Many salon owners live in fear.
From requiring stylists to sign non-competes to bending over backwards for a prima dona employee, owners can tie themselves in knots trying to avoid the often inevitable parting of ways with team members they’ve trained, nurtured, and empowered so effectively that a chunk of business will follow out the door if they leave. At Mirror Mirror in Austin, Texas, owner Martha Lynn Kale began to realize that she was giving fear way too much power over her life and her business.
A Place of Abundance
“I was absolutely terrified of everything,” she recalls. “I got tired of feeling that way. I wanted to come from a place of abundance and confidence that everything would work out.”
The major worry was that stylists would leave, and sometimes they did, typically to explore the world of chair and suite rental. Mirror Mirror always has apprentices waiting to step up, so Kale hasn't ever viewed anyone as irreplaceable. Still, there is a feeling of loss.
“It’s brutal,” Kale acknowledges. “You may have had these employees since they came out of beauty school, you’ve trained them, and they want to leave. It’s a punch in the gut.”
Seeking to find that place of abundance and acceptance, Kale started reconsidering something a coach had said back when Mirror Mirror had only five chairs, before an expansion to 11 chairs: “It’s not a question of if they leave but when they leave.” She faced this with new eyes.
“When you realize that people do leave, you start thinking about building a business based on what’s best for the sustainability of that business, not what’s best for any one stylist," she says. "And the funny thing is that when you focus on that, you end up with an environment where people want to stay and work.”
Shaping Policy Free of Fear
Even during her most fearful moments, Kale never asked service providers to sign a non-compete at time of hire. Now with new insight, she also dropped a policy that capped the team member's career at the salon—the “no second chance” for people after they left—because she felt that, too, was rooted in fear. She simply let go of any resentment and stopped taking their decision to leave personally. She saw that you can’t grow talent and at the same time stifle that growth. If on the path of growth the person craves something new, Kale thought it would be best not to fight that.
“We want people who come to us to know that we don’t own our stylists, and we don’t own our guests,” she says. “If they want to leave, I’d have them leave sooner rather than later to make room for someone who wants to be with us.”
This level of entrepreneurship is scary, Kale acknowledges. “You’re out on an island, it’s lonely at the top—all of that is true! And it’s true in every business, but our industry’s business model leaves us more vulnerable than most. In most businesses, the workers don’t keep such a large percentage of the money coming in.”
Leaving the Door Open
It’s understandable, then, that owners set up business systems that do not to make it easy for stylists to leave. But Kale says it’s self-defeating to make their exit acrimonious.
“If people want to leave, they’re going to leave,” she says she's learned. “Creating barriers just makes it more painful.”
Closure comes rarely, she observes, saying, “In this industry, often you don’t have that final conversation. They may just send an email documenting all the work they’ve done for you and say they’re never coming back. Typically they’ve been planning this for a long time. So anything you try to offer at that point isn’t going to change their mind.”
The best outcome, Kale believes, is one with low drama and high empathy. Then you never know what might come next.
“Now we’re leaving the door open for people to come back if they’re a good fit for our culture,” she says. “This is new for us!”
She says she can accept that “sometimes new talent just have to scratch that itch. While more experienced talent that we bring on appreciate what we have here, newer people may just have to experience what’s out there.”
Culture that Breeds Loyalty
Shedding her anxiety has freed Kale’s time and attention to focus on continually improving her business so that employees want to stay.
“People leave to make more money and have more freedom,” Kale observes. “So I make sure they’re making a lot of money and having enough freedom.”
When someone reaches a “best month ever,” the whole team celebrates. When that high month’s numbers become the average month’s numbers, it’s noted; maybe the stylist raises prices. The structure offers slots for those who want to become educators, there’s no pushback if a stylist takes vacation time, innovation is a core value, and new ideas are always welcome.
“If they ask for something that’s in line with our core values and will not hurt our profitability, my answer probably will be ‘yes,’” Kale says. “For example, our shifts allow for a lot of flexibility and are always changing. Most of our top team doesn’t work Saturdays, but our new hires are ambitious and ask for busy shifts. They mostly set their own total hours. I’d rather have them be happy and productive working two shifts a week than agree to a 40-hour week and sit around the back room with unproductive time. That’s where the negativity occurs.”
Domino Fear: Losing Clients
Apart from the hurt feelings, much of the fear of losing a stylist comes from worrying that the stylist’s clients will follow. Kale emails each of the exiting stylist’s clients about the change and offers those clients 20% off their next visit. She avoids leading stylists to believe they have the power to impact the business’s health.
“I think owners put too much pressure on their stylists,” she says. “We’ve never had a lowered revenue when a stylist has left. Constructing our business model to be a brick house, having the right team, and being confident in what we’re offering, we know that if someone leaves we won’t blow over. The bulk of clients tend to follow the stylist at first, but many trickle back.”
The client’s decision either way can revolve around something as simple as location, hours, or prices.
“Ultimately, we’re client advocates,” Kale says. “Mirror Mirror is created to help our clients love what they see in the mirror. When someone leaves, we still need to think about those clients. What do they like about us? What’s best for the client?”
No Fear: The Trickle-down Effect
Removing fear from the salon eliminates it from the team’s routine, too. As a high-functioning, healthy salon, Mirror Mirror enjoys a loyal clientele and a monthly average of 20% new clients. Stylists do not fret about losing clients. Still, Kale notes, while stylists shouldn’t be driven by fear, they also shouldn’t become complacent.
“We have wait lists of people who want to be our clients,” the owner says. “But I tell our team that they have that one visit to keep that client. And they always should be recruiting new clients. If they’re fully booked months out, they should raise their rates. Some of our stylists move here without knowing a soul in Austin. Within three months, they’re fully booked.”
Kale says that letting go of fear at work has helped her let go of it in the rest of her life. Since her husband is also very involved in the business, their daily lives feel less stressful.
“Fear is typically due to the unknown, and fear about anything can take over,” Kale says. “But we can’t come from a place of anxiety about the unknown. We can control only what we know. I have control over identifying our core values and creating an environment where people feel supported, and I can make decisions that help protect me from worst-case scenario. Having a plan helps me to relax.”
If a dark day arrives, Kale can face it.
“We trust and empower our stylists with tools for them to succeed and want to stay,” she says. “Ultimately if they move on, we celebrate them and their next season.”
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