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Five leadership tips for small business owners

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Even the most experienced leaders, whatever the size of their business, know learning how to be a great leader is a journey without end. This journey begins the first day on the job and continues throughout the span of their career, and will likely draw on lessons learned that very first day. It's no surprise, that while I am now a seasoned corporate leader, I still draw on things I learned early on as an entrepreneur – they're still highly relevant, especially as Intuit works closely with Canadian small business owners.

With that in mind – and in honour of Small Business Week last week – here are my top five pieces of advice for small business leaders – based on my experiences:

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Define yourself and your business' culture

Knowing what type and style of leader you want to be is essential. Of course, you will end up evolving and refining your approach over the years, but start by considering your strengths, your personality, and the way you want your employees and clients to interact with one another. Authenticity is key – be yourself.

This frame of mind is essential in helping define your business' culture. Lead by example and set the tone for your employees. This may not seem like big step if your small business only has a handful of employees, but they are your company's chief brand ambassadors and evangelists. If you set the right tone, they will ensure your business' reputation (and their own) flourishes and profits grow.

Make a five-year plan

At the outset of your new venture, you will likely spend all of your time with your nose to the grindstone, which can make it tough to see the big picture. While getting through daily operations matters, you should never lose sight of your long-term goal. When it comes to this, think big. Sure, you may have a sense of where you want to go in a two- or three-year plan, but think longer term.

A big part of this plan is financial literacy, an issue about which I am very passionate. Intuit recently conducted a study of small businesses that found that one in four owners (27 per cent) think they may be undercharging for their work, and 15 per cent think they're likely overcharging. This has a huge impact on a business' profitability, so it's essential for business owners to educate themselves on the numbers that run their business and learn about the market in which they operate to ensure long-term success.

Keep a detailed account of your daily activities

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I know firsthand how hectic running a small business can be; adding another task to my never-ending to-do list was typically pretty far from my thoughts. Nevertheless, I find taking the time to write down what I did every day and the outcome of each meeting I attend gives me invaluable insight into operations of my company and who is accountable for what. As a result, I can pivot quickly to correct any issues I see coming, thereby improving our ability to meet and exceed our forecasts. Trust me, this works.

Don't be afraid to let go – a little bit

By keeping a record of your activities, this gives you greater visibility into your day-to-day operations and your part therein. Likely, you've identified areas that do not need your personal attention anymore. Yes, it is your company and its success rests on your shoulders, but that doesn't mean you should try to do everything yourself – in fact, that's a mistake. Now that you're up and running and processes have streamlined a little, your role and responsibilities have changed. You need to focus on the business' vision – remember that five-year plan? Empower your employees to take leadership positions, make decisions and grow the business, and good results will follow. It will likely help foster your business' culture and your reputation as a leader as well.

Ultimately, I've found you can empower people by establishing principles and guidelines for decision-making. That combined with well-communicated values and long-term strategy enable others to take on leadership roles aligned with your goals.

Take your time with recruitment

As you begin to gather steam, you will need to expand your work force. Whatever you do, don't rush. Hiring immediately to fill a need is a common temptation, but bringing in the wrong person can be highly detrimental to your team, hurting morale, negatively impacting culture, and reversing progress. On the other hand, a good hire makes an immeasurable difference now and in the future. The right people are out there – take whatever time you need to find them. Think long term and don't ever rush. I know this is difficult as a small business, but ask your team to hold the course, and be sure to explain why time is needed to make a big decision like this.

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While I learned all of the above lessons early in my career, I still carry them with me. Each of these points is something I need to consider almost every day that I head into the office. What about you, do you have any advice for first-time leaders or other small business owners?

Jeff Cates (@jeff_cates1) is the president and CEO of Intuit Canada (@QuickBooksCA), a provider of business and accounting software.

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