Accelerator: Take Charge - 20 Leadership Tips

When you're busy at the helm of a small business, it's easy to forget that as well as just running it, you need to lead it too. Not only will a good leader inspire and motivate employees to give of their best, he or she will keep a firm hand on the future direction of the business. Becoming an effective leader depends a lot on finding your own individual style, having a vision and giving your team the sense of purpose it needs. Corporates spend millions of pounds every year on consultancy fees and leadership development courses to ensure that their bosses are at the top of their game. It's unlikely that you've got this kind of budget to spend, so EMMA DE VITA offers 20 essential tips from the top to help you release your inner leader...

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

1. WHAT'S YOUR STYLE?

Fluffy though it may sound, it's worth taking time out to think about what kind of leader you are - or would like to be. The latest management thinking holds that the best leaders are those who, from a state of self-awareness, play to their strengths and try to improve their weaker points. Don't try to be something you're not. The days of wanting to be the next Jack Welch or Richard Branson are well and truly over - leaders who are true to themselves are respected by their team and find their job much easier. Remember that fakes are always found out. So spend time reflecting on your successes, but also on your failures. Work out what your personal principles and values are, and how they might be used to best effect in your business. It's important to be yourself.

2. BE DECISIVE

One of the quickest routes to undermining your authority is to dither when a decision needs to be made. It's better to make a speedy choice and correct it if necessary than not to make a decision at all. This doesn't mean that the decision-making should not be collaborative, but when a big decision needs to be made quickly, it's your job to make it. Ask for advice and then think through the options, but come down on one side or another with the minimum of fuss.

3. IT'S NOT A POPULARITY CONTEST

You've got your own company, and at last, you think, you can be the boss you always wished you'd had. Right? Wrong. The temptation to be everyone's best friend, to joke around and be easy-going is huge, but don't do it. Much as you may think your employees want their best friend as a boss, what they really need is a leader they respect who can be trusted to move the company forward. A good leader will, inevitably, have to make unpopular decisions, and that takes courage. If you're not taken seriously in the first place, things can get really awkward, because practical jokers don't command respect. After all, would anyone actually want to work for a David Brent?

4. LEAD BY EXAMPLE

As boss of your own business, you'll be the one person that everyone else will look to for direction and - odd though it may sound to you - for inspiration. This is a big responsibility. Your behaviour will be witnessed and emulated, so you must set a high standard. If you enjoy what you do, you'll probably have an over-abundant supply of enthusiasm and dedication to your work, and these will rub off on your staff. Work hard and those around you will be motivated to go the extra mile too - but remember that not everyone wants to put in 20 hours a day. Respect that others have lives of their own and that the personal bond you have with your business might be less intense for them.

5. BE CONFIDENT

... in your own abilities and in the fortunes of your business. This doesn't mean that you have to be Ms or Mr Positive every day of the week, but be mindful that your team will look to you for reassurance when things go less well. The leaders who succeed are those who have the determination to keep on going through thick and thin. Learning from and bouncing back from your mistakes and failures comes with experience, and an intelligent reaction to setbacks will enable you to carry your team with you. If you find yourself in the doldrums, tap into the passion that brought you to where you are now; and if you really are under pressure, try not to despair in front of your team - it will lower morale and shake their confidence in you. Showing some weakness may make you human, but you shouldn't overdo it.

6. HIRE A GOOD DEPUTY

If you hire right, you'll find yourself supported by a senior team who not only complement your own skills but who are unafraid to challenge you. This is a good thing. Recruit to compensate for your own weaknesses and go with your instinct - it's better to hire someone who feels right than someone who has perfect qualifications. Look for people who allow you to be a good leader by taking on the management of the business and who have the energy, dynamism and creativity to give your company an edge over competitors. Find people who share your passion for what you're trying to do, because, as the business grows, they are the ones who will spread the company culture.

7. DELEGATE

No-one excels at doing two things at the same time, so don't kid yourself you can lead and manage. You're either a manager or a leader - not both. And as a leader, it's your job to look after the vision and strategy of the business, not to worry about VAT returns or staff rotas. Rely on your right-hand man or woman (see point 6) to manage the day-to-day running of the business so that you are left free to do what you're best at - thinking big. The fatal mistake that many entrepreneurs make is to hold onto their old business routines; difficult though it might be, you have to let them go. So delegate, delegate, delegate.

8. THINK LONG-TERM

Your business will struggle unless you set aside time in your hectic daily schedule to think about which direction it is heading. Important as such things seem, spending all your time chasing new business, framing a new contract or worrying about the details of cashflow won't give you the space to think about where you really want to be in five years' time. Regularly spell out to your colleagues what your specific goals for the business are and how their valuable contribution will help you all to achieve them. A common sense of purpose in a business is a rare and valuable thing, but it makes progress so much easier.

