As our business grows and we experience some success, the outdated “command and control” style of management that we’re probably using gets reinforced in us. We figure that if it’s working, then we should keep doing more of it! So, we continue to muscle our business forward, all the while paying the lofty price of high employee turnover, sub-par profitability, sky-high stress, and compromised personal relationships. At some point, either our body or a loved one lets us know that something has to change.
Unfortunately, there is no well-defined point at which we, as business owners, are anointed with some mystical “leadership juice” that transforms us into enlightened business leaders. It just doesn’t work that way.
Leadership is a process of growth. It’s having our rough edges smoothed out by the school of hard knocks. It’s learning to lead effectively through trial and error. For the lucky ones, it’s also by surrounding ourselves with competent, caring people to help mentor or guide us.
An old colleague of mine, Steve Toburen, spoke frequently about the importance of putting on “customer eyeglasses.” This meant trying to see things through the lens of our customers. While he might have been referring to external customers, the same principle applies to our internal customers. The people with whom we work.
It’s when we can see things—our thinking, our decisions, and our actions—through the eyeglasses of the people we employ, and when we do the hard internal work of questioning the person we see in the mirror, that we start to make the transition from being a business owner to being a business leader. It’s also when we start to make the journey from having the spotlight focused on us to having it focused on others.
Owning and running a smaller business as either a solo operator or with a handful of employees doesn’t demand a lot of sophisticated leadership skills. Everything revolves around the owner themselves, and their job mainly involves showing up, doing good work, and collecting money. Most business owners actually prefer it this way, as it plays right into our need to control our own environment and our displeasure with being accountable to someone else. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of small business owners fall into this group.
This is also where we display many of the entrepreneurial behaviors that I’ve written about in the past—behaviors that frequently start out as strengths but become liabilities as our company grows.
For those who are running larger organizations (or who aspire to), making the transition from owning a business to leading one can be a challenge. This doesn’t mean that you need to abandon all the behaviors you’ve developed up to this point. After all, many of them served you well and got you to where you are now. But they may not be enough to get you to where you want to go.
Some of the transitions we will talk about are more difficult to navigate than others, so they can take more time to accomplish. But they’re all worthy of our efforts if we’re serious about moving forward in developing our leadership skills.