My 15-pound dog, Charlie pulls like he’s 150 pounds, yet I see people with their Pit Bulls and Great Danes walking gently at their sides. Still, my small business heels nicely, and I’ve successfully trained other dogs. I think that my current dog-training failures offer some leadership lessons.
So, grab a leash — and some treats —while we examine five ideas that can help you to work effectively with the people who can make or break your business.
#1. Don’t Try to Do Everything Yourself
Even if you’re a solopreneur, you rely on other people to get the job done. To help with Charlie, I rely on a great vet, an awesome groomer, a reliable pet supplies vendor, and advice from friends to get me through the rough spots. You need to think of everyone connected with your business as a team, which includes the following players:
- Your employees can do more than just follow instructions if you set them free to offer ideas and suggestions. At the very least, you should have one employee whom you can count on when you can’t take on even one more task. I share pet responsibilities with my neighbor to make sure that our dogs have what they need when we can’t be there.
- Your business’ suppliers provide for your everyday needs, but they can also provide valuable advice if you establish a cooperative relationship with them. My local pet store has helped with everything from fitting his little outfits to providing indoor space for dog training apart from my home during harsh winters.
- Your customers can provide valuable input about anything connected to your current offerings or new ones. Even negative feedback makes you stronger, and there’s no need to guess what customers want when you can ask them. I get Charlie’s opinions on anything from choosing dog food to finding command words that work.
- Outside professionals, such as a Virtual CFO or a lawyer are essential when you need reliable advice and information. When Charlie is truly sick, I head for the vet.
#2. Focus More on Leadership than Friendship
Charlie trusts me to care for him, but when we’re out in the suburban wild, I lead from behind because he prefers to follow anyone other than me. I had to befriend this timid pup after his rescue. Now, he doesn’t view me as a leader. Your small business team tends to operate as a family; but they must view you as the parent.
Too much friendship with your team members leads to weak leadership. By all means, get to know your employees. Share a laugh or two, and listen to their concerns about operations. But, when discussions are completed, make it clear that your final decisions are … well … final.
#3. Be Prepared to Clean Up an Occasional Mess Without Yelling
Happily, Charlie makes few errors requiring cleanup. When he intentionally does something that he knows is wrong (shredding tissues is a favorite pastime), believe me, he hears about it. But, when he fails when trying out something new (like moving to the basement before making a mess in an effort to be wonderful), I do a quiet cleanup. I even like this particular decision, but he’s a dog; he won’t understand praise in this case.
Your employees may err when they misunderstand instructions or try something new. Your reaction to errors makes a difference to their continued education. Even if they repeat mistakes, a stern correction teaches, while yelling just causes fear. And if errors occur in the process of experimentation, they’re probably trying to make things better. Don’t yell; work with them, instead.
#4. Choose Your Words Carefully
Early in our relationship, I told Charlie that “I have to go to the bathroom” to get him to leave my lap. The phrase stuck, and it’s the only one that works. Luckily, the people you deal with are more flexible, but you still have to be clear in descriptions and explanations.
This applies to everyone you work with. Customers might assume that you can deliver products on the day of sale if you promise delivery “right away”, so be more specific. Similarly, don’t tell employees to “dress more professionally” when you actually want them to “cover up.”
Talking with non-native English speakers can lead to particularly disastrous misinterpretation. Tell these customers that your custom T-shirts are “awesome sauce” rather than “top-quality” may leave them wondering whether the sauce is at least on the side. Avoid popular slang in favor of simple words and phrases.
#5. Focus on Enlightened Self-Interest
Charlie’s afraid of everyone but me … unless they offer a treat. His lack of courage is overshadowed by enlightened self-interest. Expect anyone connected to your business to operate on this same principal.
- Employees will meet occasional unreasonable deadlines if they get an extra day off at the end of the project. They may even clean up their workspaces if you follow up with a pizza party.
- Customers might agree to a delayed shipment if you remove shipping charges from their orders or offer a product discount.
- Suppliers don’t want to accept a product return simply because you changed your mind. But, if they view you as a top customer, occasional returns may become easier.
It’s always a good idea to get familiar with everyone’s soft spots. You never know when they will come in handy.
Establish Priorities, and You Can Be a Leader
Charlie came to me completely un-socialized. I knew that teaching him to obey my commands had to be a slow, progressive process. I initially taught the concept of words having meaning, and then moved onto the Sit, Stay and Heel commands, which would keep him safe. My leadership is still a work-in-progress, but the most important training is covered.
Good news: you’re working with people, so you’re a step ahead with crucial understanding. But work on the most important things first. The people in your network may never sit, stay, or heel. But, they will work with you better once they recognize you as the leader.