How to grow your business with innovative CEO thinking

I have worked with over 600 businesses in the last 18 years and one of the refrains I hear the most from businesses of between 5 and 50 employees is, “I’m stuck! I’m so busy and overwhelmed, I can’t see the wood for the trees and I’m just surviving, I don’t know how much longer I can do this!”

I hear this from passionate people who are dedicated to their business and their staff. People who have been in business for 10 years and more (which makes them business superheroes) but are not where they thought they would be, questioning whether this business has been a good choice for them.

It always makes me sad to hear this. I know how hard it is to get past year two, never mind get to year ten with staff! Nobody really understands how hard it is, except others who are also in it.

Most small business owners (in my mind that means 5 to 50 employees) are so involved in the daily operations of their business that they do not have the time or energy to work ON the business – doing strategy, business development and thinking about the money beyond sending out invoices and chasing payments.

A small business owner has an astounding number of things to think about, do and organise. This is not for sissies. Only the toughest and most determined people are able to get to this point in a business and it is massively challenging.

In my experience, small businesses only grow sustainably when the owner has extracted themselves from the day-to-day operations and made time for the CEO role. CEO in a small business? Yes, absolutely.

People confuse the role with the person. Just because the business does not have a full-time CEO, does not mean that the ROLE is not important. I would like to suggest that if business owners made the time to look at the role of a CEO and to allocate even 20% of their time to those activities, that the business would grow and flourish in a whole new way.

What does this actually look like?

The ROLE of CEO in a small business

For obvious reasons the role of a CEO in a corporate is quite distinct from the role of a CEO in a small company, but the importance of the role is the same.

The CEO is responsible for leading the overall success of the organisation. They have to develop business strategy and plans that articulate strategic goals that are measurable and implementable, outlining the ways in which the business will grow and become more sustainable over time. The CEO ensures that the business is profitable, not just busy and that the business is properly managed in all the key areas. The focus here is growth.

  • Marketing and business development – ensuring that they understand the market, opportunities and industry developments.
  • Finance – making high-level investment decisions and managing the fiscal well-being of the company.
  • Human resources – understanding what the business needs from its employees and ensuring that the right people are in the right job.
  • Systems and processes – ensuring that the business takes the time to create the systems and processes that create efficiencies and keep the business relevant, especially regarding technology.
    Managing key stakeholder / client relationships to ensure that communication is appropriate and strategic alliances are maintained.
  • Creating and managing the culture of the organisation in order to retain good people and create an environment that promotes performance.

This role is different to an operations manager and this distinction is CRITICAL to the overall success of the business. Most people get trapped in the Operations Manager role. Many entrepreneurs will argue that this is their most valuable role. Yes and no.

Yes, an Operations Manager role is essential to the business. This role is important because it delivers on the sales promise of the business. This is about delivery and the focus here is efficiencies. Even in this role, too many entrepreneurs are doing too much and not managing enough.

  • Management of tasks and efficiencies – ensures that proper management activities are taking place across the areas of delivery. Operational meetings, reporting and performance tracking.
  • Planning – ensuring that the work of the business is going according to plan and that schedules, logistics and calendars are working in an aligned way.
  • Resource planning – ensuring that everyone has what they need to do their work properly, that the team knows what is expected of them and what their standard of delivery is.
  • Delivery of the service or product – ensuring that the client gets what they expect, when they expect it.
  • Budgeting – managing expenses and ensuring that money is well tracked and allocated.
  • Systems and administration – ensuring that all administrative tasks that support the successful delivery of product or service to the client takes place.

What happens in many businesses is that neither of these roles is properly understood or implemented. This results in lost opportunities, sluggish growth and lots of stress.

To give an example:

Angela’s story

Angela* runs a successful Food Delivery business and was feeling stuck. She felt that her ability to get to the activity that allows the business to grow was constantly being overwhelmed by her natural default to operations. She had previously been a very capable operations manager when she took over the business from her husband (who is a serial entrepreneur and already on to the next venture). She was running the business from her comfort zone – operations. She did not even realise that the distinction between the two roles was important. When we brought this to her attention she felt that she did not know how to be a CEO, the label frightened her as she assumed that it meant behaving like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson. These are not useful comparisons for a small company.

