Be the Boss: Managing Your Business, Your Employees and Your Time

Management is a challenge for many small business owners. Brush up on some of the essential skills with this handy guide.

You've done it. You're the owner of a small business — in command of your own destiny, calling the shots, forging new strategies, managing personnel and making key business decisions on a daily basis.

Yup, now you've done it.

Everything changes when you're in charge. Instead of following orders, you must generate them. Being in charge also means wearing many hats, such as operator, accountant, visionary and heavy. This constellation of far-flung skills has generated plenty of literature and a name all its own: management.

In this article, we walk you through some of the essential elements of effective small business leadership. We start by discussing how to manage employees and human resources; move into an exploration of leadership as an actionable concept; and finish up with a conversation about productivity and how to get the best out of your company.

Think of this as your thumbnail guide to the best thinking in management philosophy — and a great way to prepare for some of the coming challenges you might face.

Table of Contents

  • Employees and HR: Your Living Asset
  • Leadership Made Simple
  • The Productivity Fix
  • The Smallest Manager Handbook

Employees and HR: Your Living Asset

Your employees are the lifeblood of your business, so managing them successfully is key. More than sales or analytics, this is the biggest challenge for many small business owners.

Effective management requires knowing how to resolve the many strong emotions that may arise in the workplace. More than anything, it means finding ways to let your people shine without surrendering goals or accountability.

Hiring the Best

Step one is successful hiring. Seek out people who embody your philosophy and mission.

Much has been written about the recent trend toward "unconventional" interview tactics, from sticky brain puzzles to contrived hijinks. Although many old-school HR types frown upon such practices, some data suggest creative thinkers tend to thrive in today's workplace, while the uninspired may falter.

Tip: There's no one-size-fits-all approach to recruitment. Your interviewing processes should simply reflect your priorities as you see them. If problem solving is the most desired skill, don't be afraid to put your prospects on the spot. If people skills are paramount, consider a deeper discussion around emotional intelligence and negotiation.

Managing Workflow

Now, let's say you've got the folks you want. Once your employees are at their desks, it's time to manage workflow. The days of top-down dictatorial management have given way to a more collaborative approach in many cutting-edge companies. Collaboration software, like Yammer and Basecamp, has helped popularize a more inclusive way of working, and today's successful employers tend to seek out highly dynamic tools to let employees share their problems and solutions in real time.

Tip: As a manager, you can aid this process by adding clarity and structure. Offer regular feedback and small milestones to keep everyone invested and on track. Communicate deliverables and assignments clearly, with a special emphasis on defining who the point person is on a given project. And build in discrete endpoints and deadlines to keep your company moving forward, as ill-defined projects can keep bouncing around the workforce forever.

Issues and Respect

What do you do when problems arise? Most experts agree that the old carrot-and-stick model of deploying praise and punishment is outdated. The smarter way to deal with issues is through clear communication: Define the problem, seek answers about its causes and be clear about likely consequences for repeat mistakes in the future. As for feedback, keep it frequent, tactful and couched in the language of collaboration and respect.

A final way to build an atmosphere of mutual respect is to solicit employee ideas. Nobody knows better than your workforce how their jobs might be improved. This is your chance to be humble and to learn. One popular question to ask — "What's the least useful thing you're working on right now?”— demonstrates to your employees that their opinions count, and that their time is valuable. When you have the right people working together and feeling heard, you begin to see the benefits of a widespread sense of shared ownership.

Leadership Made Simple

Leadership in the world of small business is a unique proposition: Small business owners (SBOs) get to lead in a far more intimate way than a blue-chip CEO ever could. Simply put, SBO leadership thrives on a human scale. 

Look Ahead

One of your most important jobs as a leader is projection — understanding where the marketplace is going and how to meet the challenges that arise. Leaders who focus only on company performance in the short term can miss the bigger picture, especially the very real possibility that everything is about to change.

Tip: Force yourself to imagine disruptive events in your niche. Plan for that metaphorical earthquake. Engage your clients, vendors and employees in an ongoing conversation about how you'll adapt when the world shifts once again.

Lend a Hand

Leadership also means mentoring. It’s no accident that you stand at the helm of a group effort. Share your knowledge and expertise with coworkers and employees, and devise ways to raise promising individuals up through the ranks as they acquire more advanced skills. Good leaders love to pick worthy successors, of course, but such stars don't simply arise out of the ether.

Tip: Continually aim to cultivate the best and brightest to discover top performers among your personnel.

Lead with Vision

Now that we've covered looking outward and looking inward, let's look upward. Imagination is the third element of superior leadership: asking questions and pursuing opportunities with no immediate benefit.

Even if you're not trying to invent the next Facebook, it's worth blocking off some time now and then to wonder if your company might have undiscovered strengths or markets to explore. Google moved from search to email to hardware in about a decade. Can your business pull off a similar trick (perhaps on a smaller scale)?

Tip: The skills of projection, mentoring and vision can keep your people motivated and your company on the cutting edge for a long time. Make sure to write them into your company's DNA.

The Productivity Fix

We've already reviewed employee management and leadership philosophy. Now it's time to drill down to the area where they intersect: productivity. This is the engine that will drive revenue and set the pace for your product cycle.

SBOs often struggle with how to get the most out of their employees and assets. The following tips can help you establish some best practices early on.

Eliminate Distractions, Except When You Don't

Corporate America has swung wildly back and forth over the years between closed-down offices and wide-open approaches. Each extreme has its advantages, of course: A locked-down structure eliminates outside distractions, while an open system facilitates better cross-pollination of ideas.

Our suggestion: Give your employees some leeway at work, as more freedom often breeds better mental health. Many experts now believe in the empirical value of rest and recreation, especially because they can boost focus and morale.

Tip: Consider instituting paid independent projects, flex hours, even telecommuting. You may be surprised how well some people perform with fewer limitations.

Invest in Technology

It's no surprise that technology can increase your company's productivity. After all, that's largely what technology is for. But investing in the right tools is absolutely essential if you want to avoid bottlenecks.

Tip: Consider upgrading to a speedier network and putting all your employees on a single wireless carrier plan. Look into cloud computing to increase processing power and collaboration. And institute robust backup solutions to preserve all your data in the event of a natural disaster.

Systems Work

Many companies waste too much time and effort on repetitive tasks, such as manual billing or routing phone calls. So look for opportunities to "systematize" common tasks. This might mean consolidating similar responsibilities and activities, or assigning one employee to streamline the process.

Tip: Don't have the in-house personnel to make this happen? Look into outsourcing the most mindless work or investing in software that can do it for you.

The Inventive Incentive

Finally we come to incentives, that time-tested and wildly popular way to boost productivity across the board. Wall Street firms may throw millions at their employees who excel, but SBOs are often a bit tighter on cash.

Some of the most effective SBOs have devised unorthodox incentives instead. These can include enhanced mentoring, offering an increased role in large meetings, even giving employees the chance to take control of a "passion project" on company time. Ask your employees what they believe in, and find ways to provide genuine, subjective value in exchange for great work.

Tip: Productivity thrives when your employees have enough time, the right tools and the right rewards. Eliminate pain points early on to let them reach their fullest potential.

The Smallest Manager Handbook

In the end, the best management advice is also the simplest: Know your industry, know your people, know yourself. Be a sponge for new information and opportunities, and treat the people you work with like professionals who are worthy of your trust.

Remember that a shared sense of mission can go a long way toward making any small business a success. Keep your eyes on the market and your focus on core principles.

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