2018 is starting off as a roller coaster ride for small and medium sized businesses (SMBs); with unemployment at record lows and many other economic indicators looking promising, while tax reform and healthcare costs are breeding fear in certain sectors and the stock market is experiencing steep corrections. Through it all, there is a steady path to follow for SMB leaders who are looking to grow amidst the larger turmoil, concentrating on key elements that can lower hurdles to growth. While there are many forces outside the control or management of individual business leaders, these four strategies can help you gain a leg up on the competition (and help you navigate potential roadblocks).
Use Different Lenses
Many CEOs consider themselves experts. After all, they’re at the top of their organization’s food chain. Theirs is the vision that the whole organization depends on, and that responsibility is a weighty one. Just as massive trucks have multiple mirrors to see small obstructions in their view, CEOs and Presidents should consider having other perspectives to rely on when they’re trying to figure out how to adjust the trajectory of the business. Management teams and board members can’t be involved in every decision, and some of the more sensitive issues about the organization’s future shouldn’t be biased by opinions that are too agenda-driven.
Forbes describes the conundrum and how business leaders need to consider other perspectives beyond their own: “The sheer magnitude of all the information out there, much of it conflicting, makes it overwhelming to understand what you can trust and what you can’t, and who you can trust to see through the data clearly. Anyone who has gotten multiple opinions on a medical condition knows that the opinions of world-class experts can vary wildly. Judging expert judgment has become a key leadership skill today, guaranteed to only grow in importance over the future.”
A growing number of CEOs are seeking out advisory boards or executive peer groups to gain access to knowledge and experience beyond their own. “The opportunity to hear unbiased feedback on situations that others have faced and how they’ve solved problems can be invaluable,” said Dr. Kiu Leung, executive coaching and forums leader for Renaissance Executive Forums in Madison, Wisconsin. “Industry consolidation and technology advancements create synergies between business models, and years of trial-and-error can be avoided by seeking the counsel of peers who have been there and who can help you avoid the mistakes that they’ve already made, and learned from.”
Relying solely on your own perspective, or even that of your management team can be extremely limiting. Like the infamous “10th man principle”, outlying opinions can open up new trains of thought, new potential solutions. Seeing the world through different lenses can broaden your perspective and help the business, relying on a more extensive set of information. No strategy is foolproof but, as Forbes points out, “with several sources of intelligence and data, we can better triangulate on our risks, and better avoid them.”
Care About Culture
The one environment that’s manageable for a business leader is the environment inside his or her own business. Any people-centered enterprise these days relies on certain cultural elements to keep superstar employees on board and build motivation behind the vision of the organization.
“Organizational culture is the foundation of employee engagement, empowerment and motivation. These elements can translate to improved citizen satisfaction” according to the PA Times. With employee churn being one of the most disruptive and costly expenses for SMBs, culture matters, regardless of the specific demographic of your employees. Creating memorable moments of community and bonding is what keeps employees engaged beyond a paycheck.
In his book, Start With Why, renowned author Simon Sinek talks about the importance of culture on employee morale:
“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it. Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief - WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
The same goes for the environment inside a company, as it has the power to motivate and inspire employees who believe in the same WHY that the CEO does. Does your company have a culture that supports a clearly articulated WHY? If not, look to that as a top priority.
Focus Enough (but not too much)
In the classic Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll wrote “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” However, if you focus too strongly on a single path, small twists and turns may take you by surprise and cause problems. Have your plan, pursue your vision, but be flexible in order to grab unexpected opportunities or avoid pitfalls.
Focus with a sprinkling of flexibility is even more important for SMBs, who are expected to be more nimble than larger corporate entities. Middle market business development experts caution that “the business world is changing faster than ever; if you develop the perfect strategy in December, it may be obsolete in six months. Defining a strategy will always be an important, necessary process, but flexibility has never been more important. If your strategy doesn't allow for adaptation when assumptions are no longer valid, then it's bad, no matter how perfect it was initially.”
Be Open to Learning
Lifelong learning, even once you’ve reached the c-suite, can be a significant advantage as innovation and technology continues to change the global market landscape. But where or who to learn from when you’re the decision-maker at the top? Again, boards of directors and management team members are seldom the answer, as they are too close to the situation and may find it difficult to offer neutral counsel.
As popular as MBA degrees are for business people who are starting their climb to the top, executive coaching has become a learning resource for many who have reached the pinnacle. Finding a trusted advisor who can strategically see situations from a distance can be immensely helpful. “Not all CEOs come to the table with the full set of skills they need to build their companies to last for the next decade,” reports Entrepreneur magazine. “The best executive coaching relationships resemble the relationship between a conductor and their train. The conductor (coach) can help keep the train (the executive) on the tracks.”
“Using an executive or business coach is not a crutch, it’s a secret weapon to many who are so intensely focused on their organizations that a more distanced perspective can be a breath of fresh air,” added Dr. Leung. “Coaches don’t have the same expertise as the CEOs they work with. We observe and interact and find ways to motivate CEOs to be the best leader they can be, to choose the best solutions and strategies, not to just repeat what others have done successfully. There’s value in looking at situations with a different set of eyes, discussing other interpretations and analyzing problems with a trusted advisor who has a bit of distance.”
Executive coaches can be found in markets all over the country, so the relationship fit is what most CEOs look for. For example, Dr. Leung is focused on serving business leaders in Madison, Wisconsin, bringing small groups of top executives from non-competing companies together to form peer advisory groups through which each member can gain fresh ideas and new insights. Business Owners, Presidents and CEOs join the groups to gain advice, support and insight from members who have faced the similar business and personal challenges. They also employ one-on-one Executive Coaching opportunities to focus on individual goals and objectives by exploring new ways to address challenges.
Business leaders in Madison who are interested in being part of an executive peer group should consider attending the upcoming executive briefing: Leading Madison Businesses to a Stronger 2018, to be held on February 15 at the Fluno Center.
Renaissance Executive Forums is the one place that Madison’s business leaders can convene to learn from each other and sharpen their CEO skill sets: leading their teams and their businesses to success, discussing confidential business solutions to current challenges, and exploring executive leadership on a whole new level. Invited members have access to executive business coaching and trusted peer advice forums, all led by nationally-recognized quality assurance and business process expert, Dr. Kiu Leung. For more information visit https://executiveforumsmadison.com or call 608-826-7488.