Your small business success is directly tied to the talent you acquire and how your leadership molds a culture that enables talent to thrive. Running a small business requires more than just having ideas or giving direction. It requires leadership. This is where we must be honest with ourselves. Not all of us were born leaders. Matter of fact, in most small businesses, the leader started the company with a passion for a craft, trade or product solution. They never intended to have to manage a team and run a business.
People often think that business leaders should be “the smartest person in the room.” After all, they’ve made it to the top — shouldn’t they be the best of the best? Shouldn’t everyone be required to do what they say?
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. What’s worse is when leaders pretend to be the smartest person in the room, even though the team knows they’re not.
You might overhear the chatter in the break room about that morning’s meeting or maybe a brave employee will deliver the bad news directly to you. Either way, it’s not a good feeling to know that people have lost faith in your leadership.
No one can always be the smartest person in the room. Everyone has particular areas of expertise. But when you talk about something you don’t really understand, that’s an instant way to lose the respect of your employees. True leaders draw on the talents of those around them in order to succeed.
Jack of All Trades
Leaders typically work other jobs before moving up the ladder. For example, you might have been in sales or customer service. You have expertise in those areas and you should use that expertise.
But leaders need to deal with every facet of their business—from finance to human resources to marketing. They can’t afford to be specialists anymore. The professionals who work in those fields will have to educate you on what works and doesn’t work. Great leaders will listen to their employees to find the best way forward.
Advertising legend David Ogilvy once said, “If you ever find a man who is better than you are, hire him.” As a business leader, it’s important that you build a well-rounded team. You should understand your own abilities—your strengths, your weaknesses—and surround yourself with talented individuals who possess the skills you lack.
Unlike software programmers or financial analysts, C-level executives aren’t specialists. They have to be generalists, who can combine each component of the business into a coherent vision. A leader who starts barking commands that the team knows aren’t feasible isn’t going to last long.
Kick Out Your Ego
You’ve made it this far—aren’t you supposed to act confident and brash? Don’t people expect that in a leader?
People do expect you to make final decisions. And they do expect you to help the organization function as a single force. But they don’t expect you to know everything. It’s time to kick out your ego and get down to the serious business of being a leader.
The two things you need to do are ask questions and listen. You can learn about every aspect of the business through the talented people you’ve hired. After all, every successful company is made up of a collection of experts in every department. They have a lot to teach you. By showing them that you’re invested in what they do for the company, you’ll increase employee engagement.
Forget the Politics
Steve Jobs once said, “Do you really want to spend your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?”
Herein lies the difference between leaders and imitators. The imitator is always selling something. They’ve played the political game — shaken the right hands, smiled at the right people — to climb the ladder and now they’re at the top. But they don’t know what to do! They’ve spent so much time on acquiring power that they don’t know how to properly use it.
But leaders are less concerned about obtaining power and more concerned about empowering their team. They believe in their company’s product and purpose. They’re ready to hire the right people, give them the right tools, and then get out of their way. They’re not concerned about being on the right side of an internal squabble or pleasing specific people just to keep their job.
Be Behind the Scenes
Leaders aren’t people who go in front and lecture their team on how to become better. Instead, they’re quietly, steadily working toward making their organizations better.
These are the kinds of leaders who set an example by doing the little things right. When someone comes to them with a problem, they work on a solution. When the company changes a policy, they fall in line. These leaders act like the kind of employees they want on their teams—without being explicitly public about it.
They also spread around credit when a job is done well. These leaders are quick to praise a good job. They’re also quick to provide new, motivating challenges for employees. They have their finger on the company’s pulse and keep the workplace environment stimulating.
Boost Your Self-Awareness
The leader who thinks that they’re the smartest person in the room lacks self-awareness. They don’t truly understand the conditions of doing business in today’s rapidly changing economy.
A self-aware leader also recognizes when they’ve made a mistake. They’re quick to take responsibility and devise ways to prevent future errors. These leaders learn from their failures and are better for them.
They also seek honest input from their team. If you don’t have a way for employees to provide anonymous feedback, that’s a problem. Of course it will appear that you have complete buy-in if you just personally ask every employee what they think about a new policy. Employees will think they’re risking their jobs that if they say anything negative to the boss. Instead, you need to solicit regular employee feedback that allows them to say what they’re really thinking.
Political science expert Richard Neustadt spent his career studying the US presidency. He found that the most successful presidents were those who surrounded themselves with trusted advisors who could provide detailed information about their subject of expertise. Despite the many brilliant men who have served as president, none was an expert in all the various fields that a president needs to be knowledgeable about. These presidents sought counsel from a variety of places and once they had obtained all the information they could, they acted decisively.
A Great Listener
This is the best way to improve a business. Listen to customers and employees. That’s where solutions are found and the next big improvement comes from. Your role as a leader is to take what you’ve heard and decided how you will implement that change in your small business. Just make sure you give credit and show the love with a big thank you.
Strategic Long-Term Success
Katherine Colarelli Beatty writes in Forbes that the role of a leader is to balance day-to-day success with a long-term vision for the organization. Unfortunately, this skill exists in less than 10% of companies. Colarelli writes, “Leaders throughout organizations face tremendous pressures to make short-term numbers and show immediate wins. Operational leadership rules the day. This can lead to a lack of focus–as one executive recently put it, ‘We’re running fast in many different directions.’ Additionally, leaders who excel at meeting short-term targets and solving functional problems may feel paralyzed and unsure when the challenges in front of them are far reaching and complex–a situation we’ve seen consistently in these recession years. How do we lead in ways that position a business for the future while meeting current demands? It does require a different set of skills from operational leadership. Strategic leadership requires us to think, act and influence others in ways that promote the enduring success of the organization.”
If you think you’re the smartest person in the room, you either have a perception problem or you’ve hired the wrong people. In case you are wondering, yes I too struggle with letting go of my “baby” Viral Solutions, but my team consists of some of the brightest minds in digital marketing today. There are days that the challenges are not unlike herding cats. Balancing cash flow in hyper growth mode while your team has referred the next goddess of search engine marketing for hire – well, that is the role of a small business business consultant.
“Getting things done as a leader is different than getting things done as a doer. Rather than cranking through the to-do list in your Moleskine, you look for people to disciple. Then, you open the Moleskine together. It’s less about a task list and more about empowerment. It’s about defining what the ‘win’ looks like for your team and accomplishing that ‘win’ through other people. You see, your goal at the end of the day isn’t to say, ‘I accomplished this, this, and this.’ Your goal is to say, ‘Look at these people who were disciples. Look what we accomplished together.’ You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be an expert in all the areas you lead.” ~ David Santistevan
Thomas von Ahn
Chief Elephant Slayer for Viral Solutions LLC
“Achievement seems to be connected with action. Successful
men and women keep moving. They make mistakes but they
don’t quit.” — Conrad Hilton