not setting themselves up the right way to get what they're looking for. Which is funding or financing. So, I have this background, I knew what to do and I bit my tongue and didn't do it. And it came back to haunt me. Eventually, it came to the realization where I knew I had to make a decision about what was going to happen, particularly with this one individual.

And I actually have to say that, something that we both got out of scalable, or, you know, Ryan Deiss, specifically, where he gives you an ABC, how to exit from a relationship, was actually invaluable to me. Because one, it gave me the opportunity to have a conversation with this individual and say, "Sorry, this was my fault." And you take the blame on yourself, and you say, "I didn't give you enough direction. I didn't do these things." But you also don't say, "You're out of here, fired." You go through that conversation and you say, "Okay, but now we're going to try to work together and see what we can do to see if we can move this in the right direction."

And basically that approach allows you a couple month window where you can attempt to rework a relationship because I do believe this individual is incredibly talented, had good ideas, just somehow, something got lost moving from his old company into our company.

And I liked the fact that that gave me that window of opportunity. But it does say after that window is up, you'll you figure out quite quickly if they're onboard or not onboard. And in my case, the person wasn't on board and it was as— as hard as it was actually doing the actual, okay, this is not working anymore.

And it's time to part ways. It is not one that I can regret because I knew I followed steps that I could live with in my conscience. I was able to, like I said, start with taking the blame, try to get things back on track. And when I made the final decision, it wasn't a knee jerk reaction. Cause I hate always putting myself in a position of, if I only just did this or if I only just did that.

And if I can go forward saying, "Okay, I gave myself the benefit of that and I still didn't get what I was looking for, I think I just made a better decision in the end" and I do not sleep at night, I will tell you again, going back to that day, I am not the first person to have to let somebody go.

It is never going to be comfortable. And the beautiful thing is that as uncomfortable it is for you. It is uncomfortable for the millions of people that have sat in your shoes before and had to do the same thing. But most people are adults about it. And it can go okay. My only bit of advice is always deal with another person in the room, because then you've got, you know, somebody who's listened and there is a path forward if something is misinterpreted.

So there you go. That's my story. 

Atiba de Souza: No, no, no. That's a great one. And I think that advice in the end there of always do it with someone else in the room is really important because there's so much that can get misinterpreted because emotions get involved in that, in those moments. Right. And having that third person who's somewhat impartial, because I'll never be truly impartial, cause you pick them to be in the room.

But at least there are voice of some level of reason is definitely helpful. 

Karen Sager: And if you have— I was going to say, I have the benefit of using an outside HR company. And so my HR company was actually the party in the room with me. So they are not another employee.

They are a third party organization. And if you can find a company that does something like that, that's a little bit more than just payroll, that is a resource that is been very valuable to me over time. I think if my weekly payroll is $25 a person, and that's more than the normal payroll services that most people use, that $25 versus let's say your average pink 20 or something like that, that five extra bucks has been invaluable over the years, going through any sort of level personnel issue. I've got somebody to always turn to.

Atiba de Souza: That's a really great point. And so it's interesting because I've always done the third person in the room too, but it's always been someone who was also on a team. So having that outside person really does give you the impartiality, which is super, super huge. So, that's great. And you're right for five bucks a month, I'd pay it too. Yeah, I definitely pay that too. But let's go back to something that you said in that story, which was a great story. In that, they existed for 18 months, this individual within your company for 18 months before this procedure of, okay maybe it's time for us to part ways. Should you have done it earlier?

Karen Sager: With the benefit of hindsight? I'm going to say yes. I really believed in this person and so many ways, again, they had such an incredible record. Part of it is, you know, there's so much going on in the economy. There's, COVID, there's so many issues that you wonder if it's not a third, it's an outside influence impacting the situation. So you sort of meander a little bit, and you try to say, "What about this? What about that? Is it this that's causing the problem? Can we make it?" And, and there were subtle changes along the way. I'm not saying I was totally out of the loop. But I would say four months prior, something came to my attention. That made me go, "Whoa, why didn't I know about this sooner?" And that event kind of triggered me stepping into the situation more and more. Maybe frustrated the other party in the sense that they felt like if I'm taking more of an active role, which I should, because I had money on the line and it was my reputation on the line, that may have caused part of the issue in the sense that, that, "Wait a second. I was supposed to be autonomous now she's stepping in." So it took a while to wind it, to get to the point where I probably could have done it a little sooner, but not for months. Not until, you know, you start peeling back the onion and you start finding out things. I also discovered only after I went and did it, how thankful other people in the company were, because at the time everybody was in the same office, right. I said that we had one location. Everybody was going into the office and that the level of stress in that office, just went woosh over, and I did not know that was happening, but they only let on after the fact that this person added like just a little bit of eggs to the environment that— I never really saw that side of them, I have to be honest. He used to be a joker and we talk about wearing tutus.

If one group beat another group in an internal competition, so I'm like, it sounds like a great, great place to work. 

