8 habits of successful small business leaders
Updated: Jan 5
My career to date has enabled me to work with some great companies, and more importantly, some great people over the years.
This article is the combined knowledge of many of the successful business leaders I know, when answering the question - "As the owner/director of a successful company, what habit/methodology has helped you to grow your business the most?"
Unsurprisingly, there were similarities in the feedback I got, which I've categorised into 8 habits.
I believe there's a lot of value in every word, so I've tried not to dilute any of the responses, including full quotes in most instances.
1. Set objective goals
Just about every self help book starts with a chapter about goal-setting. In all fairness, my 5 Step Digital Acceleration Framework also starts with goals and objectives, so I can hardly complain. But here we’re talking about business goals, which also need to take individual goals into consideration.
Lucy Powers (Co-Owner & Director - Powers – Your Integrated Survey Partner) when asked what habit or methodology has helped her build her business, responded with:
“Communication of goals and targets and visualisation of the end game with the team on a regular basis. We all know the phrase ‘two heads are better than one’, I believe it’s ‘more heads are better than one’ and if all of those heads regularly know which direction the business is going in, reinforced through daily and weekly communication of goals and broken down into communications on the tasks to get there, you can build momentum. As soon as someone doesn’t know their purpose of what they’re meant to be doing or why they’re doing it, your business starts to slow down.”
Alexandre Frubel (Managing Director – Tramontina UK) agrees, taking a similar approach:
“Knowing where the company must be or needs to arrive will define the proper methodology for success. My main methodology has been to break down the bigger plan into small short-term goals. This will provide you with small victories towards the big plan and still allow you to make some amendments if necessary without affecting the direction the company is meant to go.”
If everyone is working towards the same ends, and this is clearly communicated within the business, you’re more likely to build momentum (which we have a whole section on later…)
2. Foster Self Awareness
No business leader is able to clearly communicate business objectives, and identify how to meet those objectives without some sort of self-awareness of their skill set, as well as the skill set of their team.
Rafie Faruq (Co-Founder & CEO – Genie AI) has this to say on the topic:
“One methodology is ensuring rigorous self-awareness of yourself and all team members. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and culture is defined by your people. People have varying adaptability quotients - some can learn, grow and change, others less so. In my experience what often blocks start-ups once they start to form teams are the individual weaknesses of people, especially at the management level, since it is harder to address. Great companies and managers need to identify their weaknesses and areas where they are not passionate about, and have the humility to seek training and mentorship to address those. Alternatively, they can place themselves in a role that maximises their strengths and allows other team members to fill their weaknesses. In order for this to happen difficult decisions have to be made and team members and managers have to be self-aware, willing to change and accepting of what is best for them and the company. These difficult decisions should happen little and often, not build up over time.”
Daniel Bumby (Managing Director - Simoda) adds:
“The best habit to have is to accept responsibility, or be big enough to accept that as a business leader you will not always get things right.”
As much as self-confidence is an important trait in any business leader, ego, arrogance and unwillingness to accept any form of weakness won’t get you very far. It’s only in becoming more self aware that we can identify any gaps in skill set, as well as ensure we’re learning from our mistakes.
3. Surround yourself with experts
“If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room” – Confucius
It’s a fact that successful people surround themselves with other successful people. It doesn’t even need to be in the physical sense, it could be books (a huge proportion of successful CEOs have a daily reading practice), podcasts, videos, networking, you name it.
Tied to self-awareness, if you’re willing to accept there’s people out there smarter than you it’s easier to learn from them.
Matthew Stephenson (Managing Director – Sweet Dreams Confectionary) summarises this quite well:
“Surround yourself with people brighter, better and nicer than you. Aspire to be like them, not better than them.”
4. Invest in yourself
Tied to surrounding yourself with expertise is the willingness to invest in yourself. Chris Kelly (Managing Director – Fast Sale Florida) has this to say on the subject:
“I'd say that the habit that has helped me grow the fastest the most is paying for education, seminars, masterminds and learning from people who are far more successful than you. The caveat is that you can’t attend and do nothing like 95% of people do, you have get into the habit of going to each event and come away with between 5-10 things to implement in your business that will exponentially drive your business forward before you go to the next event. After a few years of doing this you will have implemented 100's of things that really swing the needle in your business.”
