Imagine that you want to move a 4,000 pound hulking mass of metal, plastic, rubber and fiber from your home to your office. In other words, you want to drive your car to work. The primary device of movement you will need is a set of wheels. Since its invention more than 6,000 years ago this basic tool has facilitated the transportation of objects across the world. The original design of the wheel was a solid frame, until the discovery that spokes made it lighter and faster, thus easier to use. While its design and aesthetics have evolved, the simplicity of its use has remained the same. It provides mobility and progress.
As a leader, imagine yourself as the hub in a wheel. Your ability to move forward with your initiatives is dependent upon the strength and structural reliability of the spokes to which you’re connected. These spokes must be strong and firmly attached to both the hub and the outer rim. The rim in essence forms a circle around your leadership team; it defines your inner circle. Others see you as a unit, whose parts function effectively only to the degree that they are united.
Because you’re only as strong as your weakest link, it’s important to build and strengthen your inner circle. Think about these five key qualities that you need in your “spokes” to support a strong wheel.
Alignment around vision, mission, shared goals and objectives. These are the core philosophies of your “why”, which according to Simon Sinek is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you and your organization to do what you do. Involve your inner circle in discussions around the direction of your organization. They must fully understand each piece of the puzzle, to see the big picture. Ensure the channels of communication are open for debate, respectful disagreement and continual dialogue to make certain everyone is aligned. The point is, if there is disagreement around the vision and mission, it’s best to hash it out in the open, rather than let it fester in the background. Such dissent will act like a cancer and undermine your plans.
Teamwork and collaboration with everyone bringing complimentary skills to the table. At this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are set to go the 2015 NBA playoffs. But it’s not just LeBron James of the Cavaliers who will play. The ENTIRE Cleveland team must play. Each man must perform according to his position and work with his teammates to effectively win. As talented and critical as LeBron is to his team’s success, he still can’t win the games and the championship by himself. So why do some leaders think that they can play their role, and everyone else’s too? As the hub, you act as the coach or captain of the team. It all comes together around you, but every person, must excel at and perform their assigned function.
Integrity and standards of trust that hold everyone accountable. If the structural integrity of one of the spokes is below the minimum design quality, it will break, damaging the entire system of the wheel. These same structural boundaries apply to behaviors in your inner circle. As the leader, you must model acceptable behaviors and clearly identify those which are improper. This includes clarifying ethical and moral values, and well as daily behavioral norms. And your team must know that any one of them who violate these standards will be dealt with in an appropriate way. Lack of trust in any of these areas weakens the fabric of the team.
Culture is about fit. When people are considering a new position, the first thing they want to understand is the culture of the organization so that they can determine whether they fit in. How do the leaders work together? How are decisions made? How do they differentiate between simply good and really great employees? What do people like and dislike about working there? Purposefully discuss, define and develop the culture of your inner circle. As you’re considering candidates to join your team, include the members of your inner circle in the interview process to ensure their ability to work well together.
Develop and nurture the growth of your inner circle. Just like a wheel needs to be maintained, and the tire surrounding it must be inflated properly, your inner circle needs maintenance and care. You must nurture their growth and development, not only for succession planning, but for their own personal and professional development. Watch for signs of weakness and take swift action to shore it up. Leverage their strengths and talk about opportunities for development. You may need to invest in a coach, find a mentor, or provide a key experience or developmental assignment for them.
All of these spokes are also surrounded by the assumption that the team has the technical capabilities to perform their roles. That’s the basic price of consideration for entry into your inner circle. But skill and experience without the ability to function as a unit will stymie progress, and negatively impact your business results. Similarly, if the wheel isn’t structurally sound, it will collapse under the weight of the load it’s carrying. So take the time to examine the spokes in your wheel. What is your inner circle made of?
This is supposed to be your dream come true. Finally, your business is up and running. You’re breathing life into your big idea. You no longer have to answer to the boss because you are the boss. You’re working your business plan. You’re finding your path to financial freedom. You know your target market and you’re finding new clients. You have positive feedback on your products and services. You’re developing new technology. You’re finding additional funding. You’ve finally found the right team to work with. You have the right workspace. You can feel the exciting energy when you walk into your business each morning.
