How can leadership development help small businesses grow?

People, like any other organic entity, are highly responsive to climate.

While the culture of a large organisation may evolve from the different climates that develop within it, in an SME the climate is the culture and the impact of the manager/leader (who may also be the business owner) is both direct and profound.

The old adage that we join organisations but leave managers is especially true here: it may be the only way to escape them if relationships are poor or engagement is low argues Elaine Wilson, Managing Consultant, ASK Europe plc

And engagement is critical. On-going research around its Q12 Survey carried out by the Gallup Organisation makes a clear business case: highly engaged workplaces average 27 per cent less absenteeism, 18 per cent higher productivity, 12 per cent higher profitability and 12 per cent higher customer service scores. Their disengaged counterparts experience up to 51 per cent higher staff turnover,

In larger organisations, employee engagement might be seen, mistakenly, as a HR task or responsibility. In the smaller organisation, where there may be no separate HR function, there is no passing the buck: managers must pick up the baton and learn how to run with it.
Only Connect

The 12 questions in the Gallup survey are each proven by the company’s research to be linked to at least one of productivity, profitability, retention and customer satisfaction. But six of the questions are linked most strongly to the greatest number of business outcomes, and achieving high scores from employees in response to them should be the target of managers seeking to strengthen and grow small businesses:

• I know what is expected of me at work.
• I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
• At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
• In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
• My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
• There is someone at work who encourages my development.

As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman argue in their book, First, Break All the Rules, these statements – the first six in the Q12 Survey – should be seen as a foundation on which to build.

Make it personal

Another organisation that has researched workplace excellence is The Work Foundation. The nine themes highlighted in its 2010 Report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership include: Understand that talk is work; Give time and space to others; Put ‘we’ before ‘me’, and – in advice that many would benefit from – take deeper breaths and hold them longer.

Like Gallup’s research, there is a clear message that relationships are crucial to improved performance, and that relationships require awareness of both self and others. The report describes the characteristic behaviour of the highest performers as being concerned to:

Create social environments that value people and respect them and this is because they recognise the value of a few carefully chosen words in terms of binding people, creating an atmosphere of care and creating loyalty and a personal bond.

Other leaders might be nervous of talk that would appear to be unrelated to work and see it as a ‘waste of time’, outstanding leaders share no such qualms.

Each individual – and talents are attributes of people – will have their preferred means of recognition or method of praise, their own interpretation of ‘being cared about’, and their own personal preferences. Bringing out the best in each employee does not mean treating them all in the same way, nor behaving identically towards all of them.

One of the key elements of management and leadership development – the development of awareness of self and of impact on others – links directly into the skilled handling of workplace relationships: while clear definitions of tasks, processes and roles are all relevant and useful, improved performance is invariably achieved through something less abstract – people.

The role of EI

Doing so, of course, depends on a manager’s ability to form effective working relationship with their team members not just as a team but as individuals.

While IQ, sector and business knowledge will be an important part of the manager’s repertoire, more crucial will be their Emotional Intelligence (EI) and, in particular, some of its key competences as defined in Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee’s Primal Leadership – developing others, emotional self-awareness and empathy.

Their book identifies six leadership styles and – in a link back to our opening point – indicates the likely impact of each on the business climate. Four of these styles (visionary, coaching, affiliative and democratic) are positive in impact, while the remaining two (pacesetting and commanding) are – not least because they are often misused or poorly executed – potentially highly negative.

While large organisations can endure commanding or pacesetting CEOs, as the prevailing working climate for most employees is actually influenced by more positive approaches taken by managers at lower rungs of the organisational ladder, most SMEs are simply too small to provide such an atmospheric ‘buffer’.

Striking a balance, not a posture

In a book whose title poses an under-asked question, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones see the development of effective leadership as being a matter of balancing the twin axes of authenticity (by which they mean coherent, congruent and comfortable with self) and skill (inter-personal and management relationships).

Without skill, authenticity produces not only the possibly charismatic but potentially incompetent maverick leadership. And skill without authenticity produces only an un-engaging efficiency where the lack of a sense of real humanity and inter-personal understanding undermines attempts at relationship building.

By developing both authenticity and skill, leadership development activities within SMEs can create an atmosphere of trust and a sense of engagement on which the evolving leader can build in pursuit of the development not just of their own talents but of all the talents that the organisation requires.

To increase organisational performance in the SME context, manager/leaders must understand the materials with which they work – ie their people and the talents they contain – as well as the processes and tasks. And to grow the business, they must also grow the most important thing that it contains: its people.