The Drum Major and Her Team

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” — John F. Kennedy

As a small business leader with employees, it’s crucial for you to attract, retain and motivate your team members — for without team success, there is no business success.

But how will you support and motivate your employees? How will you help them to share your passion, and to love working for your company?

As Kennedy said, learning is indispensable. You’ve likely thought a great deal about how to run your company, but you may or may not have considered how to lead. The first thing to realize is that each leader has strengths and weaknesses, and a good place to start is to assess your own skills honestly.

Here are five key skills at the core of effective business leadership. Consider each one and decide where you can benefit from further study:

Be decisive

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” — Theodore Roosevelt

As a leader or business owner, making decisions is your job every day. Your team needs you to be decisive: analyze the situation, ask for feedback and factual input, weigh the options, predict the outcomes — then make decisions quickly and with certainty.

There are many techniques you can choose to help clarify and speed your analysis of any decision. The point is to choose a method that works for you, ensure your team members are part of the process, be transparent about how decisions are made, and make them predictably in a timely way.

Be passionate

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” — Nelson Mandela

When you start a business — when you’re the person on whom the company’s success depends — it’s crucial you believe in what your company is trying to achieve. Right? Passion may come from many places — perhaps you launched an engineering firm because intricate tinkering is in your soul; it could be the customer’s problem you’re trying to solve that keeps you up at night; or it may be you get a kick from setting and achieving big goals with a vigor most people don’t have.

If you’re passionate, it means you know your work every day is important. You need to be sure to share your enthusiasm with your team, so they see it, feel it and can share in it. This above all is why they will want to come to work every day, and why they’ll care about success.

You need to be passionate about your employees too. When they solve a problem for the team, stay late to reach a goal, ask a question that clarifies a problem, disagree with you in a constructive way: thank them! Remind them how much they matter.

When you’ve figured out how to share your passion, don’t be surprised when you start to hear your employees talking about your amazing products, team or customers during their lunch hour or on Friday at the pub after work!

Communicate thoughtfully

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

Communicate with simple honesty, clarity, unity of message, and completeness. That’s what your team needs to hear.

These days we’re all inundated with thousands of factoids, opinions, tweets — so much that we can’t absorb it all. So you must break through the noise with relevance, because it’s important your team understands what’s on your mind, what’s important to you and the company’s success: the company vision, your intent, the year’s strategy, the campaign’s goals and tactics, the processes everyone will follow to achieve them, and your expectations for each team member.

Clarity is crucial, and it’s not automatic. It’s not enough to get together weekly and talk randomly about various projects. If you’re not sure what your goals are in a meeting, sit down and write some bullets down. Be sure you define the key points that need to be shared or resolved, what inputs you need from your employees, what decisions need to be made, actions that may be taken. Decide what’s most important to say, and in what order. Boil it down so it’s concise, but don’t soft-pedal or hide important pieces of the puzzle.

There are many templates and processes for clarifying your communications goals. Again, study several until you find one that is intuitive and works for you — then use it.

One more thing: don’t communicate only about company goals and project requirements. It’s equally important to regularly tell your team how they’re doing, let them know you appreciate their work, ask what they need to make their job easier, thank them for their ideas and successes, ask them for new ideas. Make it a habit to check in face to face with your team every day.

Foster cooperation

“You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” — Babe Ruth

A bunch of employees isn’t a team unless there is synergy. Team members need each other to listen, share goals and ideas, and support each other’s successes.

Teach your employees to cooperate together, rather than to compete. Teach them by example, and by telling them so. Show them you’re ready and willing to help them solve issues (not by micromanaging, but when they ask for help) — and your team will be more ready to help each other.

Employees who help each other will become more productive, and enjoy their work more too. A cooperative culture leads to greater transparency, so problems can be solved rather than festering or being hidden — and it also helps prevent personal conflicts between employees.

Support your team

Your team wants success just like you do. Your job may be to delegate, but it isn’t to order them around.

To support your team, you need to do many things: trust them, empower them to decide how to achieve goals, encourage them, set clear expectations, give constructive feedback, give them opportunities, allow them to fail (and to learn from it, rather than being punished), help them with training and development opportunities, be open to their ideas and the possibility of change, and share your own wisdom, history, failures and successes. They also need to know you respect and support their need for balance, sanity and personal time.

In short, accept your employees as part of your team, rather than dictating to them as if they were minions. Be sure they know they matter to the company.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote, “I think it’s very difficult to lead today when people are not really truly participating in the decision. You won’t be able to attract and retain great people if they don’t feel like they are part of the authorship of the strategy and the authorship of the really critical issues. If you don’t give people an opportunity to really be engaged, they won’t stay.” (Schultz: Lessons From the Top: The Search for America’s Best Business Leaders)

Providing this support is possibly the single most important role of a successful leader. If nothing else, I hope you’ll walk away from this blog with this in mind: be inspired to lead with the team’s success as your primary goal.

To that end, a few final inspirational thoughts:

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” — Charles Darwin

“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” — Mother Teresa

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” — Michael Jordan

 “No member of a crew is praised for the rugged individuality of his rowing.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Build for your team a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another and of strength to be derived by unity.” — Vince Lombardi

Who is John Paulsen? A former small-business leader myself, I feel your pain (and joy) and hope you’ll enjoy the blog. I launched and ran a well-regarded production company in San Francisco with a team of 9 brilliant, hard working people. I learned to manage a wide array of tasks a small business must handle — business strategy, facilities design, HR, payroll, taxes, marketing, all the way down to choosing telecom equipment and spec’ing a server system to help my team collaborate in real-time on dense media projects from multiple production rooms. I’ve partnered with and learned from dozens of small business owners.

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