5 Ways to Grow Leaders in a Small Business

5 tips for creating a culture of leadership, even in a business that has only a handful of employees

In a small company, everyone has the opportunity to be a leader, regardless of job title. By encouraging and rewarding open communication, innovation, and initiative, you’ll develop talent and improve company culture. Your motivated and engaged workforce will also help drive business results. These five tips will help you grow and reward strong leaders.

1. Be Deliberate.

“Every company—whether it’s two people or 2,000—has a culture; the question is, is it the kind of culture you want? To create a culture of leadership, you have to be the deliberate, walking, talking, living, breathing example of what that culture should look like,” advises Steve Farber, author, consultant, and one of Inc.’s top 50 leadership and management experts. He suggests defining your expectations, then holding yourself accountable for upholding them.

But demonstrating your values won’t be enough. You’ll have to preach what you practice, by explicitly sharing your expectations with team members so they know exactly what is expected of them. Start this during the recruitment process so you can gauge whether your values are resonating with potential hires.

2. Be Approachable.

One of the keys to effective management is strong relationships, and those don’t exist without open communication. Phillip Wilson, author, consultant, and owner of Labor Relations Institute, believes the biggest reason leaders struggle is because they are not approachable. Often, people wait until an issue reaches its boiling point before addressing it because they are afraid or uncomfortable speaking to their boss. “Effective communication only happens if employees feel comfortable enough to speak up to their leader. This is how problems get solved, how employees remain engaged and motivated, and how companies innovate and grow,” he says.

To better understand your organization, lead more effectively, and promote the right type of talent, show that you champion transparency. You can do this informally by maintaining a friendly demeanor and initiating casual chats, and formally, by setting up weekly check-ins with your colleagues. If they aren’t talking freely, try asking different questions. Wilson says you can become a more approachable leader by asking these three questions:

  • Do you have what you need?
  • What would make your work better?
  • Where are you going?

“By asking your employees about things that matter to them you not only start a line of communication, you also show them that you care what they have to say,” he says.

3. Be a Risk-taker.

Show your employees that the office is a safe place to share ideas, and that they are encouraged – even expected – to speak up when something isn’t working, and to chime in with solutions. Of course, not all ideas will be good ones, but be mindful not to shoot down suggestions too quickly or harshly. You’ll need to be ready to field feedback that points to shortcomings in your organization, and be open to trying out ideas from team members who think differently than you do. This might feel risky, but it’s crucial to your organization’s growth—and your own. “To stimulate innovative thinking and the free offering of ideas, accept the risk and lead a culture where failures are learning opportunities. It is the only way to create a safe place for team members to think,” says Marie Peeler, CEO of Peeler Associates, an executive coaching and leadership development firm.

4. Be a Teacher.

Training great leaders is no small task. Farber suggests providing formal leadership development programs in the form of coaching, mentoring, and training sessions. Keep an eye out for external opportunities, too. Sending a coworker who exhibits leadership potential to a conference or leadership event can prove an excellent reward, a way to say thank-you for a job well done, or even as a prize for a friendly competition. Programs like these also improve employee retention and help attract new talent.

5. Be Grateful.

Often in small organizations, employees are expected to take on tasks outside their job description, and to step up and demonstrate leadership qualities even if they don’t have the title to match. The right hires see the benefit of this: they’ll gain invaluable experience, grow as a professional, and thrive in the fast-paced, fluid work environment. But rewards go a long way, too. Farber suggests offering special incentives to workers who meet or surpass performance goals, as well as to those who “embrace the company mission in their demeanor and actions.” Use tangible incentives, such as a cash bonus or extra time off or an opportunity that will help them meet their career goals. “Share your superstars’ stories with the whole company. This will prove to everyone that you’re not just paying lip service to your values, but you quite literally value your leaders’ ability to live them out,” he says.

Your small business’s growth depends on your employees, and your employees depend on you. Be the leader you expect them to be, and don’t forget to say thank you.


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