Nurturing No. 1

Nurturing No. 1

Do you worry about benefits for employees but not for yourself?

By Elizabeth Bailey

Karen W. Endresen was among the avant-garde of female business owners. After earning a Ph.D. in statistics and social psychology, she launched a market research firm in the just percolating healthcare industry in Seattle, a city on the edge of its own high-tech boom set off in the Microsoft and McCaw Communications head offices.That was 25 years ago, when female business owners were a rarity.

Even though Endresen was something of a female business revolutionary – the Emma Goldman of capitalism – her management style didn’t differ all that much from that of her mother and grandmother. Endresen was a nurturer; she took better care of her employees than she did herself.

“It sounds funny, but my own healthcare package was not as generous as those of my employees. I was covered by my husband’s plan through his employer. But I wanted to get the best talent and I wanted to keep that talent happy,” says Endresen, who sold her company two years ago to The Jackson Organization, a research and consulting firm based in Columbia, Md. It is doubly, if not triply, ironic that Endresen’s marketing research centered on healthcare.

She spent her nights and days running numbers for clients, worrying about the health of her own employees and relying on her husband’s benefits to cover her own doctor’s visits.

Health insurance is more of a headache for small businesses than larger ones, mainly because insurers of small plans have higher administration costs than those that insure larger companies. Some small companies have trouble finding insurance plans for their employees at any cost. Why is this so important to women entrepreneurs? Because today nearly half of all privately held businesses, the vast majority of them small, are owned 50 percent or more by women, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.

Women start their own businesses for the same reasons that they might also worry more about their employees’ healthcare insurance than their own, says Erin Fuller, executive director of the National Association of Women Business Owners. “A lot of women are great relationship builders. The top reason why women start their own businesses is to have control over work-life balance and over their client relationships. Women tend to know a lot about their employees’ lives and they want to build those relationships, too. That also includes considering the benefits packages carefully.”

Endresen’s nurturing instincts didn’t end with paying the cost of healthcare. She gave her employees the week off between Christmas and New Year’s – with full pay – along with most holidays and the employee’s birthday. She, of course, worked on her own birthday.

Endresen isn’t the only high-powered businesswoman who has found herself putting her own needs behind those of her employees. Edna Lee, an Oak Park, Ill., insurance broker, deals mostly with small businesses – many of them owned and run by women. “Over the last ten years, especially the last two to three years, premiums have skyrocketed,” says Lee. “Many of the women owners – who want to retain employees – will go on their spouse’s plan, or even go without, so that they can continue to provide insurance to their employees.”

The decision to treat employees well is not all about self-neglect, of course. Endresen points out that during the boom days of the 1990s, when other companies were trying to lure away her hires, no one left. And when a project was due, she didn’t have to strong-arm people to work beyond five; they simply did so in order to provide the best quality product for the client. “The people who worked for me loved their jobs and knew they wouldn’t be treated better anywhere else. Maybe I could have made more money myself, but I believed in positive reinforcement,” notes Endresen, who is now retired.

Sally Helgesen, author of The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership (Doubleday, 1995), thinks part of this tendency towards financial nurturing is due to women wanting “to be part of the fabric of the lives of their employees. They want to be wonderful bosses to work for.” But Helgesen warns that this can end up taking a toll. “Those women must also fight for their own real needs,” she says.

Terry Neese, president of Women Impacting Public Policy, agrees. As head of the nonprofit representing 500,000 women in business, she has seen this before. She says as women “[we] worry more about everybody else than ourselves.” Neese, who is also CEO of an Oklahoma City-based personnel services firm, admits that,”When the parent of a child of one of my employees is sick, I more or less demand that they take time off to solve the problem. I myself will try to solve domestic problems quickly and come right back into the thick of things when I would be much better taking time off. Probably the office would be better off if I did take more time off.”

Indeed, there was a tinge of regret in Endresen’s voice when she discussed the steady stream of benefits she offered to keep her 15 full-time and 30 part-time employees happy. “I think I should probably have been a little slower to give. There were some very good years when I felt like I should share the wealth and a couple of lean years when I felt I couldn’t take back what I had already given away – and no one was offering to give it back.”

Cultivating talent and creating a culture of inclusion is a strength for women executives and entrepreneurs. But many, like Neese, say it can become a weakness if it’s at the expense of our own financial well-being. “For us to be good stewards of our employees, we need to know how to be kind to ourselves as well.We need to feel good about our own health – physical and economic.”

This article originally appeared in the June.July 2005 issue of PINK Magazine. 

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