Am I a good leader for my small business? And what can I do to be a great leader? I often find myself thinking about these very questions related to the entrepreneurial ventures I lead.
Some leadership traits are universal these days. Having curiosity was cited as one of the most important traits of top leaders in a recent CEO survey. John Maxwell--renowned leadership coach and author--cites authenticity as a key leadership trait now more than ever before.
And Carey Lohrenz--a former U.S. Navy fighter pilot--talks about the willingness to take risks and even be vulnerable as key drivers of startup success.
It's Carey's perspective on startup success that got me thinking about three key leadership traits I've seen through years of working with companies of all sizes that are critical drivers of success specifically in navigating the unique challenges small companies face:
1. Being a strategist and tactician rolled into one
Being able to develop a strategy is always important and always will be - regardless of the size of the company. Then you have to execute it. Here is where things work differently for leaders in small businesses compared with bigger ones.
When you look around for someone to delegate operational tasks to in a small business, there are just fewer people. And this isn't because of lack of talent. It's simply due to smaller numbers and fewer resources.
In big companies, there are teams of people who function at operational layers below the strategy with the specific purpose of making the strategy an operational reality. In small businesses, you often don't have multi-layered structures where team members can participate at one level only and not think and act above or below their job title.
Because of that, the leaders I've seen with the best success in small business are equally comfortable getting in and getting stuff done operationally that supports their strategy as they are in the big picture thinking required to come up with the strategy.
2. Thinking and acting broadly versus narrow
We've all heard the expression, "Jack of all trades; master of none." In some environments, being masterful at one thing and nothing else is what is needed.
In small business, though, leaders have to own and operate lots of different parts of the business because we aren't big enough to warrant expensive functionally-specific structures. Earlier in my career, I worked for a rapidly growing small company. One of the Business Unit Presidents was an ex-Navy lieutenant who used to smile as he asked us his favorite small business question:
"Who would you want working for you here--a big boat captain or a small boat captain?"
After a short pause, he'd tell you his answer:
"In this environment, you want a small boat captain any day of the week because a small boat captain is intimately involved in all aspects of the boat and has to problem-solve across areas. A big boat captain delegates this out."
3. Not needing a map (but creating one anyway)
Any of us who either have our own small business or have worked in one know one simple reality about it--there is often no yellow brick road that has been neatly paved for us to follow. I have personally found myself out in the poppy fields a few times (not a terrible place to be as long as you can find your way back).
Even if you do have an aligned business direction, there often aren't formal processes, infrastructure, or protocols. And this can make the environment feel chaotic to many.
I have watched many very talented big company leaders become frustrated and ultimately fail in this environment simply because they operated best with the skill sets they possessed when some infrastructure existed.
But it's not simply being able to navigate without a map without feeling like you are losing your mind that is critical. It's the ability to do that while at the same time building the yellow brick road--brick by brick--for others.