Atiba de Souza: Yeah. It's so interesting, right? That the things that you learned after someone's gone. But I asked you that question and I'm very thankful for your answer, right? So it was 18 months, but it was at month 14, that things really started to hit and we started to say, "Hey, we need to pay a little closer attention to this" because so often, we as business owners who are in that situation, and then have to let someone go, that we start to regret the 18 months and we start to feel like, "Oh my gosh, I should have done this at month three. Oh my gosh."

But hindsight, like you said, it's 2020. And when you're in it, you don't always see it. And I have found, I don't know if you found this, but I've found that one of the things that I've had to do for myself in those situations is forgive myself and not hold on to the, what ifs. 

Karen Sager: No. I mean, you can't have regrets in the end, right? You are an individual and even with the amount of information you have, it's imperfect and you have to say— unless they really, you know, put your name out there in a way that's super negative and that's kind of immediate cause for firing them. I can't, again, it's a judgment call.

I fired and hired people faster than this. This is just the most interesting story that I had because, it was a big hire for me. It was an expensive hire for me. And I had to make a decision to do something I normally wouldn't do, which was stay out of the way. I'm just a naturally curious person. Right? So I want to know what's going on and want to know why it's going on this way. So, that's important. And I also think— here's the funny thing on the side is, I don't think of myself as a very aggressive personality, at all. I ask a lot of questions or I try to ask a lot of questions, but I don't think I'm pushy with my opinion.

But then I guess I find out when I talked to some of the people I work with, they're like, no, you are strong-willed and you have an opinion. So, I think that makes me feel I'm as better about myself, that when I have to get my voice out there, I do. And, you know, especially if you're a small business owner and you haven't had a lot of experience managing people, it's funny how there's such a difference between the mirror that you hold up to yourself and the mirror that the outside of the other people see. 

Atiba de Souza: Yes it is. It's hysterically funny. Just how sometimes they perceive us. And I guess let's end there, let me ask you this question, how do you figure that out? How do you figure out how they perceive you versus how you believe and when you find those discrepancies, how do you fix it? Or do you care to fix it? 

Karen Sager: I really think it only comes up with time and it's only with people that, I mean, these are people that work for you. They're not your best friends, right? And I hate to say it like that, but you've got to put up a wall between you and them. You can take them out for drinks, or you could host a pizza party, but there's gotta be a wall between you in the manager-employee relationship. But there are opportunities where you have to do a review or something like that. You can review them, but it should be a constructive process where it's back and forth between both of you. So sometimes, in you being constructive to them, they're constructive back to you, or it comes up just in subtle little ways— and I don't want to say subtle little ways.

You say something about yourself in a group environment and you're not like, I didn't really have that many opinions. Then everybody sits there and looks at you and goes, "What do you mean?" So you learn things about things that way. And from my perspective, it's more of a confidence building thing.

I know, I know my stuff, but again, I'm not necessarily a big personality. I don't need all of that flash. I kind of have more of that millionaire next door philosophy of it. Nothing has to show you just have to do it or have it. And it's there in the background and it's to be used as needed.

But, I guess the biggest thing is just knowing yourself using your gut. And if there's resources out there that you can tap into to even ask the question, when you have to do something, that is the most valuable thing in the world. You know, having a cohort of some people that are in the same boat with you or not in the same boat with you, but have, had other world experiences that are, that are useful.

I mean, in my case, I have my spouse, but this— how many things, can you run past the same people? It's like, Karen, just go do it. So sometimes you also need to go there. 

But I would just say— 

Atiba de Souza: Which was how we met. 

Karen Sager: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So, um, you have to be a little bit introspective sometimes. And then if somebody gives you kind of permission to use the things that you need to use, you go out and use those tools in yourself. So if I have to be assertive, I will. If I have to do something difficult, I'm going to. You just trust yourself and use that as a learning opportunity because the more you do it, the more you repeat those same things over and over again, albeit different circumstances.

You are just building up your success as a manager, because you can't just say "I'm a manager." There's no book that you can read that's going to give you all the answers. Some things just come with using the skills that you're building in yourself. 

Atiba de Souza: Yep. Time and experience and learning, which is back to what you said. So, yes, Karen, that was great. I got to thank you for being here. And the reason that I'm really, really thanking you for being here is because what you gave us just now was so practical, right? Real life situation. And that sort, it's just super, super practical and I think you and I can probably both say, especially when we were starting off, it would have been great to have some of those practical stories as well.

Right. 'Cause there wasn't the internet back then. YouTube, wasn't a big thing. And that was about it. So, Karen, thank you so much for being here. 

Karen Sager: Atiba, thank you for inviting me.

Atiba de Souza: Really appreciate it. Yes. It has been wonderful. And for everybody who's listening, I hope that you heard her in some of these practical things here. It takes time, it takes experience, in some of the things that you're going to go through in managing staff and that's okay.

Karen Sager: Just do it, right?

You can't have regrets. You just got to do it. Alright, everybody. We'll see you later. Bye-bye thanks, Karen. 

Thanks for having me.

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