5 lessons I learned leading small businesses
I have worked more than 30 years, with slightly less than 30 years spent in professional, business, and executive roles. I have made some mistakes despite many career scores. So after a wise mentor sat me down one afternoon over lunch, my career took a different turn, and eventually, I went into business.
Having built a few knowledge-centric businesses since the 1990s, I can share a few tips from the battlefield as a leader of a small and agile team of professionals.
1. Live and let live.
People make mistakes. I do too. For me, I find the best way to allow my people to grow in breadth and depth is to empower them to innovate, and to permit reasonable mistakes. Integrity is important, and so mistakes made within ethical and rational confines are treated as part of the learning curve. Once bitten, twice shy, and people can then mature and grow stronger.
2. Discern and set them free.
People love to excel, if you let them. While young people may need plenty of guidance, their hearts are often centered on performance and personal excellence. Nobody wants to do a bad job. Everyone wants to feel proud of what they can do and have done. Therefore, define your goals, and attract people who understand your vision, and converge with you to achieve the goals together. How do you hope that your people get to the goals with you? Certainly not through micro-management, frequent reprimanding, or punishment. You allow them to be free to achieve the collective goals, utilizing all their optimism, intelligence, knowledge, experience, energy, and creativity.
3. Lead by being in front.
People learn first by emulation, and then innovate to find their own paths. The worst leaders are those who bark orders and then hide behind the battlefield, watching his people perish needlessly in the competitive marketplace. A true leader is one who steers his team by being in front, battling against the competition. Just as a captain would not abandon his ship even if it is sinking, a leader would not sacrifice his people selfishly for his own survival. There is nothing admirable about a faux leader who hides behind the flesh and bones of his people. Earn your respect by example, hands-on.
4. Listen more.
Leaders tend to speak more than perhaps they should. While there may be moments where leaders must inspire and rally their troops to battle, there are more protracted periods of time where leaders are wiser to listen more to his people, and speak a lot less instead. I found that by allowing my people to speak up more, I can learn from their perspectives, and adapt our collective goals to better compete in the market. We can find wisdom in all, and I cannot know everything. The older we get, the farther we are from emerging trends and generations, and the more we need to listen to gather smarter and more current market intelligence.
5. Balancing productivity and rest.
This may seem rather contrarian, but I have personally found that there is no way someone can work through a complete work day effectively without taking meal breaks and stretching their limbs now and then. My personal belief is that no one, and I mean no one, can work continuously at peak efficiency. We observe a reasonable work day from 10 am to 6 pm. I tend to coax my team to go for regular lunch breaks, to stretch their limbs whenever I observe that they have spent many hours in front of their terminals. And when I sense that they are fatigued, I advise them to take a breather. We are not robots, and short breaks now and then can allow our bodies to regain the momentum and productivity. There is no reason to delay our meals, as a decent meal feeds our brains and bodies with much-needed nutrients. We cannot be productive without food, water, and rest.
My journey is not finished yet. I certainly feel energetic enough from decades of resistance training at the gym and eating healthy, to know that I can go much farther. So I know there are more lessons to be learned, and battles in the marketplace to be fought, and hopefully won.
May you and I meet at the finish line, watching the sun set slowly, with good war stories to tell over a nice warm drink.