As we learned during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, service workers keep our economy running. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re always compensated fairly, or treated with the respect they deserve.
According to entrepreneur and author Kelly Cardenas, business owners have the power to change that. And when they do, they become vastly more successful. The secret is simple: Build a people-first culture in the workplace by prioritizing personal connections. This advice, first instilled in Cardenas by his father, has helped him build a beauty salon empire, a multimillion-dollar brand, an hybrid education and training hub, and a legacy.
“My dad kept telling me that there was only one business in the world, one business only, and that was the people business,” he explains in a recent interview with Brilliant Thoughts’ editor Tristan Ahumada. “And if you took the people out of the business, you had no business at all.”
This idea doesn’t just apply to the service industry, but to companies in any sector. Whether in the beauty industry, real estate or the financial world, the fact remains the same: If you can build people up, you can develop a culture. And a healthy work culture is the foundation of a successful business.
You can’t encourage someone until you respect them.
Have you ever considered the possibility that you and your employees approach the world in entirely different ways? Perspectives develop from life experiences, and neglecting to understand how an individual’s personal history informs their work is a critical oversight.
Cardenas believes that real leadership starts with getting to know the people you work with and developing a reverence for their background and where they’re starting—a location he describes in terms of altitude.
“Altitude is the point in reference to ground level, your point of elevation based on the ground level, but most of the time, we don’t take the time to understand where the ground level is,” he explains. “Their ground level could be, ‘If I have a job, I’m the most successful person in the world,’ so encourage that person exactly where they’re at.”
To Cardenas, understanding where a person is starting from is an essential precursor to helping them achieve their goals. He didn’t always understand this, though, and would start by telling his young employees (who were generally between ages 19 to 24) all the places the beauty industry could take them.
“Most of these kids come from not that much,” he says. “I would grab a kid and just be like, ‘Hey, you can make six figures and get down to four days a week,’ and these kids would freak out… They would be like, ‘Well, $25,000 would be more than any of my family has ever made.’”
The reality is that for many of these kids, just landing a job was a success. Instead of overwhelming his young employees with the possibilities, he started getting to know them, their expectations and their aspirations.
Interpersonal connections build loyalty.
When he was starting out as a hairdresser, Cardenas was making very little money, about five dollars an hour. As a result, he couldn’t relate to many of his customers. To his surprise, his boss told him that what he really needed was to go out to a fancy dinner, so he did. He ended up spending all of his money on a filet mignon and didn’t understand why.
The next day, as he was styling a returning customer’s hair, he found himself talking about the restaurant and the steak he enjoyed. Before he knew it, they were sharing their love for the same restaurant, talking about the wonderful service and exquisite food.
“I connected with this lady for the first time,” he says. “She used to think of me as nothing more than a service provider, and when she left, she was like, ‘Oh, Kelly, it was so great seeing you, see you in six weeks’… She was talking to me like a human.”
He realized that when it came to connecting with customers, most of the time it was just about bridging the gap, whether that gap existed due to money, experiences or something else. Once Cardenas learned that, he knew his potential for relationship-building was limitless.
Get to know someone before you need them.
Eventually, the salon let Cardenas go over a managerial dispute. However, he didn’t have much downtime before a new door opened—or rather was opened—by Julie Compton, a brilliant entrepreneur with whom Cardenas had done some consulting work.
“I got fired at five o’clock on a Monday,” he tells Ahumada. “By nine o’clock that next morning she called me, because she heard that I had been released… She asked me, ‘What do you need to start your first business?’ and I have no idea why, but I came up with a number and she said, ‘Okay, I’ll send a check to you.’”
Cardenas describes Compton as a true angel, someone who loves people and just wants to help them. As one of the only people who was there for Cardenas during that time, her generosity paved the way for his success. However, it never would have happened if he hadn’t gotten to know her before he needed her. She continued to support him in his subsequent pursuits, encouraging him to open more salons in cities across the United States.
Create a work culture based on relationships.
Cardenas believes that when people share a vision, invest in each other, outline their expectations and prioritize integrity, they create a company that is incentivized to succeed. However, this work environment is not the norm for many hairdressers and certainly wasn’t his first experience in the beauty industry.
“I started seeing the way that hairdressers acted when I went to the hair shows… A lot of times it was, you know, a ton of hairdressers getting drunk and just partying,” he recounts. “They were not on time to their appointments, they ran over time, they didn’t respect people’s time… And I was like, how can we shift this?”
Cardenas realized that many of the hairdressers he knew were lacking financial literacy, which contributed to a host of problems. By teaching financial literacy in his salons, he hopes to give people a more accessible opportunity to contribute to their communities, live in neighborhoods they can be proud of and garner the respect they deserve.
“If they live in the nice neighborhoods, then the kid growing up next door is gonna be like, ‘What does Mrs. Jones do?’” he explains. “‘Oh, she’s a hairdresser, maybe I want to be one too.’”
Ultimately, a true leader is able to encourage the people around them by understanding who they are and what makes them tick. When entrepreneurs do this, they gain “true evangelists”—people who are loyal and committed to the company’s vision.
“If you’re listening right now, or you’re watching right now, I want you to watch how many times Tristan has encouraged me through this podcast,” he concludes. “You’ll see a little magic that he might not talk about all the time: that he is constantly encouraging and building everyone else up. And does it make him smaller? No, it makes him bigger.”
Visit Cardenas’ website to find information on his speaking events, webinars, courses, podcasts, books and more.