"That's not how we do it here." No new business owner wants to hear those words. Unfortunately, it's a common problem that new owners often face following the acquisition of an existing small business.

Although change is never easy, reshaping a recently acquired business around your vision and ownership style is critical for achieving your personal and business goals. But to do it, you'll need to stretch your leadership skills and make change in a way that's good for you, your employees and your company.

Why Older Businesses Are Harder to Change

Employees usually present the most serious barrier to change. An ownership transition can be traumatic for workers under the best of circumstances. But when the new owner makes it clear that big changes are on the horizon, it's natural for employees to resist, especially if they don't see the need for a shift in strategy or business direction.

Statistically, employee barriers and company age go hand in hand. According to Census Bureau research published by the Small Business Administration (SBA), the median age of a small employer business is approximately 10 years, and more than half of all small firm employment is in companies that are more than 15 years old.

Businesses with employees tend to be older, established companies with entrenched business practices. Census Bureau research shows a direct correlation between the number of employees and company age for small firms, which means that the most difficult companies to change are often the ones with the most employees.

As the new owner of an established business, you'll be forced to make many big decisions. Not surprisingly, older companies often require significant changes to reach the next level of growth. But to implement change, you will need to win over more employees than you would if you owned a younger firm.

Advice for New Business Owners

As the new owner of an existing business, accept that change will not happen overnight. It's going to take time to align the company's values, processes and workflows with your ownership vision. But with consistency and a carefully crafted strategy, it's possible to use the change process as a catalyst for business growth and more meaningful relationships with your employees.

  • Wait. Most business experts advise new owners against making any major changes for the first few months. Instead, use this time to learn from your customers and listen to your employees. The insights you capture now will help ensure that the changes you eventually make are the right ones.
  • Start small. Start with small changes rather than changing major workflows, policies or processes right out of the gate. Sometimes minor cosmetic changes (e.g., updating the reception area, replacing a worn carpet, etc.) are good first steps because they communicate a change of ownership without requiring employees and customers to learn new routines. As people adjust to small changes, gradually introduce more significant changes into the mix.
  • Communicate your vision. Major changes should never appear out of thin air. Smart business owners understand the value of employee and even customer buy-in, and go out of their way to communicate their vision for the business long before real changes actually occur.
  • Solicit advocates. Trying to implement change alone is like walking through wet cement - you can do it, but it's going to be a long, slow process. As you communicate your vision with employees, look for individuals who can facilitate the process by serving as advocates and change evangelists.
  • Stick to the plan. Randomly jumping from one change to the next will erode employees' trust in your leadership abilities. A better approach is to communicate the plan to your employees and execute it before you launch additional change initiatives.

Businesses and workforces adapt to change at different rates, so it's difficult to estimate how long it will take to fully implement your vision and ownership style. But in general, slow and steady wins the race. By introducing changes over time and monitoring how those changes impact your employees and customers, you can chart a new course with the support of the people you're counting on to achieve key business outcomes.