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Small Business Leadership

As I was tidying some old files and briefcases in my home office, I came across an old notebook that I used to carry around with me all the time (see the cover image of this post).

What was interesting is that I found some notes about leadership that I was penning in 1993 – quite a few years ago!

I remember that at the time, I had just started my business 2 years before, after working in large international accounting firms for the previous 9 years, so I was keen to develop the culture of my own firm in a way that would differentiate it from other small accounting firms.

I had attended Business Schools in the US as part of my employment with the large accounting firm I was with and some of these notes came from a book called The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner.

I thought it would be interesting to provide my notes about Leadership from 1993 and see how much I had changed in my thinking.

My notes started with a 5 points summary:-

“1  Challenge the process

2  Inspire a shared vision

3  Enable others to act

4  Model the way

5  Encourage the heart.

To enlist people in the vision, leaders must know their people intimately, their hopes and dreams. Express enthusiasm and a compelling vision.”

In fact, the crux of my thinking has not changed.

I still believe that to build a business, you need to do things out of the ordinary and that the vision and how you implement it with your people are key.

From memory, one of the things I established in my own business in 1993 was to focus people on the immediate tasks at hand. Being a new company, everyone was quite new to each other and unsure of what the company could do. So in getting people to focus on doing small tasks well meant that we build confidence in each other. I emphasised that by creating small and fun awards to celebrate each small win every week.

For example, there was the Great Communicator Award which was a toy horn, celebrating someone who explained a difficult topic to a client. There was also the Rubick’s Cube that was given to the person who solved the most tricky accounting problem that week!

This not only built confidence in each person and the team but it also meant that using group-celebration of wins, it linked “good” behaviour to the values of the company.

As part of creating a shared vision, you have to build the confidence of your team and the best way to do that is to take one challenge at a time, starting small, and gaining confidence as you find the best way of working together for the common goal.

To make this part of team behaviour, you need to call out individuals for “doing the right thing” but make sure that once the individual is recognised, that the whole group celebrates the win, reinforcing the fact that individuals work their best for the good of the team.

The process of building a strong team is still what I practice with clients every day.

After those initial thoughts around the context, my notes dived back into the 5 summarised points and expanded on them.

“Challenge the process – search out challenging opportunities to change, grow, innovate, and improve. Experiment, take risks, and learn from the accompanying mistakes.”

This idea of “challenging the process” has further developed in the last 27 years.

I believe that as you seek to build your business in a way that stands out and to be the best in what you do, you cannot keep doing what you and everyone else used to do just because that’s the way it has always been done.

Many people ask me today, “You keep saying ‘innovate’ but how exactly do you innovate in my industry that has done it this way forever?”

You innovate in any industry by constantly asking if there’s a better way.

In particular, ask if there’s a different way to do something so that you learn and grow. While change is inevitable, it’s whether you control the pace of change, or let it take you over.

Ask Kodak who used to manufacture film. Ask Blackberry, once the leader in the field of mobile telephony. Ask any taxi-driver as you drive past an obvious Uber pickup.

The innovation of a better way need not be earth-shattering.

Remember, celebrate small wins.

A new and more effective way of distributing mail, if it ends up faster and more productive is a worthy winner!

However, even in 1993, I recognised that experimentation and innovation could easily result in mistakes.

I wrote: “Expect mistakes, don’t punish, discuss, turn it into a learning experience. How to do it better next time.”

Today I have developed this into the concept of a learning organisation where it is alright to make mistakes, where mistakes are reframed as learning-opportunities.

Don’t reprimand someone for making a mistake if they tried, and if especially they stayed true to vision; if they were inventive – encourage learning from the error and only call it out when they don’t learn from the experience and repeat their actions toward the same outcome over and over again.

On the second point I had written:

“Shared vision:

(a)  has to be uplifting future, or why bother?

(b)  appeal to others’ values, interests, hopes and dreams – work together.”

I still practice this today.

If you read my articles about business planning or managing people, I always talk about starting with your vision of what your business will become.

A clear, uplifting vision will motivate people to move toward it, especially if you make sure that you align your employees’ own personal values, interests, hopes and dreams with the vision. Make their personal goals achievable through achieving the vision.

