Lori Cairns | Crain's Phoenix

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Lori Cairns

Background:  

With nearly 500 employees and offices in Phoenix and Tucson, Hope Group AZ provides behavioral health services to those diagnosed with developmental and neurological disorders, including individuals affected by autism spectrum disorder.

The Mistake:

I hired friends to work for me.

Hope Group was founded more out of necessity than want. My son was diagnosed with autism when he was two. There weren’t a lot of services available, so as a community, we were trying to get something that was specifically for our children. That’s why I, and my son’s father, started Hope Group. 

Though I was tasked with running it from the beginning, I was not a business person. I graduated from college with a technology degree, so I was thrown into business without really knowing anything. The Hope Group ran really well for about a year and I did it all myself. Then it started to grow, so I needed to find people that wanted to work for Hope Group. 

I was involved with a support group for the autism community. It was a bunch of moms who were trying to help their children, so they were in the same boat as me. They knew I had opened Hope Group and offered to help. A couple of them expressed an interest in working for me. So, I hired some very close friends. 

Over the years, the line between friend and boss became very blurred for us. It was really hard for me to work with someone I felt I couldn’t discipline or be a boss to. That was really hard because they were my friends.

In the end, we parted ways. I ended up having to fire both of them and start from scratch, which was very painful. I lost a couple of friends as a result.

For me, friends, family and business should not mix.

The Lesson:

For me, friends, family and business should not mix. I learned through experience and started hiring the right way. At the time, there wasn’t an internet, so we put an ad in the paper. I definitely think that the business is much better off with me interviewing people, the way I should have.

Just don’t blur those two lines, because friendship and business are two completely different things. If I had known better at the time, I would have never hired them. I think they never thought of me as their boss because we were such good friends. 

Have I since become friends with people I’ve hired? Absolutely, but I always make sure that they know there is a line that should not be crossed — because it won’t be good. I really had to put my foot down and make it known to everyone that I’m running the show. Though I want to hear their opinions, if that line gets blurred it's going to be difficult to work that way. 

We’re going on 21 years and the first 10 were hard for me because I am not a business person. I was kind of thrown to the wolves. Along the way, I’ve learned so much. When I look back at how we started and where we are now, it’s completely different. I’ve made friends, but there’s always that line. People tell me to let them know if they're crossing that line and I will because that can’t happen again. It was really hard the first time. 

I may go out for happy hour with the employees once in a blue moon, especially if it’s someone’s birthday, but I learned that I’m that one that needs to maintain the line. It’s not their responsibility. The working relationship will always be there. 

I’m their boss first, friend second.

Follow Hope Group AZ on Twitter at @HopeGroupAZ.

Photo courtesy of Lori Cairns

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