How to Lead A Small Business: 6 Rules From My Self-Made Dad

Jul 07, 2020

How to Lead A Small Business: 6 Rules From My Self-Made Dad

Not all entrepreneurs are privileged

Created by the author — original image from Pexels

My dad arrived in London aged 7 and could barely speak English. My grandparents had little except for the dream of a better life for their children. Half a century later he owns the majority stake in a nearly 100-year old business with clients including your favorite British TV stars.

He did it the hard way because the easy way wasn’t an option. My dad didn’t go to a fancy university or have access to a mentorship network to guide him through the corporate world. Society was far less tolerant of immigrants back in the 70s but he persevered. A few years after becoming a partner, he became the first person outside of the founding families to own the controlling stake. 20 years later as he prepares to retire, the business is still going strong.

I can never compare our achievements because he gave me my privilege. Everything I have achieved was because he made it possible. There are some of you reading this who are like me and have had doors opened for you. But there are others like my father who need to open the door themselves.

You might not have been primed to lead a company since you were a child or have a seemingly unlimited pot of money from venture capitalists. Yet when you own a business, you are an entrepreneur too and face your own set of challenges. I hope my dad’s success can help you.

Don’t assume people know what you mean

When you’re ambitious you can know exactly what you want. Your employees can’t read your mind though. It can be hard to separate what you’ve thought about and what you’ve said.

The nature of my father’s work means instructions can be complex. There are lots of moving parts and one mistake can cause a deadline to be missed. His trick is to always ask “What’s your plan?” and make sure they say when they aim to have it ready. It’s much better to clear up any confusion before any time has been spent on it.

He used to ask whether someone understood but people almost always say yes: “I spent way too many nights needing to redo something when someone had misunderstood my instructions. I couldn’t blame them though as I didn’t check we were on the same page. They understood what they thought they needed to do not what I wanted them to do”.

I’ve been caught out many times when he does this to me. I will nod along and when he asks me to repeat, I freeze!

Don’t break your own rules

Taking over a company where he had worked for many years was tough. He didn’t want to become cold to colleagues he had treated like friends for years. Yet he needed to maintain standards: “One of the first things I promised myself is that I would be a leader who led by example. Having been in their position, I was uncomfortable in reprimanding people for things I was doing myself.”

For those born with privilege, it can feel natural to be a boss. My dad didn’t have this luxury but this promise helped immensely. He told me “This had a big effect on my own work too and increased my confidence. It made me feel I belonged in my position”.

When you’re the boss you can do what you want, it’s your right. Yet don’t delude yourself into thinking it won’t affect how your staff act. If they see you taking shortcuts, they’ll take shortcuts too.

Give people the resources to grow

It is tough to keep the best talent when predators start circling. Larger companies can make promises my dad can’t. “One of the greatest puzzles I started with is the headache of staff retention. From my clients, I know it’s an issue many other small businesses face.”

“You can’t think employees will sacrifice their own growth out of loyalty to you. You need to make sure their needs and wants are being satisfied if you want to keep them”, he says. “If I can back up words with actions about caring for their growth, they’ve got less reason to take the risk of switching companies. I look out for when people start getting through their tasks quickly and see if they want a new challenge”.

Sometimes he loses people but appreciates they want more than he can offer. The company has kept a retention rate with few people leaving. Over his tenure, he can count on his fingers the number of people who’ve left who he wanted to keep.

There are no upsides to being disrespectful

I’ve never heard my dad say a single bad word about someone from work in my entire life. He’s firm but incredibly slow to lose his temper.

“Everyone I work with is another human being. My employees aren’t machines and my clients aren’t cash machines [ATMs]. They’ve got their own lives and their own problems. I celebrate their successes and support them when they fail. Even if you’re earning money, I believe you lose in the long run when you stop treating people like people.”

Be mindful of not letting yourself snap at anyone. The client who forgets to cancel an appointment might have a family emergency. You don’t know but making the wrong assumption can cause long-lasting damage. Even when ending a client relationship or letting go of an employee, you gain nothing by intentionally trying to hurt them. You don’t know what the future holds and they could still spread positive word of mouth about you.

“I’m not Steve Jobs! I see people read his books and try to copy his abrasive attitude. Most people aren’t exceptional geniuses like Steve. Employees and clients won’t put up with that. If people don’t want to talk to you, they won’t want to work with you.”

Delegate anything you can

This is one of the hardest things for small business owners. It’s your baby so you want to be involved in every last second of it.

It means you spend way too much time on minor issues. My dad says “Hire people you can trust, then trust them”. Do you know anyone competent who likes being micromanaged? You can’t do everything yourself and you can’t annoy the people who are doing it.

As the owner, you can’t neglect the big picture for the small details. Yes, they can be important but often it stems more from a need to control rather than what’s best for the business. Look at your tasks and pick out what only you can do. This is your real to-do list, everything else should be delegated unless you have the time to do it and desire to.

Make a decision and stick to it

According to my dad, “When options are pretty close to each other, just pick one. The time you waste in making the decision probably cancels out anything you gain anyway”.

Some decisions can’t be delegated and need your approval especially if it’s a legal requirement. Yet you can become a bottleneck for entire sections of the business if you fail to take quick decisions. That item 10th on your priority list is losing you money every day you put it off. Your employees may be forced to twiddle their thumbs because they can’t go ahead.

Once it has been made unless there’s overwhelming evidence otherwise just keep it going. Every time you shift direction, you transform previous effort into the garbage. It’s not just about the financial cost of this though. As my dad puts it: “Your employees will want their work to matter. Nobody likes investing time to do a good job only to be told by the boss to throw it away.”

Running a business is like running on a treadmill. If you slow down for too long, you start going backward.

What to take with you

My dad isn’t a billionaire and he’s not on the cover of Forbes. Yet he has come from a humble beginning and runs a successful business. He’s created a life he is happy with and I am lucky to be a part of it.

Here’s a summary for the rules he follows:

  • Don’t assume people know what you mean — Ask people what their plan is to deal with your requests.
  • Don’t break your own rules — Lead by example, if you take shortcuts so will your employees.
  • Give people the resources to grow — You can’t always compete with larger companies but you can back up your words about caring for employees’ growth.
  • There are no upsides to being disrespectful — You only see a fraction of people’s lives. Getting angry can stop future lucrative relationships.
  • Delegate anything you can — Trying to do everything is a surefire way for nothing to get done.
  • Make a decision and stick to it — Don’t block the company’s growth by stopping processes moving forwards.

Thank you for reading, I hope you have a wonderful day!

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Amar's Letter

Real talk on driving impact as an imperfect human.