By Keiko Kay Hirai, Author of Sheer Determination


1. Establish Your Vision, Mission, and Core Philosophies.

These philosophies are the underpinnings of your business. They spell out the grand vision for where you want to take your business, how you are going to take it there, and what you will do to stay continually focused on your core values and belief systems. If you value the people who work for you, you must clearly spell it out to them.

Transparency is key if you want your employees totally on board with you to accomplish your business goals. The more transparent you are in explaining the inner workings of your company, the more employees feel like they are a part of the business.

I try to be a positive role model by setting good examples and asking employees for their input on matters that affect the salon. Here are a few things that I do:

  • When I send out personal mail from my business, I make sure that I pay for the stamps. It would be very easy to rationalize and say to myself, “I can take these stamps; they are only few cents.” It’s important for me to show others that it does not matter how small the amount is, each one of us has to be honest and not take anything from the business.
  • I hold a staff meeting every three months to update my staff on how well the salon is doing in terms of its finances. After I am done, I ask for their help in improving various parts of our business, whether it is customer service, client retention, or new client marketing programs.

2. Set Clear Cut Career Paths

Every employee reports to work on their first day with aspirations of doing well and developing new skills on the job. Along the way, though, something always happens; their dreams suddenly diminish and they lose their way. Why does this happen? They may be asking themselves questions like, “How am I doing? How does management view me? Can I really get somewhere or is this a dead-end job?” and not receiving any kind of feedback. It is absolutely critical that management walks side- by-side with their employees, offers regular evaluations, and shows them a career path for personal and professional growth.

3. Train Them Right

What is skill certification and how do you design and build such a program? For my business, a hair salon, a successful hair stylist must possess a variety of skills in cutting, styling and coloring, problem-solving, consultation, team work, and more. Every single detail on how to do it right is outlined using a step-by-step format in our operations manual titled The Book of Kaizen. “Kaizen” is a Japanese business philosophy that focuses on applying small, daily changes that result in major improvements over time.

Our stylists go through a self-directed, skill-certification process to show that they are able to meet certain standards for all of the services offered in the salon. Matching new employees with a senior-level mentor helps to ease the stress level when they first start out. It makes them more comfortable when they can ask questions, voice concerns, or work alongside a supportive person while they are becoming acclimated in a new environment.

4. Uncover Their Gifts and Empower Them

Everyone has unique gifts to offer in the workplace. Develop a discerning eye to uncover those gifts. Sometimes they are buried deep down inside. Most persons won’t even know what they are because no one has ever taken the energy or the time to bring them to the surface.

Here’s an example of what happened in my salon:

Debbie, a young woman with a shy personality, was hired to run our front reception desk. Early on, she was having a difficult time connecting with the salon customers. Everyone wondered if she would be successful in her job. One day, I was struggling to make a sales video for the salon. Debbie saw that I was having a difficult time and stepped in to show me an easier way to record the video. I was quite surprised and asked her, “Debbie, how did you learn what you just showed me?” She replied, “Oh, I learned that by working on social media. Technology apps are a lot of fun and all of this comes really easy to me.” After hearing this, I re-assigned her to work with me for two days during the week instead of working full-time at the front desk. Now that she assists with the salon’s social media marketing, she appears to be more confident in all areas of her responsibilities at work.

5. Put Your Employees Welfare Before Your Customers

When I hear companies shouting, “We have happy customers!” I want to tell them, “But you forgot one important part! Before you can have happy customers, you must have happy EMPLOYEES!” I work hard to get to know each employee’s lifestyle as well as their wants and needs. Knowing that, I try to establish a work schedule and career ladder that will keep them living a fulfilling and happy life. I especially pay close attention to the needs of single mothers who are raising children.
To accommodate their complex, time schedule requirements, I work with each one to figure out a flexible schedule that will take care of their children’s needs. This effort requires a lot of negotiation but something can usually be worked out to address both their personal needs and the needs of the business. Recently, the United States Women’s Bureau featured an article that illustrated how Studio 904 Hair Design was a prime example of what a small business can do to support its working women.

6. Focus on Successful Entries and Kind Departures

I’d like to leave you with what I think are the two most important parts to developing a successful employee relationship: the initial interviewing session and the departing exit interview.

Conduct a Thorough and Thoughtful Interview Process

The initial interview sessions are the most important part in the longevity cycle of employees in your business. Here’s a quick checklist my team and I fill out for each job applicant who enters our office:

First Impression Checklist

___ Arrived early or on time

___ Friendly, with a smile on her/his face

___ Dress style is appropriate to our business

___ Hair and make-up (if applicable) is well-groomed and up-to-date

___ Body language is confident and inviting

If she/he receives a favorable score, then we conduct a more thorough interview to unveil other traits and skills we are looking for in a new hire.

Recycle Your Departing Employees

As I’ve written in my book, Sheer Determination: …”Goodbyes are hard, but recognize that the only certainty in life is change. Everyone is traveling through life on their own journey. It is only when two roads meet and align that two people actually walk the road together. That road will inevitably part at some point in time when each person chooses a different direction toward their next destination. It will save you a lot of heartache if you accept the fact that no one will stay with you forever…” The important thing I want to emphasize is this…never depart on unfriendly terms. Burnt bridges can never be rebuilt; instead, leave the bridge intact, allowing people to cross it at another point in their lives if it is needed.

Here is a true and wonderful story about what happened to me just a week ago. I received a call from Ami, a young woman who had previously worked for me. She was responding to a classified want-ad that I had placed on a job posting site. I was surprised to find out that she was the same “Ami” that I had hired and trained eight years ago, using the same skill certification system that I mentioned above. Ami told me that she had opened her own business and went through several hardships after she left our salon. She asked if I would be willing to hire her back and I replied that I would. Ami is a much improved employee now that she has had a chance to mature and appreciate the opportunity that she has been given this second time around.


The owner of a small business (Studio 904 salon on Mercer Island, WA), Kay Hirai has dedicated her life to running an ethical business that helps her employees, customers, and the community. In her third book, “Sheer Determination,” she details her 40-year journey of self-discovery and perseverance to create a salon that is widely admired for its cutting-edge business philosophies.