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Leadership Lab

Learn to lead your business instead of just running it Add to ...

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 tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

“I feel like a guy trying to cut down a huge tree with a dull saw and no time to sharpen it.”

That’s how a past client and entrepreneur aptly described to me the near-constant struggle to find more time and skilled people to keep his business running as it should. Regrettably, his is not a unique problem. Despite an impressively rich variety of small businesses that span dozens of sectors across Canada, many are hamstrung by difficulties that revolve around two common denominators: time and resources.

While it may look as if the solution is a second or third set of hands and more hours in a day, I’ve discovered that in most cases, the answer is found in the examples set by people who are just like them. I’ve worked with countless small business owners over the past 20 years and the following is what I’ve managed to learn from those who have successfully tamed the people and time beast.

The quickest way to a company’s value proposition is through its stomach.

Not long ago, I met with the owner of a small architectural firm who was having trouble recruiting staff and needed advice on how to make his company more attractive.

“Let’s start with your employer value proposition,” I said. “Tell me why someone would want to work for your company.”

After a long pause, he spoke in vague terms about day-to-day work before admitting that the idea of spending days scratching his head and building a value proposition was far too daunting for a small company like his.

Regardless of size, articulating what a company offers current and prospective employees is a must and contrary to my architect friend’s view, putting that on paper doesn’t have to be a monumental task. I’ve learned that success in drafting an employer value proposition comes from not over-thinking the exercise. No third-party management consultants or several days locked in a boardroom is required. Just a handful of people from across the company and a candid conversation over lunch.

If people are given the chance to speak about what aspects of the company are most important to them, the product is pure insight from the people who put in a full day and are happy to return the following morning. This feedback can then be shaped into a set of three key points and ultimately, an authentic employer value proposition that should be communicated from inside and out and worn like a badge of pride.

Where is this ball you want me to run with?

Small business employers often say they wish for team members who can “pick up the ball and run with it” but in practice, they’re more of a ball-hog than a team captain. Over the years, I’ve learned that the problem is usually unintentional and the owner’s inability to ‘stay out of the kitchen’ usually speaks to ill-defined team roles. The result is a boss who assigns a task only to return later to do it themselves. Not only is this deflating for employees, it’s extremely counter-productive.

Delegation may be one of the most valuable and efficiency-gaining skills available to any time-starved small business owner. The entire point of having, not to mention paying, a team is that it allows a small business owner to focus on big picture matters that impact the company’s success and ability to compete or grow. For delegation to work well however, everyone needs to understand their day-to-day responsibilities and in turn, what type of support they can expect from management. An hour spent defining someone’s role and empowering them to complete a task is likely worth three to four hours of the owner’s time that should be spent at the helm. Failing to clarify roles inevitably creates confusion and can paralyze even the most brilliant of teams.

I’ve often used a football analogy to explain how things run within successful companies. The coach may know how to throw or block a tackle but their job is to call the shots from the sidelines. If ever they ran onto the field to help a quarterback do their job, something’s clearly wrong.

It’s not all dollars and cents.

A common concern I hear from owners of small and mid-sized businesses is they can’t compete with the salaries that larger companies offer. While this is usually correct, I’ve found that focusing on money is quite narrow and almost always misses a critical point of differentiation: flexibility.

From the research we’ve conducted to the countless conversations I’ve had with enterprise-sized companies, it’s resoundingly clear that people want variety at work. They crave change and challenging roles and both are readily available in smaller companies.

When offering a job to a prospective employee, this should be the first card thrown on the table. Not convinced? To take this idea a step further, employees and job-seekers alike say they would opt for a reduced base salary if they were given the latitude to earn more through performance-related bonuses.

Despite initial concerns about funnelling money into salaries, every employer I’ve ever talked to who embraced this approach felt perfectly fine with the added bonus pay. Why? Because staff received the flexibility and autonomy they wanted and the tangible benefit to the business was immediately apparent. In essence, business owners rewarded outstanding performance almost as if they were purchasing a product with next to no risk.

Some personnel and time challenges facing Canada’s small and mid-sized business owners are common but that doesn’t diminish their importance. I’ve been fortunate to have learned a great deal from people who have chosen to chart their own course and it’s encouraging to see that solutions most often come from rethinking established practices and embracing a willingness to try something different.

Rowan O’Grady is president of recruitment agency Hays Canada.

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