Yes, there are bumps in the road, but you’re learning to be resourceful and to move through, over or around them. Each day is long and brings surprising new challenges, but you’re gaining momentum along with new customers and increased revenue. You learn to balance the ups and downs of the market and business challenges. You learn to pace yourself. But as time passes and you analyze your business growth, you see that the trend line isn’t moving upward, it’s declining. Your plans aren’t working out as you expected. At this rate, you’re not sure how long you can continue operating. You realize that as passionate as you are about the business, the problems are overwhelming you. Your dream is turning into a nightmare.
Why Small Businesses Fail
In spite of your best efforts, your business is succumbing to one of the top ten reasons that businesses fail. (Non-prioritized list according to Jay Goltz, The New York Times, January 5, 2011).
- Owners who cannot get out of their own way.
- Operational inefficiencies.
- Dysfunctional management.
- The lack of a succession plan.
- The math just doesn’t work.
- Out-of-control growth.
- Poor accounting.
- Lack of a cash cushion.
- Operational mediocrity.
- A declining market.
In particular, the first four reasons are linked to how you develop and structure your business. Small business owners who seek expert advice in running their business have a better shot at overcoming these pitfalls. To address them, here are eight tips for successful small business development that are critical components for you as a small business owner.
Tips for Success
- Be The Leader – Be purposeful about leading and designing your company for success. If you think you know everything necessary for success, and close your mind to new and different ideas, you AND your business will stop growing. Instead, find a business mentor, seek customer feedback, attend workshops, read books, keep a bias for learning and set the example for your team to learn.
- Manage Your Passion – Don’t let your passion manage you. Just because you love shoes, doesn’t mean you should open a shoe store. Make sure you’ve identified the void in the marketplace that your business can fill; or the need that you’re satisfying. Make sure you know your target market, and understand what they’re willing to pay and do for your product or service. Most importantly, assess your financial resources. There are too many stories of entrepreneurs who had what seemed to be a great idea, but got over their heads into debt, and tumbled into bankruptcy.
- Increase Business Value – Your greatest business value resides in your people, processes, products/services, technology and customer relationships. It’s important to understand the right combination and how you best provide it to others. Then preserve and improve on that. For instance, the fact that you guarantee same-day service, and thorough clean up by your service technicians could be your greatest value. But to provide that, you must have a sufficient number of trained technicians on call at all times; and a reliable 24/7 contact and communication process.
- Build Your Culture – This is the DNA of your business. Whenever a client comes in contact with your business, whether face-to-face, by phone, by email, or by social media, they gain nuances and impressions that determine whether they want to continue to engage with you again. Set the tone by treating your employees the way that you want them to treat your customers. Make customer service a priority. Create an environment that is welcoming and comfortable. Ensure that the style or décor will appeal to your target market, and effectively represent your product or service.
- Position Your Family – Do you have a family business or a business family? Does your business exist as a place to employ your family or a place to serve your clients? The wonderful family members who helped you to get started may need to evolve to different supporting roles as the business grows, to ensure that you have the most qualified people in the positions where they can perform well.
- Develop Your Successor – Your role in founding your business is important, but none of us are irreplaceable. Constantly develop others to learn the business, and make leadership decisions based on who and what will add value to the business. When the business has greater value to your clients, you will benefit from that.
- Understand Business Roles – Roles and responsibilities must shift as the business grows and/or the market shifts. Be flexible, clarify responsibilities, and hold the right people accountable.
- Document Business Processes – Continually review and update your operating processes to ensure maximum efficiencies. Involve the employees who actually perform the work, and find ways to eliminate waste, rework and scrap because they all result in lost money.
So take time now to plan for your business. Becoming a small business owner is a lot like falling in love. Once you fall madly in love with a seemingly fantastic person, it’s more difficult to recognize your areas of incompatibility. Similarly, once you have a seemingly fantastic business idea that you’re passionate about, it’s more difficult to see the potential pitfalls to your success. Plan with a clear head, and a focus on how you can serve others.
