Leading From The Bottom – An Approach for SMEs

Too many managing directors adopt a top-down approach to their roles. This is not surprising because it is the obvious and easy option. Small business structures are almost always drawn with leaders at the top, and leaders are expected to inspire followership among ‘the people ‘below’. Too often, I come across that dreadful word ‘subordinates’ in smes, which further perpetuates the unchallenged notion of leaders being on top directing their minions who cater to their every whim. And when leaders talk about ‘cascading’ their vision within the sme, there is only one direction anything will ever cascade!

So the language, ethos, and culture in the vast majority of smes perpetuates and exacerbates what has become an unchallenged protocol that leaders should adopt a top-down approach to leadership. But what if leaders turned their profession on its head and adopted a ‘bottom-line’ approach?

Leadership, Environment, Performance: Where Do You Start?

There are numerous theories and models of leadership, most of which overcomplicate a role which in actuality is quite straightforward. At the simplest level, leaders are tasked with delivering performance which will satisfy key stakeholders. If this performance is to be delivered and sustained, then leaders must oversee the creation of an environment which enables it to be delivered.

So there are three core elements to ‘get right’ in any sme; leadership, performance, and environment. But where do you start? This is where too many leaders take the easy route and start with their own leadership. And why not? Leaders almost always get promoted to leadership positions because of their personal attributes, whether it be their experience, achievements, knowledge, skills, etc. They have reached leadership positions because of who and what they are so that it is natural that they should start from and rely on what has got them to where they are.

The environment leaders create will inevitably reflect the stamp that they may sometimes subconsciously impose upon it. At the extreme, there is the danger of producing clones and delivering performance which is a direct function of the strengths of the leader, but which is also limited by his or her weaknesses.

The resulting performance could well satisfy key stakeholders, but will it reflect the true potential of the people and the sme? I have witnessed too many organisations whose performance has been constrained by the limitations of the senior leaders. Sadly, this is sometimes not just about capability and, instead, about their motives. Their self-interest gets the better of them and the sme comes second.

Turning Leadership Upside Down
Bottom-line leadership is about putting performance first. But it is more than achieving the performance that will keep stakeholders happy; it is about the future health of the organisation. Small businesses often focus too much on delivering numbers-driven short-term KPIs and targets which could jeopardise their future growth and sustainability. The bottom-line leadership approach recognises the multidimensional nature of performance and the close attention that needs to be paid to other performance measures such as innovation, people engagement, efficiency, and, clearly-defined milestones that ultimately lead to the achievement of the vision.

Bottom-line leaders then define the environment that will deliver the performance. What are the enablers and incentives that need to be in place to ensure the performance? What are the values that will drive success? What are the attitudes, mindsets, and behaviours that are required of the people who will deliver the performance? How will these things be measured? Whatever the answers to these questions, there are a few critical factors that need to be satisfied in any organisation intent on delivering high performance which is sustainable:

  • Individuals and teams are clear about what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis as well in the longer-term
  • Success is recognised and celebrated
  • People thrive in conditions created by the combination of high performance expectations that are accompanied by high levels of support to achieve them
  • Delegation and empowerment are the norm, being underpinned by good working relationships, a feedback culture, accountability and ownership, and clearly-defined goals
  • There is a “we’re in it together” mentality that is the foundation of high performing teams
  • ‘Healthy competition’ exists in the form of shared learning and commitment to everyone’s development, as well as individual and team goals being completely aligned

It is only when the multidimensional, targeted performance has been identified, and then the environment required to deliver it has been defined, that bottom-line leadership can be mapped out

Being A Bottom-Line Leader
Bottom-line leaders require an agility and flexibility that enables them to stay in tune with their environment. They take nothing for granted, especially when it comes to their people’s commitment, loyalty, and engagement. They know that no matter how good a job they do as a leader there will always be some people who are disgruntled and disengaged. They devote time and energy to listening to their people’s views and showing genuine empathy because they know this is more important than ever before in a harsh commercial world that is the ‘new normal’.

Leading from the bottom also involves building and maintaining day-to-day relationships with colleagues at all levels. Like all of us, they may gravitate towards certain sorts of people, but they work hard to establish good relations with others they don’t always connect with. They display a humility where people can feel comfortable telling them what they think and coming forward with ideas. This ensures they keep abreast of what is happening in the environment so that they can deal with issues quickly.

These leaders know that high performing organisations are continually changing – they can never stand still. Whether it is driving internal change aimed at sustaining and enhancing employee engagement and the environment required to deliver the performance, or the continual innovation required to maintain and gain competitive advantage in the marketplace, bottom-line leaders strive to stay ahead of the game. This process involves planning the what-if scenarios so that they cater for as many surprises as possible. These leaders expect the unexpected and are ready for it.

Of course, being a bottom-line leader is demanding because much of their time is spent operating outside their comfort zone. Adaptability, resilience, and self-belief are personal resources that will be called upon when times get especially tough and inevitable setbacks test these leaders’ inner strength. This is when mental toughness becomes a crucial attribute of bottom-line leaders.

Bottom-line leadership should not be confused with a sole focus on delivering the numbers. Instead, it is about ensuring the future health of small businesses by prioritising and defining multidimensional performance measures, creating and maintaining the environment that will deliver them, and then leading in a way that is in total alignment.