The Small-Biz Hub: The Courage to Break Up with Yourself, Again and Again
"I guess I was wrong, it's much worse than I thought" he said. "How could I have not seen this? I knew things were getting bad, but I had no idea it was this bad."
Leon's head was still shaking side to side as we reviewed our intake analysis with him. His face was pale and his voice was low. We gave him a few minutes.
His small business remarkably survived growth and change for over 40 years but, as he put it, he "just couldn't seem to find a new winning combination." He knew his business was losing money and things had to change. He was a vibrant 68 year old looking to retire in the next couple of years. He had an opportunity to sell his company to another local small business looking to diversify their own services. He worked hard to do what was best and right, and now he felt he had exhausted all options and didn't know what else to change or how. He tried new things but nothing caught on.
"I survived through the Circuit City's and the Best Buy's-- why now, when there's hardly any competition and a great opportunity ahead of us, am I hit with such a blow?"
Our report indicated that in about ten months, the slow down would nearly come to a stop.
This inflection point of changing-for-the-worse-but-not-knowing-what-to-do can be devastating, especially for small business owners who have few business resources at their disposal during the times they would otherwise conduct periodic checks on their business health.
Like most small business owners, Leon's business was his world, and sizable late-stage problems can feel insurmountable. Sometimes they are, but most times not so.
He said he felt paralyzed.
SMALL BUSINESS INTAKES: WHAT WE LIKE TO SEE AND WHAT WE USUALLY FIND
In this case, we felt lucky during and after the intake. Leon was the model client for transformation: open, courageous, matter of fact, savvy, culpable, honest, and very very passionate about doing the right thing. He was ready to lead the charge, and he had a history of following through with appropriate personal and business change in order to assure his business continued to thrive.
He also took great care in who he employed, how he employed and what he provided to his employees. They were very supportive of our time with them, and everyone seemed quite eager to learn and apply what they could do for the business to succeed. They were ready to follow the charge and had a history of stepping up and following through with the mission.
In addition to the strong and aligned culture, the essence of his historical growth was also what we like to see, especially in his space which started as a small appliance shop, morphed into 1980s grade computers, and morphed further into a great IT-related small business:
The business purpose (mission) evolved every 5-8 years to remain relevant, and there were steadfast common values all employees shared;
There was a normal curve of employee attrition, with no notable performance issues;
We found no "bad eggs" on the team from a behavioral perspective (let's face it, there's always one...);
We found no evidence of a wasteful organizational structure such as too much management, obsolete roles still in function, or nepotism-- quite the opposite, Leon ran a clean and lean house based on merit;
The collective capabilities and service were better than all of his relevant competition; and
The financials were fairly clean (there were expected gaps easy to fix) and the functions of his business was up to code and compliant, including the requirements of his rented space.
The missing piece was as Leon thought: the function of Innovation.
The root-cause of missing that piece was far from Leon's mind: it was Leon.
Leon ran his business as he always had-- not how he always had, but as he always had: Leon ran the business.
It was barely surviving when it should have been thriving, and this is common in small businesses-- well, it's common in ALL businesses, but amplified in small businesses because of scale and scope.
The tricky part with Leon's business was there was one primary factor slowing his business down, and yet there was nothing inherently wrong with Leon's leadership or decisions-- it was simply that he took all the responsibility for generating new ideas and asked nothing of his employees beyond what was in their job descriptions.
No business can afford this, especially small businesses. So, what should small business owners look for to remain thriving vs surviving?
SILENT CLUES OF A SMALL BUSINESS SURVIVING VS THRIVING
Behind all of the wonderfully positive aspects of his business, we found that nearly all of Leon's employees had untapped, innovative, fresh and different ideas about how to remain successful and become even more successful.
And as open, courageous, honest and passionate as Leon was with us as "experts", he did not lend the same opportunistic style to his employees. No, no, it wasn't because he was set in his ways or closed off to it.
It was because he felt that was his job and he shouldn't burden his employees with that level of responsibility.
His employees clearly loved Leon, bragged about how he built the business and how he "always took care of us." He had an impressive mix of employees by background, age, gender, education, disposition... and they were all visibly uncomfortable telling us what they would do differently if it were their business.
We challenged them further, "OK, let me ask you: why do you feel this isn't your business too? You care about it, you care about Leon, you clearly want the business to succeed-- why not look at things as if it is your business too?"
Their answer? They thought that sharing their ideas with Leon would undermine Leon's legacy or hurt his feelings.
Typically we find at least one or two disgruntled employees feeling overlooked or disregarded, frustrated with the lack of being able to stretch and share their own visions for the future. From his employees' perspective, they simply didn't want to hurt his feelings.
Meanwhile, Leon thought asking for their ideas would confuse roles and put the onus of the business on their shoulders, which he felt was too much responsibility (he was responsible, not them). Typically we find that owners in this situation are frustrated by the lack of responsibility, initiative, innovation and new ideas from the employees. From Leon's perspective, he was grateful for their contributions within their roles and didn't want to overwhelm them or ask for more.
In this particular case, we were in awe with what we witnessed: cultural dysfunction in its embryonic state, before it grows to the more obvious passive aggression, sabotage-politics, and quiet departures as the lights go out and room is swept.