Chris is also touching on a point we’ll cover later on ‘doing the doing’, as, even if you continue to invest in yourself, it’s all for nothing unless you decide to put that knowledge into practice.
5. Allow Flexibility
Markets are forever changing, and we all know what happens when even the biggest of companies fail to adapt to market shifts.
David Speller (Managing Director – OPTIfarm) came back to me with this when I asked him what habit or methodology has helped him the most:
“Our consistent habit has always been to respond to the needs of our customers, and the markets we supply, whilst also looking for complementary income streams that can be added to what we are doing. Sometimes it isn’t always possible to achieve all your budgets and milestones from single income streams but a few small bolt on items to a contract can make a below budget period turn out to be above budget and highlight new future opportunities. I have found the habit of saying yes to a client when they ask, and the methodology of adapting and adjusting to meet that new client need has allowed my business to grow, be diverse, spread risk and form an amazing global network over the years meaning there is little we can’t help clients in our sector with.”
Having worked with David previously, I’d add that the speed that you’re able to adapt and flex your business is also important here. It’s one thing to see an opportunity, it’s another to be able to react in time to seize it. I’d also add, sometimes you don’t even know an opportunity is there without first considering different approaches and saying yes to opportunities that might not be in your ‘sweet spot’.
Daniel (Simoda) also touched on this in another part of his response:
“Have a plan but ensure that the plan is flexible enough to change when and as needed. If you are going to fail do it fast and learn from it.”
I’d argue that it’s not failing if you’re learning, as sometimes you won’t benefit from one opportunity without having previously tried with another opportunity. Daniel also touches on the concept of speed here. Don’t hang on to something if it’s not working, you may have invested in it, but time hanging on is time that could be spent working towards something that is working.
I don’t have the stats, but a large proportion of businesses that ‘fail’ with initial ideas, provided they keep going, have been able to create monster businesses with a few tweaks. Evan Williams (Twitter) tried developing a podcasting platform first, Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) tried developing a dating app first, are a couple of examples.
More and more businesses seem to be building agility into their business (irrespective of COVID). I’d argue that it’s perhaps easier to do this as a small business, as there’s less process and procedure, but, if you’ve managed to scale by taking an agile approach to date, with the right team and tools in place, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t continue.
6. Focus on Value
This is a big one, and potentially the area that I’ve seen most responses in.
For Paul Hurt (Director – Prestige Financial Solutions), attitude and the way he and the team conduct themselves is the value add that earns them repeat custom (I should know, I’ve used him for my past 2, soon to be 3 mortgages). Here’s what he says:
“I been working for as long as I remember from a yard hand, to counter sales, to managements, owning companies, and running companies and the key for me is ATTITUDE…Attitude to do the right things by your clients from start to finish. Not to solely gravitate to money and earning potentials, but to do the right things at the right time in the right manner, that way not only will the money take care of itself, you will also get to earn again from repeat custom.
In carrying yourself in the above manner, you will also elevate the people around you to achieve great things whilst amplifying the environment and making work fun rather than a chore which is the holy grail when it comes to work!!”
He also sent me a quote I’d not seen before:
“If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride - and never quit, you'll be a winner. The price of victory is high but so are the rewards." - Paul Bryant
Thanks Paul and Paul.
David (OPTIfarm) also included going the extra mile in his response as well:
“For us working in global agriculture our reputation is everything and the recommendations we know our clients give to piers and the trust we have built by sometimes going the extra mile means we achieve growth and have built a global presence without spending 20% of our gross revenue on unverified indirect marketing.”
Interesting point here. I’d be curious to know whether companies delivering higher levels of customer service and focusing on value generally tend to have smaller marketing spends. I guess this makes sense though, as the more word of mouth and referral business you do, the less reliant you may be on marketing. I guess it depends what your growth ambitions are? If you’re aggressively scaling up you might want to do both?
Tariq Shah (Director – Vigo Group | Chair – The Sleep Charity) has this to say on the subject of value:
“To select one simple habit, it would be a focus on the creation of value over any other metric. For example, a relationship or a transaction that creates profit for our business but losses for another stakeholder, will never endure or repeat.
When we work in an area, we try to ensure that we genuinely engage in the long term growth and development of that community. That means that the people around us benefit from our being there, and if we’re genuinely invested for the long term we’re developing our future market.
