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10 tips for small business leaders

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One of the best tests of leadership in a business is to find out what the employees do when the boss is not there. Being the leader is complex with an almost infinite number of variables bearing down on you. 

There is no one absolute model for being a good leader. You need an ability to relate to people and communicate with them. You must be able to articulate your vision of where the company is heading in a way that is simple, repeatable and deals with the small problems that are important to staff. Here are some of my top tips for better leadership in SMEs. 

1 Identify, articulate and communicate your values. Before any vision or mission statements are crafted, and before any strategies are published you need to be clear about the company values on which you will trade.

2 Articulate the vision in a way that is meaningful to staff. Based on crystal clear goals, provide a route map for everyone on how they can contribute and what good means in terms of their job.

3 Establish a “Top Team”. Whatever the challenge inside or outside the organisation, if the folk at the top are not right then it becomes very difficult for the “problem” to be fixed.

4 Hire the best you can afford. You want your staff to be competent in their area of expertise and also able to contribute to the strategic debate about where the company is heading.

5 Management By Wandering About. Set a fixed percentage of your time for talking to your staff in their place of work, and find opportunities of catching them doing something right and praising them.

6 Delegate and empower staff the right amount. Too much empowerment results in little or no opportunity for staff to contribute to the strategic direction the company is taking. Too little and staff are left with no clear picture of what is and isn’t ok.

7 Passion, Pace and Preparedness. All the successful companies I’ve observed demonstrate a passion for their product or service and appear absolutely immersed in the industry they compete in. There is a pace about how things get done in the company and in the way they respond to almost all external stimulation. Finally, the successful businesses have a high level of preparedness for the unexpected.

8 Think big, test small, fail fast, learn quick. My definition of innovation is doing anything different that would be perceived by your customers as a benefit and is sustainable within your business. Get your staff on board with the idea of innovation being embedded in your culture.

9 Join up the dots. It’s down to you and your top team to mark out the dots in the future and find a way of joining them up. You need time on Blue Ocean Strategy to imagine a future state and identify specific key points in the future. Crafting a series of routes that join up these dots can identify a series of scenarios that mean you are better prepared for the unknown future.

10 Nobody is going to change until the pain of changing is less than the pain of doing nothing. The boundary between markets and industries is blurring. Look at some of the global companies around today and try to define them. Amazon knows what you read, Apple knows what you buy, Facebook knows what you like, Google knows what you want and Microsoft knows where you live. These are five very different businesses but they are all merging into a universal internet supplier. For a lot of SMEs less is often more in terms of products, services and customer segments. So for this point the question to ask is, “what if we had to reduce our product/service range, which ones would stay and why?”

Ian Gordon is senior teaching fellow in the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS)

Related: Five skills you need to become a strong leader

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