We got to work right away, and looking back, the small cultural clue wasn't so small after all: no one was talking about the critical ideas that could change the business for the better except Leon, with Leon.
THE TURN-AROUND WAS MORE SIMPLE THAN MOST AND LASTED SIX MONTHS
We have seen time and again how cultural dysfunction drives the successes and failures of a business (GREAT READ: Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, by Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen), and my team and I have seen and experienced first-hand the worst of it boldly staring at us, daring us to fix it in our collective full-time employee and consultant pasts.
Addressing the problem at such an early stage made for a simpler reset than most.
Our first step was a purposeful slow-down of the business. Most shareholders and investors would bristle at this strategy, but it's almost always the smartest route and why private companies (and smaller businesses) are often able to turn-around so quickly.
Just like how physicians might induce comas for patients who need their nervous system to take a break and focus exclusively on healing the body, we purposefully slowed down Leon's business a little more for the first three months of our engagement so that we had the space to focus on the restart.
It's a gamble for small business owners to do this and it takes time to feel OK with doing this, yet in these circumstances there are few choices. You cannot conduct an intensive restart while you are churning at a clip that isn't making a difference to your business anyway, and you need all hands on deck.
During those three months, we asked a partner Innovation Team to come in and facilitate discussion about, priority for, and ultimate selection of innovative change.
We then helped integrate those innovation ideas into the overall turn-around strategy and high-level plan and worked beside Leon and his team to implement and measure.
By month four the team was over the storming and re-norming, and Leon had taken on a new Leadership Style that he said was surprisingly energizing and easier than he thought (though I remind you that Leon was already pretty good at change!).
By month six we re-ramped his business, and in two months he had increased his revenues by 10%, more than paying for the collaboration we and our partner Innovation team provided to him.
Months seven and eight were still lean, as expected, but as he completed his year he had rolled out a new support department based on the Innovation decisions and hired four more staff members.
Straight-forward business resets are more simple than a restart involving Innovation. Leaderships is the success or failure factor. We moved swiftly and smartly, and we attributed the success entirely to Leon.
FINAL NOTE ON HOW SMALL BUSINESSES THRIVE:
HAVE THE COURAGE TO BREAK UP WITH YOURSELF AGAIN AND AGAIN
As of our last mid-quarter check in with Leon (we provide four complimentary check-ins for 1 year after our engagement and help with adjustments free of charge), his business continues to rebuild and the numbers show the planned success.
When I asked Leon what made the biggest difference for him, he reminded me of what I said during that Intake Analysis meeting months ago:
"Leon, I'm going to ask you to let us earn your trust, and then I'm going to ask you to break up with yourself-- who you used to be, a lot of what you believe in, what you are so used to doing. I call it a break up because it's going to feel just like that, but I promise you you'll bounce back and be better for it."
It doesn't always go this way. Obviously we experience challenges during the engagement-- resets and restarts are not for the faint of heart. The purpose of this Insight & Opinions article is to give small business owners a real-world example of steps you can take when your business seems to be stalling or slowing down and you cannot account for it.
Two To-Do's for Small Business Owners to Think About:
1) DO consider hiring a business coach for individual coaching, or a small-business consultancy for a holistic review of your business, options for next steps, and (should you decide on next steps) a collaborative approach for completing those next steps.
If you are strapped for cash or are afraid these options are too expensive:
Call anyway. You may be surprised to learn how accessible and affordable small business consultants are. They generally do the work because they love it, not because they expect to become rich from it, so don't let the "consultant" title influence your thinking. If a small business consultancy runs their own (usually) small business in a way that prohibits their client base from affording services, they can't help you anyway.
If you find a consultant you really want to work with but still cannot afford them, ask if he or she is willing to do some pro-bono work for you at least to help you go forward with an objective view (all small business consultancies should be open to this if they can find the time for it).
Contact a local university's MBA program to see if there are savvy business students willing to take on a review of your business as a project. For example, Northeastern University in Boston has a "Consultancy Club" as part of their full-time MBA program. They are sponsored by NU's MBA Faculty Advisor who is also their Associate Professor of Strategy, and the Club is mentored by seasoned professionals (yours truly being one of them), so they have guidance throughout the engagement, which helps them and helps you.
2) DO consider what you can stop doing, not just start doing, and think about what might help you-- not just your business. Here are a few ideas:
If your business is no longer growing, chances are you aren't growing either. IDEA: Take a class or develop yourself through other means like experiencing a different geography, region or country.
If your business environment seems tired, boring, lacking energy, you probably feel that way too. IDEA: bring the team someplace different to work for the day, or encourage everyone to change up the office, or think about what you need to charge-up your environment in a different way.
And, if it seems there aren't any new idea for your business and you cannot figure a way to turn the nose up as it goes down, perhaps you have appreciably exhausted all the innovation you can within yourself. IDEA: Since we are not endless wells of innovative, and creative ideas, pull your team together with a facilitator to discuss new ideas.
Small business owners are unique in their ability to get something started every day and keep it going. They don't have the momentum that larger companies have, it's really up to them. Get the help you deserve if you feel external support is the best path for you.
And have the courage to break up with yourself again and again-- disrupt yourself, shift yourself around, challenge yourself and take the "you" out of the equation. It might be the best break up you ever had.
© Impono LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Join the Impono Community and Follow Us on LinkedIn.