9. COMMUNICATE

That means listening, too. Small businesses tend to excel at communication because there are so few of you - so capitalise on it. Keep everyone in on the loop - new deals, problems and everday successes. Ask everyone for their ideas and make it clear that constructive criticism is welcome; and don't feel as though you always have to come up with solutions for everything. Drawing on your team will not only benefit your business but will make your employees feel included and motivated. Two heads are better than one, as they say.

10. FOSTER AN OPEN CULTURE

Create an atmosphere where your employees feel that they can come to you with work problems, questions and ideas. A remote boss in a hermetically sealed office, accessible only by appointment, cannot form a bond with his or her team - a connection that is especially valuable in a small start-up. But don't try to be a social counsellor to your employees: if possible, confine the subject matter of your meetings with them to work issues. And don't allow your accessibility to claim too much of your own time: arrange regular timetabled 'office hours' when you are freely available to staff - say, between 9am and 11am every day.

11. MAKE STAFF FEEL VALUED

Though monetary bonuses offer one kind of performance incentive, employee engagement is about more than just money. If your colleagues feel involved, comfortable, included in the decision-making process (within reason) and appreciated by you, they are likely to perform better and to nurture positive feelings towards the company. You needn't go as far as John Lewis by handing over ownership to staff, but making employees feel valued and important will go a long way towards boosting productivity.

12. NEVER BE COMPLACENT

Never presume that one success will keep your business going for ever. Hubris has been the downfall of many a good business, and it's your role as leader to make sure that no-one in your company rests on their laurels. Running a business brings new challenges every day - you've got to keep learning, even when you're at the top of your game. Keep the people who work for you on their toes: make sure that they get out and about as much as they can. Don't let the market move without you; it should be the market that follows you.

13. SPEAK THE TRUTH

These days, every business is keen to highlight how ethical it is. Some may be sceptical about this but it's important to have principles. Being a leader means setting an example, so make it clear that honesty is valued. In a small firm, office politics can have peculiarly bad effects, so transparency is the best policy.

14. IMPOSE BIG-BUSINESS CLARITY

Much as a relaxed and friendly atmosphere assists productivity and encourages creativity, it's important to adopt the rigidity of a big-business work ethic. Deadlines must be met and budgets must be kept to, especially for fresh start-ups, which need to hold onto any clients they are fortunate enough to win and usually don't have the capital to accommodate over-spending. Have a well-planned schedule in which all targets are clearly related to the company's overall goals and progress is reviewed regularly - better to remedy a problem as soon as possible rather than fail to meet your end-of-year targets.

15. REMOVE BAD APPLES QUICKLY

Making a wrong appointment is always a tricky problem to solve in any firm, but the ramifications are much bigger in a small business than in a faceless corporation. Someone who is clearly unhappy or not fitting in with the business will soon spread discontent to other staff. Uncomfortable though it might be, you must act decisively - within regulatory constraints - otherwise the whole barrel will be spoiled.

16. KEEP THINGS SIMPLE

Business is never straightforward, but it doesn't have to be over-complicated. It's part of a leader's role to break down complex problems into manageable chunks so that effective action can be taken. By keeping things simple, the margin for misunderstanding and miscommunication is minimised. It also keeps you close to the action, so that if problems crop up, you're the first to find out. Simplicity keeps staff nimble - something big business can find hard to achieve, so make the most of it. Lines of communication should be short.

17. REWARD INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCE

You may not be in a position to promise big-company perks, but it's important to offer individuals a reward for outstanding performance. If someone comes up with a particularly brilliant idea, make sure you give them a one-off bonus or, if cashflow is tight, an extra day's holiday. A public show of congratulations will work wonders for staff goodwill and will encourage others to make their special contribution.

18. STAY CREATIVE

Part of the beauty of working in a start-up or small company is that you make your own rules. And often, small budgets mean that you have to think laterally about the problems or challenges you face - so encourage your team to think expansively and to turn over new ideas. An animated conversation in the pub after work or a mid-morning coffee chat can easily morph into a highly creative exchange. Embrace this type of fired-up thinking for all that it's worth because, as any corporate CEO will tell you, you need to be constantly innovating to stay ahead of the competition.

19. BE A COMMUNITY LEADER TOO

As the owner of a small business, you're part of a community that goes beyond your company's boundaries. Assuming a leadership role in local business will not only boost your profile, but will contribute to a feel-good factor among your employees. So find out which charities are active in your locality and let your people get involved. A small effort will go a long way.

20. HAVE FUN

Your personal style will set the tone of your workplace. People often take a job with a smaller business to escape the restraints of corporate life, so try to meet their expectations. An air of informality, collaborative working and excitement will inspire staff and encourage that special effort. If this means no suits, cakes on a Friday or even days out camping, then make it happen. Ask your team what they might like to do, and consider their proposals seriously. If it's feasible, do it.

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