As a management consultant, I have the opportunity to regularly talk on subjects including leadership strategy, change management and innovation. One assumption I commonly find among audience members is that large organizations tend to be cumbersome, slow to change and lacking in self-awareness. Conversely, they see small businesses as scrappier, more flexible and more innovative. But great business leaders know that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Below are several dos and don'ts that small businesses can learn from some of the world’s largest global business leaders.
1. Do delegate.
Small-business owners are generally passionate and dedicated, as well as heavily involved and hands-on with their business. Corporate leaders may be equally driven, but the scale at which they operate often leaves them with little time to obsess over small details, and more removed from direct day-to-day challenges. As a result, large company leaders often find it a necessity to pick and choose where they focus their efforts and to delegate lower-priority tasks to trusted lieutenants.
For those small-business owners that find themselves in the habit of double-checking their team's work, investing greater trust and authority in their people can go a long way.
For small-business owners, if you can’t be everywhere at once or perform every task personally, it instead pays to prioritize your work, focus on high-value tasks (such as business development and strategic planning) and offload less mission-critical assignments to colleagues. As a rule of thumb, if an activity doesn’t require your personal touch, doesn’t directly impact a key customer relationship or the bottom line, and an associate can handle it with 70 percent of your own competency, hand it off.
2. Don’t micromanage.
When it comes to people management, many large company leaders are generally comfortable relying on the skills and expertise of a larger pool of talent. For those small-business owners that find themselves in the habit of double-checking their team's work, investing greater trust and authority in their people can go a long way. Giving staffers room to tackle assignments and empowering them to make decisions not only reinforces a sense of ownership in the business and accountability amongst a workforce, it also helps inspire and motivate workers to deliver winning results. Likewise, the more opportunities that you provide your staff with chances to learn, grow and expand their skill set, the more capable they’ll be.
Great business leaders are more mentors and conductors than managers—they pick the right people for the job, then step back and give them the professional development and tools that they need to succeed, not direct orders and step-by-step instructions. Their job isn’t to be a star player, but rather to provide the right atmosphere, opportunities and platforms needed to effectively bring together the work of many people.
3. Do embrace experimentation.
Small-business owners often pride themselves on nimbleness and creativity. But you may be surprised to learn that several of our Fortune 500 consulting clients actually roll out new products every six weeks, all year round, simply for the learning experiences that these efforts provide. These corporations are constantly innovating and experimenting with an eye towards gathering feedback and insight from the marketplace quickly, then rapidly applying this learning to create more attractive and successful solutions over time.
Leaders at smaller and mid-size firms should consider adopting a similar approach to doing business. Although markets and competitive landscapes are constantly shifting, it’s important to do your best to optimize your current business offerings. You’ll also want to make a point to experiment with small, smart, cost-effective strategic bets, using them as a learning opportunity to help you get a sense of how your audience and market is changing; where your product strategies and working or need retooling; and other business problems or audiences that you could be addressing. Adopting a minimum viable product (MVP) strategy—wherein you’re constantly looking to ship solutions with the minimum necessary feature set and learning and upgrading based on market feedback as you go— can help you cut costs and improve results.
4. Don’t only think short-term.
While company leadership at the world’s largest, most successful firms are certainly concerned with current business performance, they tend to think in terms of years or decades vs. a day-to-day or week-to-week perspective. This bent towards long-term planning is one that leaders at small businesses and mid-size firms would also do well to adopt—which means having to plan for tomorrow today. If markets, competitive landscapes and best practices are constantly changing, you can’t simply focus on maintenance activities if you want to continuing succeeding over a sustained period. Instead, you’ve also got to focus on growth activities as well.
Keep in mind that in a world of growing uncertainty and constant disruption, relevance is a moving target. With new rivals constantly emerging and learning from you, even as new technologies and trends are emerging, even the best business models require a refresh, upgrade or complete overhaul over time. The best time to start planning for them is now, before disruption hits, or an unforeseen event or competitor suddenly pops up and forces you to play catch-up.
5. Do be flexible.
Corporate leaders often enjoy greater luxuries in terms of the benefits, bonuses and employee education that they can provide their workforce. But in a world of growing flexible working arrangements, and one where staffers increasingly expect schedules, benefits and workplans to be tailored to their individual needs and interests, small-business leaders will also have to rethink their HR strategies going forward.
Given growing public awareness of work-life balance and shrinking perceptions of employer loyalty, gone are the days where you can expect employees to pour endless hours into work for the promise of a regular salary, promotion or the chance to enjoy office camaraderie. Instead, if you want to recruit and retain top talent going forward, you’ll have to borrow a page from a growing number of global business leaders’ playbooks and put the focus on the individual, not the company (and its financial targets). That tailoring roles, responsibilities and personal/professional development opportunities to each worker, and operating as a team player if you’d like workers to be team players as well.
6. Do develop people and resources.
Younger audiences are more motivated by opportunities to expand their horizons, do meaningful work and contribute to their community than the promise of a steady paycheck. Corporate leadership often excels at providing workers with new roles, responsibilities and learning or volunteer opportunities, as well as inspiring audiences’ passion for specific social missions and values. But small businesses—often closer to customers and more involved in their community—have just as much ability to motivate employees and demonstrate how their work does meaningful good and makes an impact on the world at large as well.
Going forward, global business leaders at small- and mid-size companies should consider how—like today’s largest corporations—they can better demonstrate to workers why their contributions are valued, and how their actions are producing positive effects. In coming years, inspiring and motivating teams will largely come down to your ability as a small-business owner to better tell your company’s story, and how every employee’s efforts can help make a difference.
Corporate leaders—no matter their background, industry or company size—all have valuable insights and lessons to share. If you haven’t already made a point to get involved in your industry, or actively network with fellow business leaders, it’s highly recommended that you get started.
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