PULLING RANK AND BREAKING RULES
“You’re going to do what?” “That’s never going to work.” “You guys are insane.”
These are the types of reactions Adam and Katie Wright got from people when they told them their new plan for revamping their hiring and personnel policies.
So the brother-and-sister duo, who own Dream State Salon in Tallahassee, Florida, just stopped telling people. Instead, they put their plan to the test. And two years later, they’re showing the skeptics just how effective a plan can be when you throw fear out the window.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
In 2008, the economy took a nosedive and small businesses all over the country desperately tried to stay afloat. Some did, many did not. It was during this time that the Wrights decided to reinvent some of their core business practices, phase by phase. The first was hiring.
“We found owners just aren’t as great at hiring as they think they are,” says Adam. “We’d hire people we thought would be great and weren’t, and vice versa.”
“In the salon, the work space is unique as everyone is working in one room, physically bumping into each other all day.
“If that room is filled with trust, amazing things happen,” says Adam. “But if it’s filled with distrust, the work suffers between stylists and clients, owner and stylists, front desk and clients, etc. The ideal environment is not to be in competition with another person or feel threatened by them.”
However, the Wrights knew the salon is traditionally filled with drama and egos, and that this ideal environment wasn’t going to be easy to achieve.
So they stopped hiring and started auditioning.
“New hires wear a red apron that says ‘auditioning,’” Adam explains. When the ‘audition’ process comes to an end, the new stylist must get hired by everyone in the salon. That’s right, every stylist at Dream State has a say in who gets hired. And everyone must sign off in order for the auditioning stylist to become an employee.
When auditioning stylists come close to the end of their audition, there are two sheets of paper they must have everyone sign off on — a skill sheet and a trust sheet.
The trust sheet contains statements like, “I trust Susan to do clients. I trust her to be part of team, I trust her to represent the brand, etc.” Skill sheets contain statements about the new stylist’s actual skill set.
“Everyone has to sign them,” says Adam. “Some people will sign right away, some will hold out until the end, and some in the middle.”
The beginning of the process was a little bumpy — many stylists signed just because their peers did, and ended up regretting it later. “We had to build in training for people so they would sign when THEY wanted to, not because someone else did,” says Adam.
Once a stylist signs the sheet, they can’t unsign it. But Adam and Katie maintain the burden is actually on the new hire.
“It’s all based on work ethic and a desire to be a member of the team,” says Katie.
And ultimately, team is what the auditioning process is all about for the Wrights. Katie adds, “Some salons are all about caring for guests or all about caring for team. We need a healthy balance.”
The auditioning system has created just that for Dream State. Katie maintains when you care for the team and give them a great working environment, they can then care for each guest in a magical way.
“We don’t like to talk about people screwing each other over in such a nurturing industry,” she says. “This is a way to tighten and strengthen team.”
Adam adds, “Plus, if you’re a new hire, every single person is excited to see you — they aren’t threatened by you because they have ownership in the process.”
The Wrights didn’t stop reinventing policies with hiring. They also made over their personnel system in a very non-traditional way.
After changing their hiring process, they knew they had eliminated a big problem and their team no longer felt threatened by new hires. The auditioning process also successfully weeded out people who didn’t want to be engaged.
But they still wanted to focus on the process of managing, and breaking through attitude problems.
Adam explains, “Traditional salon structure is a little dysfunctional: Overworked hair stylist/owner who is highly in demand as a stylist; underneath her is a manager (hired to be the butt kicker for the owner). This person is generally a rule enforcer who hasn’t been in hair industry very long and gets paid a flat salary. Underneath that, everyone is equal: a 20-year veteran, a new stylist, etc.”
The Wrights found this structure to be unhealthy in their salon, with the owners and manager having all the difficult conversations. They also found there was no career path or sense of ownership and dedication to the business for most of their stylists.
