5 Questions That Will Make or Break Your Business

Why you should carefully consider even the smallest decisions and always be thinking about the big picture.
January 25, 2013

When you went into business for yourself, you were probably looking for the freedom to choose who you worked with, the projects you tackled and how you managed your schedule. So how did you end up working crazy hours for lackluster clients on projects that don’t truly excite you?

Short-term decisions you made to bring in cash or keep operations rolling during busy times may have caused your business to veer off course gradually. The good news is that you’re the boss and have the power to change things. Now is the perfect time to get back to your core vision and drop relationships, practices and habits that work against it.

“Every business owner should stop investing their time, efforts and money in anything and anyone unless they're really passionate about it or feel confident they're going to get the results they desire,” says Kris Cavanaugh, an Atlanta-based author, coach, trainer and facilitator.

To help you refocus and create success this year, ask yourself these five questions to determine what obligations to remove or delegate—and free up time for bigger and better things.

1. How are you investing your time at work?

In a small business, it’s easy to get swept into small, daily crises simply because you don’t have many employees to help. But as the leader, if you don’t stay focused on the big picture, chances are that no one in your company will either.

Think big. Are you working on big strategic priorities, like finding new markets? Or are you getting caught up in the details, like reading emails or dealing with technology glitches?

Surround yourself with honest people. It’s hard for most of us to view our workplace behavior objectively— “I think we can be blind,” says Cavanaugh—so make time to talk with mentors, supportive colleagues and friends who will speak the truth to you when you need to hear it. “Having the right people around you will help you see when there are problems,” Cavanaugh says.

Is your network helping or hurting? Also look at your professional relationships outside of the office. Are they helping you grow your business—or just taking up time? “The recession has thrown a lot of lighter fluid on the need to network,” says Nat Wasserstein, a crisis manager with Lindenwood Associates in New York City and Upper Nyack, N.Y. To get more out of the time you devote, narrow your focus to the efforts that lead to new or increased business—say no to those that haven’t paid off in the past, he advises.

2. How are your employees spending their time?

Play to your employees' strengths. Your goal as a boss should be to guide your staff toward accomplishing important goals and to create an environment that allows them to get things done. If some of your employees aren’t accomplishing what you need them to do, and coaching doesn’t work, you may have to move them into roles that are a better fit for them—or let them go.

Make the tough decisions and move on. Treat a departing employee as well as possible, in terms of paying severance, handling unemployment paperwork and writing a letter of recommendation (if it’s warranted)—and then move on, advises Wasserstein. “It’s something that has to be done,” he says.

3. Should you be outsourcing more?

Don't be afraid of outside help. If you or your team are falling behind on crucial projects—and you’re not ready to make any permanent hires—you may need to enlist some freelancers, temps or contractors.

Scaling up. You may also need to scale up to a higher level of service from existing vendors and contractors, or replace them with those who can meet your current needs better. “If you’re not getting enough out of a contract, pick up the phone,” Wasserstein says. Sometimes, existing providers may not be aware that they’re not meeting your needs and will be happy to do more for you, without additional charges, to hold onto your business.

4. Do you keep clients you should drop?

A customer doesn’t have to be Attila the Hun to be a bad fit for your company.

Identify problematic minutiae. Clients may be less than ideal because they have a corporate culture that clashes with yours, operate in very inconvenient time zones, offer projects that deviate from your main focus or need too much handholding to be profitable.

Invest time in finding the perfect fit. Devote the early part of 2013 to winning more business from the clients who are a great fit so you can lower your dependence on less desirable ones. The best business relationships and situations, Cavanaugh says, are those where you are at your best. Keep a close eye on those that leave you so stressed out that you slip into bad habits or don’t have time for outside pursuits that matter to you, she advises. Some relationships may be worth dropping, even if they do contribute revenue.

5. Do your workflow and office culture need a makeover?

Eliminate time drains and nuisances. Sometimes little annoyances, like meetings scheduled too late in the day or balky office equipment, can erode office morale—even if they don’t bother you personally.

Get feedback from employees. Ask your employees for honest feedback on what they’d like to change, advises Wasserstein. “There’s always something,” he says. You’ll build stronger relationships with your employees by asking for their input and acting on it, he notes. And, by freeing them from the distractions that erode productivity, you’ll have more time to focus on what you do best: leading the company.

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist and editorial consultant who specializes in small business, entrepreneurship and careers. A former editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, she has written recently for Fortune, Money, Crain’s New York Business and Working Mother, and is co-founder of $200KFreelancer, a community for freelance professionals.

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