by Jim Martin
Some new businesses soar. Others languish, crawling slowly forward until their founders’ money and patience are both exhausted, their deaths sadly marked by empty storefronts. Failure is not inevitable. If your product or service is marketable, you can avoid a going-out-of-business sale by honing four critical skills. In a sense, these are the tools that best define managerial skill and a managerial style of thinking.
Plan. Success doesn’t just happen. It results from meticulous planning and preparation. Start with a business plan. The SCORE National website has a good boilerplate. Business Plans for Dummies is a valuable resource. A SCORE mentor can help you. Even if you’ve been in business for years, you can improve your business’ performance with a business plan. Make the plan dynamic. Anticipate market trends, as well as economic and social trends. When social URL arises, the business anticipating new user demands will do better than five others fumbling to react after it gets one million customers.
Plan for what can go wrong. We live in earthquake country. Ensure your business and your business plan are both ready, not just for a disaster itself, but for how it will affect your employees and your customers. Will your suppliers be able to support you afterward. The list of what you should anticipate is long, including natural disasters, theft, epidemics, and even simpler problems like a loss of lease. An hour spent developing a contingency plan is far more valuable than days spent digging out.
Lastly, plan for growth. Will you need to add employees or floor space? If so, when? Will you need to increase compensation as employees’ jobs become more complex? What new jobs will growth demand? Will you need a dedicated accountant rather than a contractor? Will you need to add an evening shift? All these questions should be answered in your business plan. You should read a good business publication (such as The Wall Street Journal) to help you spot the trends that will feed your growth.
Sharpen Management Skills. New business owners who have never been managers before often find themselves overwhelmed when they sit on the other side of the desk. They have no one to whom to refer problems or decisions. Read some books on managing. Learn not to make snap decisions (except in those few situations where quick response is essential). Keep your ideas and plans to yourself until they are completely thought out. That minimizes confusion within your staff. Accept painful decisions. Firing a disruptive employee can be less detrimental than keeping him on board. You have to fire people: you are a boss before you are a friend.
Manage your time. This may be the most important aspect of skilled management. Do those tasks that only you can do, but delegate as much of the rest as you can. Overwork leads to burnout. You own your business; don’t let it own you. Work reasonable hours. Spend weekends and evenings with your family. Good delegation skills will make that possible.
Be a Strong Communicator: Your most effective management tool is your communication with employees. Base communications on an employee manual that has two sections: one dealing with how the various tasks within the business are performed (manufacturing tasks can be detailed in other manuals, but they should be noted here); and the other detailing what you expect of your employees (performance, timeliness, dress, decorum, absence policies, and so on) and what they can expect from you (performance reviews, responses to needs, openness to suggestions, etc.) This manual should cover such often ignored questions as how long before planned absences (like doctor appointments) they should request time off. Every employee, from janitor to shop foreman, should receive and be bound by the same manual.
Talk regularly with employees. Greet them when you pass them in the hall, but avoid long, time-wasting conversations. If your staff is small enough, learn the names of their immediate family members. Ask about them from time to time. Develop a two-way feedback network. Encourage your employees to make suggestions for improving the work environment. Provide feedback on those suggestions (keeping in mind that chains of command should be observed in both directions). Let your employee know well in advance of planned changes (new products, construction, remodeling, etc.), especially those that affect them directly. Part of your communication should be an annual (or semi-annual) performance review in which you establish clear goals for the next review period. This is often viewed by business managers as their toughest task, but it can be quite productive, particularly if you have the employee propose goals. You will find that good employees often propose goals that are at least as rigorous as the ones you had in mind. And always treat your employees professionally. Always remain their boss/employer.
Utilize All Available Expertise. Never be afraid to ask for advice. Don’t be afraid to hire professionals for tasks with which you are unfamiliar or uncomfortable (such as accounting). Get a SCORE mentor to help you through the business development and decision making processes. A free SCORE mentoring session can help you avoid the mistakes that come from inexperience.
Don’t be afraid to tap one key area of expertise: your employees. Many of them have significant experience from previous jobs. When a problem arises, ask them how they dealt with this at that job. Even if you have a better solution, consider their answer. Discuss it in the light of what you prefer to do and try to get their buy-in. If you reject their idea without discussion, you may lessen their enthusiasm for giving you a response next time.
You can also involve employees in some hiring decisions. Your senior employees can interview prospective new hires to give you an additional perspective (particularly on the often critical question of how the prospect will get along with existing staff). If a senior employee feels uncomfortable with a prospect you liked, you might be better in the long run accepting the employee’s judgment. Sometimes you will lose a good prospect, but more often you will maintain good relations within your work force.
As you can see, all of these recommendations deal with thinking like a manager. A manager is quite different from a boss. I won’t expand on that. I’ll just ask you to think about it.