We don’t focus on, or try to follow, short term trends. We don’t reduce costs and quality to attract business. We aren’t afraid to turn down opportunities that we don’t believe we can add value to. Long term partnerships always generate greater value than one off deals, and those long term relationships are only created when all parties add value throughout.
When we’re discussing a transaction it is usually towards the end of the process that we consider how to share the benefits. The size of the share is less important than the overall benefits that stem from a transaction.
Worry about revenue, profit and cashflow, these are the things that keep businesses alive. Surviving isn’t enough, value makes businesses thrive.”
With all of the above, it’s very apparent that focusing on value, rather than short term monetary gains, is the key to developing long term relationships. We’d be foolish to forget about the money, as Tariq explains, revenue, profit and cash flow keeps businesses alive. But, revenue + long term value seems to be a great recipe for success.
7. Do the doing (and keep going)
I mentioned previously when looking at Chris’ (Fast Sale Florida) response, that investing in yourself equates to nothing without putting that knowledge into practice. He’s what he went on to say:
“No business is built overnight, it’s an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, 5 yearly GRIND. You have to laser focus on implementing things in your business that drive the needle forward constantly.”
Alexandre (Tramontina) as continued on in his response with a ‘planting seeds’ analogy:
“In business, you may see "by chance" as something that is part of your daily routine (good or bad) but what happens in fact is that all the seeds you have cultivated for a long time, one by one, will flourish and bring you the so expected fruits. The more you plant them right, give them the required attention, the more positive "by chances" you will have.”
Will Barron (Managing Director – Salesman.org) agrees:
“In Great by Choice, Jim Collins talks about the “20-mile march”. The idea is that the best companies show up, do the work and then go home. For long periods of time. Over and over. No peaks and sprints. No changing priorities every 10 minutes. Focusing in on one goal and hunting it down. As soon as I became disciplined in my consistency our revenue started to increase. There is also an element of compounding that happens when you work away at longer term goals too. Your momentum starts to increase over time as you get closer to the target. This increases motivation and feeds back into even faster momentum.”
This quote from Will also relates to where we started, i.e goal setting, but then iterates that consistent effort towards those goals gets the flywheel spinning quicker, leading to faster and faster momentum (which we’ll cover next).
I must say the ‘changing priorities every 10 minutes’ really spoke to me personally, as I have a nasty habit of always second guessing myself. The key is to commit, have faith, do the doing, the results will follow.
8. Build Momentum
I left momentum until last, as I believe that all we’ve discussed in the article contributes towards momentum.
Chris Garrett (Managing Director – BERT Agency) summarises this quite well, except he refers to it as ‘focused energy’.
“Focused energy is vital for success. History shows us, over and over again, that the most celebrated people in their fields are also amongst the most prolific. Mozart and Bach composed more works than almost anyone in history. They were brilliant, but also prolific. Athletes like Steph Curry, already by far the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history, still shoots 2,000 3's a week, and 100 in the arena before the start of every game! This pattern repeats in all walks of life, especially in business.
But it's not just 'work ethic', it's the focus that really matters. Distraction reduces energy. But focusing on something you feel passionately about creates reward, and the reward in return creates more (and more) energy.
This method for producing energy works for teams too. Energy is created by reducing distraction and delivering meaningful, focused work.”
Substitute energy for momentum, and you can see how everything ties together. The mention of 2000 3’s a week is also a nice hat tip to the ‘doing the doing’ that we mentioned previously, and the focusing on something you’re passionate about relates to goal setting as well.
As we’ve seen, Lucy (Powers), Alexandre (Tramontina) and Will (Salesman.org) all explicitly referenced momentum in their responses, but if you look closely, absolutely everything we’ve discussed points towards building momentum within a business.
Working consistently towards defined goals – helps build momentum
Self awareness and the right skill set within the team – helps build momentum
Sharpening your own skills, and surrounding yourself with experts – helps build momentum
Being flexible, creating value, and spotting new opportunities – helps build momentum
Putting it all into practice, doing the doing, day in, day out – helps build momentum.
Successful business leaders know themselves, appreciate the team around them and have a clear view of where they want to be, whilst focusing on the value they can create for their clients. The best leaders also appreciate that consistency, and just plain old getting on with it, help build momentum, which then enables their businesses to flourish over time.