With encouragement from us she did some research into what CEOs do and looked to see if she could transfer any of her significant operational abilities to doing the tasks of a CEO. She reported back that understanding the role made a huge difference to how she prioritised what needed to be done for the business to grow. Within two weeks she had reorganised her team and set up a competent Operations Manager, whom she would manage to deal with most of the day-to-day that she had previously spent too much time on. This freed her up to become much more focused on marketing and sales and building a really good team. She is not completely out of the operations; the business is not big enough for that. But she has someone making sure that it’s moving along most of the time so that she can focus on growing the business by working ON the business and not IN the business.

Can a small business afford to have both a CEO and an Operations Manager? Mostly they can’t; but they can organise themselves to ensure that all the key activities of each role are happening. This is the secret, to ensure that time gets made for Growth (CEO) and Efficiencies (Ops Manager) and the entrepreneur can hold these two roles until the business is able to afford another person to hold either role depending on the natural inclination of the business owner. Often business owners love what they do and would much rather hold the operations role than that of CEO, BUT they have to understand the importance of the CEO role for growth and sustainability.

What to do?

  1. Make time to understand what CEOs do and what operations managers do.
  2. Make time, ANY time, to think with a CEO hat on…..even two hours a week will make a huge difference over time. It’s important to carve out time for each role. It’s important to understand the success strategies for each role and to implement them. This process can be slow, but if it is steady and you keep ensuring that the right activities are taking place, your business will be more successful in the long run. As the CEO you will have to think about things that may not be easy or comfortable for you (which explains the default to operations where you know what you are doing). Find out about strategy and how to do it. Learn about business finances and improving them step by step. Develop your business mindset, read, understand your industry better and adapt what you do to stay relevant. Image result for CEO hat
  3. Reorganise the people/resources in your business to give you more time to work ON the business. Examples: get an au pair to fetch your kids and spend that time on marketing and opportunities. Outsource your invoicing/bookkeeping and use that time to create a growth strategy for your business. Take a long hard look at the resources in your business and see who could possibly take some of the operations load off you. If there is no one to do that, you need to reconsider your team. Without this process you are unlikely to grow your business. Even having a decent PA or admin person will free up enough time to put your CEO hat on. You don’t have to pay for a hugely expensive “Operations Manager” you have to buy yourself time to do the two roles properly. It is often helpful to spend an hour or two with an HR consultant who works with small businesses (your HR friend at a big corporate is not going to be any use to you). Let them help you map out a number of scenarios depending on what the business needs. We often get stuck thinking about the people we have instead of the roles we need. Just this small shift in thinking can change your life.
  4. Talk to other business owners and find out how they are doing it – it’s always useful to talk to people who are also doing it or have done it. Don’t take business advice from people who are not running their own business – you don’t take parenting advice from people who don’t have kids, do you?
  5. Set up simple management structures that will support you to run the business more efficiently and with greater clarity. This may sound daunting, but simple clear processes could really make a difference in your business. It’s important to distinguish between management processes (ON the business) and operational processes (IN the business).

Below is a list of critical ON the business priorities

  • Understand that what the BUSINESS needs is most important, this is Strategy 101.
  • Define clear roles and responsibilities (mapped out and agreed with staff).
  • Ensure processes and procedures are clear and understood (mapped out and agreed with staff).
  • Prioritise that management activity takes place – in regular meetings with set agendas, working on clearly defined goals that inform everyone’s work.
  • Develop a clear plan that is systematically implemented over time.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that if you want your business to grow and run smoothly without you being in a constant state of overwhelm, you have to make a distinction between these two important roles and make sure they are understood and implemented thoughtfully. The results will make it worthwhile, I promise.

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