In many ways, this also has side-effects of ensuring that only the right people are on board.

You may have employed the best salesperson in your business. But if her values are different from those apparent from your vision, the relationship will not work out. If you believe in hard work and treating the customer right, but she believes in doing only what she needs to in order to earn her commission and telling lies to the customer to get the sale, she will not be good for the company no matter how many sales she gets a week.

So I tell clients today – be clear about your vision, tell your team what the vision is and why it’s good for them, but be aware of people who don’t buy in no matter how skilled or experienced they are.

You can teach skill – you cannot teach attitude.

On the third point of “enable others to act”, I had expanded by writing:

  • Find ways to delegate and give responsibility when delegating
  • Give clear desired outcomes
  • Let them fail
  • Don’t let them take too long to fail

I think I was building on the point above about creating a learning organisation where mistakes can be reframed as opportunities to learn and improve. However, in writing “don’t let them take too long to fail” I recognised that mistakes should be done and recognised quickly so that you can move on. Otherwise, the continued cost may outweigh the creation of learning.

Today I still write about Position Descriptions where you detail the objective of each employee’s position – what they are there to achieve, and where their responsibilities are laid out, where the buck stops on some matters. I write about creating systems where you can delegate and allow others to do their best at their jobs instead of looking over their shoulders all the time.

As for the point about modelling the way, I still believe in this critical aspect of leadership.

You can’t just talk the talk, you have to walk the talk.

In 1993 I thought I should do this by only asking others to do something if I could do it.

Good start, but how am I going to grow my business if everyone in it can only do what I can do? How do I improve? How do I embed new skills?

Since then I have modified this to believe that I should bring in people smarter than I am (and there’s plenty!) so that I and the whole business can learn from them to improve together and as a business. This means that I can ask people to do things I can’t do, but that I am willing to learn and do myself.

Walking the talk is also about living the vision, and acknowledging mistakes and publicly acknowledging that something you did could be improved, and made to align with the vision. If you can admit to having to improve then others will feel they can make mistakes as well, as long as they are willing to improve.

Finally, “encourage the heart” in 1993, meant that as Leaders, we shouldn’t forget that in spite of measurements, plans, strategies and systems, the business is built on people.

I practised this by building in plenty of social activity after-hours. This allowed the team to get to know each other in social situations, see different sides of the same person, and build confidence in their ability to be able to communicate openly with each other.

Again, I believe in this today, except that my view has involved so that in social activities I advise clients about, I try to include something that either helps bond the team together, or that reinforces a part of the vision.

For one client, they organised a family-day scavenger hunt. Each team or family or group of families had to work together to hunt clues and the final prize, teaching them how to communicate and analyse together.

Another client recently organised a dinner out where employees had to bring a simple gift to another designated team member that showed why they were seen to be working toward the corporate vision. Entertaining gifts included a toy rabbit because the person in question was always productive at work, and a gift of glass beads because the recipient believed in the value of simple things (the vision talked about small, simple steps that made up a bigger picture).

Finally, what about my notes in 1993 that said: “To enlist people in the vision, leaders must know their people intimately, their hopes and dreams. Express enthusiasm and a compelling vision.”

Indeed, I do not believe any of the above is possible without knowing your people intimately.

Just as you must know your customers and what they want, you must know your employees so that you know they will align to the vision and so that you can answer to their own hopes and dreams.

This is not touchy-feely get to know people stuff – this is critical Leadership resourcing of the right people in the right jobs in order to produce the best work. Imagine running an auditing firm and asking a vegetarian to count stock in an abattoir.

So, in summary, my thoughts about Leadership in a business have evolved rather than changed.

I learned a lot in those days from Business School teaching, a lot of which I applied in my work.

But since then I have used and evolved what I learned in the practical day-to-day work of working with and for small business owners, and most of it, with a twist here and there, still works!

If you want more of what I apply now to help small business owners grow, go and read more of my articles at teikoh.com or check out and subscribe to my youtube channel. But most of all, make sure that you sign up to get the detailed and valuable tools to grow your business your way!



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