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Management Small – in size and traditional ambition – can be beautiful for companies and for you

In 1973, British economist E.F. Schumacher published a powerful book called Small is Beautiful, which laid out the case for a more sustainable existence. It was admired, but ignored. Societally, we assume bigger is better. The impulse for everything to be bigger continues.

But is that wise? To be successful, does a small business person have to lust over creating a mammoth corporation? Would the resulting entity be better, the founder happier? And what about in our careers? Is the corner office the ultimate prize?

In The E-Myth, consultant Michael Gerber laid out the necessity for growing your business – an entrepreneur must work on his business, figuring out how to expand it, rather than working in his business, getting cheerfully lost doing the actual productive, daily work. I caught a lecture he gave in Toronto a number of years ago. It was like an evangelical experience, the audience entranced by the possibility of exponential growth. I was dubious. I love working in my business, researching, editing and writing.

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In Company of One, Paul Jarvis, who has developed software for large companies from his home on Vancouver Island, writes that traditionally growth is the product of success. “Typically when a company does well, it hires more people, builds more infrastructure, and works at increasing its bottom line. There’s a core assumption that growth is always good, is always unlimited, and is required for success.”

But in his research, he found people who were happy owning small companies that were stable and resilient, able to withstand bad economic times and not heavily dependent on one main client. The businesses weren’t limited to one person but he uses the term “company of one” to signify businesses that question growth.

“If you’re a company of one, your mindset is to build your business around your life, not the other way around. For me, being a company of one means not having to bother with infinite growth, since that was never the purpose of my working. Instead, I just focus on maximizing work in a way that works for me, which can sometimes mean doing less. Work can be done at a pace that suits my sanity rather than one that supports costly overhead, expenses, or salaries,” he writes.

He stresses that questioning growth is not the same as staying static. The company must learn and adapt. But you need to know toward what end. If being big is not the purpose, what is?

Kathryn Sollmann echoes that scaled-down approach in Ambition Redefined, highlighting a forgotten diversity group she calls “women who want to lean in-between.” A few years ago she was offered a CEO role by a high-profile company owner who admitted to being very ambitious. Ms. Sollmann saw herself as similarly inclined but realized the other woman was hooked on traditional ambition: Aiming for top jobs or huge entrepreneurial ventures, overseeing the largest, most visible initiatives and driving exponential growth for a product or company. “I realized that I have a different brand of ambition – pursuing important work in a more low-key, life and family-friendly way,” she writes on the Change This site.

The woman offering the opportunity, when checking references, asked why Ms. Sollmann had never had “a big hit.” But Ms. Sollmann felt she didn’t need headlines to validate personal success.

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There is an important message here about knowing yourself and tempering your goals. Actually, tempering may be wrong, since it implies reducing or restraining – it’s about not opting for conventional goals and understanding your own preferences. It’s not about giving in to fears or smallness of mind; you’re expansive, just not restricted by prevailing mythology. But there’s also a message for companies: Don’t lose talented people who prefer to lean in-between.

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She urges companies to define leadership beyond big titles and recognize that leaders at any level can power you ahead by leading project teams, challenging the status quo and finding better solutions. They also need help with work-life balance. “Corporations spend more than $30-billion on leadership training overall, but my observation is that they spend only a tiny percentage of that money on helping women deal with real-life family issues that impact productive and sustainable work,” she writes.

Ambition comes in many types – many sizes. Someone may want to build a gigantic corporation, while another equally talented and very ambitious person may prefer a company of one. Somebody may want to be CEO while another equally talented and ambitious person just wants exciting, challenging work, perhaps balanced better with family obligations and perhaps not.

Small – in size, and traditional ambition – can be beautiful.

Cannonballs

  • Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh says that true success means feeling content with the unfolding of your life – “finding happiness in your work and life, in the here and the now.”
  • Blogger Norm Wright says the best bit of advice he heard on a business was eight words from filmmaker and entrepreneur George Lucas: “Stay small. Be the best. Don’t lose money.” Mr. Wright dubs it “the minimalist business.”
  • Entrepreneur Seth Godin says the many places in North America with the name Junction City are stressing they are on the way to something else. Yahoo, he notes, intended to be a place to stay; Google is a place to visit on the way to somewhere else; and Facebook is trying to be a one-way street, with people on the site as long as possible. “Of course, it’s not simply websites that work this way. Either we organize for junctions and trajectory, or we build our place as a destination, physically or as metaphor,” he says.

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