Miles O’Brien woke up and sensed that his left arm was there. But when he looked down, it was gone…amputated during surgery as a result of a freak injury several days prior. He wondered how he would provide for his family and perform little but important daily functions that we take for granted. As an award-winning science journalist and CNN contributor he traveled extensively, and was an active sports enthusiast. So what would his life be like now? Rather than retreat into the shadows, he dove into the rehabilitation process and challenged his occupational therapists and prosthetist to help him find ways to continue his normal activity level. They quickly responded and helped him to fulfill his plans of traveling to the Artic, including camping for 4 days on the Denali ice sheet, and riding his bicycle 300 miles across Michigan in two days. But to do so they had to outfit him with equipment and prostheses to replace his arm. He couldn’t function without a workaround strategy to replace that arm, because his body, and our bodies, needs two arms for balance.
Most aspects of our daily functionality are based on having two arms. Two arms support our mobility, flexibility and dexterity. They increase our capability to lift and carry objects, multi-task, and find our equilibrium. The majority of the population is right handed, but some (like me) are left handed, simply indicating our ability and preference to perform more tasks with that hand. But even when using the preferred hand or arm, we need the other one to complement our actions. Our arms and hands are cross-wired from our brains, thus the left side or hemisphere of our brain controls movement on the right side of our body, and the right hemisphere of our brain controls movement on the left side of our body. Each side of the brain has a functional specialization, for example, the left hemisphere controls mathematical, analytical and logical processing, whereas the right hemisphere controls sense perception, emotion processing and artistic functions. All are complementary to the full and balanced functionality of our bodies and behaviors.
But this balance is not only important in the mobility of our bodies, but in the mobility of our leadership functionality. The leader of an organization is most effective with a balance of skillsets and inputs on his or her team. The leader needs a left and a right hand balance.
William Heyman is one of those right hand (left hemisphere) persons. Heyman is the vice-chairman and chief investment officer of Travelers. He’s held the position for the past 10 years, and during that time the company’s stock has had a 267% return compared with the 109% return on the S&P 500. He sticks to a conservative investment strategy even when the market seems to be exploding or imploding, and resists the temptation to invest in the latest hot tip. He’s a trusted advisor to Jay Fishman, Chairman and CEO of the company, and known for his ability to think through risk and reward probabilities. He grew up around well-known investors and gained decades of Wall Street experience that positioned him for this role. He provides strong analytical and logical balance to the leadership team.
On the left hand (right hemisphere), Jay Fishman has an instinct for the insurance business. He believes that the most successful CEOs can sense what’s going on in their business even before it shows up in the numbers. Fishman makes it a point to spend time with his 13,000 independent brokers and agents, answering their questions and understanding their issues. He even attends their funerals and that of their close family members. And he encourages them to spend time with their clients to ensure that they understand consumer needs. His detailed communications with Wall Street analysts have earned him plaudits for honesty and insight into the business. Fishman has built an organization that complements his insurance instincts as his team evaluates decisions to ensure that they are aligned with the goal. This has paid off as they weathered the 2008 downturn, along with massive hurricanes, tornados and floods in the past decade, to deliver strong returns. Fishman’s team complements his skillsets, and provides balance to their collective leadership decisions.
Every leader needs individuals on his or her team to provide the predominately left and right hand perspectives in a manner that balances their thought process and decisions. Just as the brain integrates the inputs from centers of expertise in the right and left hemisphere, so the leader must seamlessly integrate these inputs from his or her team to balance and lead thoughtfully. It’s a collective effort, requiring coordination and agility, yet when beautifully executed, demonstrates the necessary well rounded capability to accomplish greater exploits.
Jay Fishman will learn a new level of balance in the coming months and years. In late 2014, he announced that he had been diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition. While it won’t impact his ability to run the company, it might require him to use a cane in the future. Unfortunately, like Miles O’Brien, he’ll have to make some physical adjustments, but similar to achieving balance on his team, he’ll learn a new level of perfect balance.
Photo is O’Brien in Barrow, Alaska on assignment for NEWSHOUR and NSF, his first assignment after his amputation. Photo by Kate Tobin, May 29, 2014 taken from www.milesobrien.com.
Click here to read more about Miles O’Brien on CNN.
Click here to read more about William Heyman in the March 2, 2015 issues of Forbes.