“If you go to work at IBM after college, you start at the bottom,” says Adam. “After 25 years, IBM will have grown you as a leader. But at a salon, after 25 years as a stylist, you are no more prepared to own or lead as when you started. The only thing that’s better is your hair skills.”
So the Wrights threw out that structure. There are no managers at Dream State. Externally, they call the front desk staff managers so if a client wants to speak to a manager, there is someone. But internally, the word “manager” means nothing.
Without a traditional, tiered structure, the Wrights started fresh with a ranking system.
“We use military ranks internally — cadets, sergeants, generals, etc. It’s very simple; the greater level of responsibility you take on in the company, the higher your rank,” says Adam.
Responsibilities may include internal projects, community service, social media, or even hiring and firing. The more responsibility someone has, the more say they have in the business.
“They may only spend a couple extra hours a week on top of working on clients, and they get their voice heard,” says Katie. “The more work you do, the more everyone listens to you. It eliminates people who get listened to just because they are a diva stylist.”
Adam adds, “A lot of drama that goes down is dark leadership: A person forms a group to resist where the company is going. They have leadership, but nowhere to take it.”
This system gives the leadership back to the stylists.
“Ranks are determined by whoever outranks you,” says Adam. “There is no salary or impact on pay due to ranks. Rank is status, a say in who does what. If you’re in a middle rank and someone in a lower rank shows up late, you go talk to them. Ranks remove the illusion that being in charge is great.”
Stylists at Dream State know there is always someone they outrank. Even auditioning stylists rank. If someone has been there a week longer, they outrank the new person.
In order for everyone in the salon to get a taste of leadership, the Wrights are very specific about the way ranks work.
“If a stylist shows up late or is not dressed correctly, it’s just the person who ranks directly above them that tells them,” says Adam. “Everyone needs to feel what it’s like to have to discipline and share that experience.”
He adds, “They don’t like it the first time it happens, but the level of empathy for leaders/owners is through the roof. This includes firing. I’ve fired one person in the last two years. All the other firings have been done by the team. They make the decision and let the person know.”
So what does the big picture look like within the ranking system?
Adam says three ranks emerged right away among their 30 (give or take) employees: Uppers, who deal with big-picture decisions like: Do we send this person to rehab or fire them? Do we take the whole team to Serious Business? Upper ranks help create the company’s vision and future.
The Middle ranks set rules and systems in place, including social media and community service.
The Lowers are people who are new to the salon, but are still focused on building their book as new stylists. “They don’t have to worry about a lot of extra responsibilities,” says Adam.
Ranks don’t always reflect seniority though. Staff can move up and down ranks as needed.
For example, “We had an Upper who had a marriage that was falling apart,” says Adam. “She couldn’t handle any extra responsibility and wanted to go down to a lower rank.” After about a year, the stylist came back to her previous rank when she was ready.
The rank system has been in place at Dream State for two or three years now and the Wrights aren’t looking back, even though the new policy weeded a few people out in the beginning.
“Most salon owners are afraid to lose people who’ve been there 15 years, but in order for the rest of the team to blossom and grow, they needed to go,” says Katie. “It’s a good way to push people out who don’t get your culture,” she adds.
A SUPPORT SYSTEM
Taking the plunge and revamping traditional salon policies like the Wrights did required a leap of faith and a strong support system.
For Adam and Katie, that support came from being a part of The Salon People and Neill Corporation community. “They’ve created an environment where we can innovate,” says Adam.
Katie adds, “We’ve watched the practices they’ve created at Neill Corporation and The Salon People. We’ve learned, grown, and we honor everything they’ve put into practice. Then we have taken it and played with it for our culture — they have given us the freedom to do that. The way they are leading their company — they are people we want to be a part of. They are people we can look in the eye and say we trust them.”
Although it seems like they’ve undertaken a lot in the past few years, these new policies are the tip of the iceberg for the Wrights. Dream State will continue to innovate and implement with their staff 100 percent behind them the whole way.