Today’s leader: the sometimes surprising skills you need as your SME grows

Author: Rob Ormiston
Today's leaders graphic

Are you a dynamo or dinosaur? If you haven’t worked on your leadership skills since the pandemic hurled our working worlds upside down, you might be heading straight for an exhibition at the Natural History Museum. 

Today’s leader is a different animal to the authority figure of the past. As your business has grown, you’ve probably adapted to the changing demands of your products and customers – but have you done the same for your employees?

You already know that heading an up-and-at-em one-man-band calls for very different skills to running a hungry young business with five employees. Multiply that number by four, 10, 100 and you start to map out a journey of consistent self-development.

But the working revolution and uncertainty of the past couple of years have changed that journey. We’ve broken down four vital elements you need to consider now – let’s call them the four Ps. 

1. Prioritise

Naturally, a young business is about everyone mucking in and getting things done. But what do you want your company to stand for? Even at the bootstrap stage, identify what’s important to you and what your business will deliver – and how.

Identifying and communicating a clear purpose will help your growing workforce to come together and operate as a united team. With priorities defined, every employee knows the direction of travel and the part they play in getting there

This report, by consultant McKinsey & Company, includes a mountain of compelling business arguments and proof of why purpose pays.

2. Plan

Your business plan is your yardstick. It helps you focus on the right things and measure your progress in getting there.

We firmly believe that a business can be both purposeful and profitable. Let’s look at an example that’s very close to home: our own plan for helping people to achieve that blend for themselves.

Rob, our MD, is a dedicated champion of social enterprise. He spent five years working with the School for Social Entrepreneurs and was chair of the Yorkshire and North East school. He’s also been mentoring two budding social entrepreneurs in building up their businesses.

“Everyone likes to do things that make them feel good,” says Rob. “And for my part, I like supporting social enterprise – it makes me feel good to be involved. It’s rewarding to provide very practical support for business owners who are focusing on profit for good, rather than evil.”

Your business plan should align with the things you consider important today. When did you last review yours?

Make sure you’re signed up to our newsletter (you’ll find a sign-up form at the bottom of this page) to be among the first to hear about an upcoming initiative to help more social enterprises. 

3. People

As you grow, building the right team around you is vital. Leader burnout often happens when senior people refuse to (or feel unable to) let others take responsibility. Recruitment is expensive, so take time to hire the best people, investing in both their salary and ongoing development to create a happy, healthy workforce.

But while delegating is important, it takes time and skill to make sure your employees thrive under the extra responsibility, instead of simply passing the overburden buck down the chain of command.

The changes wrought by the pandemic mean it can be harder to manage people’s workloads. Remote and hybrid working can lead to a blurring of the boundaries and a reluctance to clock off and take breaks.

Today’s leader needs more trust and empathy in their toolkit than ever before. Yes, you still need to strategise and inspire, but combining business savvy with softer skills is invaluable. And in a job market where geography has, in many cases, stopped being a barrier to recruitment, it’s even more important to nurture and cherish the people who work for you.

4. Probe

This is probably more accurately titled ‘learn’ or ‘develop’ – but we wanted the beautiful symmetry of making them all start with a P, so we’ve gone for ‘probe’.

And it’s not a bad description. Developing yourself as a leader and a human takes a certain amount of probing: good for you, but sometimes a bit uncomfortable. 

We’re huge fans of coaching. It can feel expensive, in terms of both time and money, but the right coach is worth their weight in gold. You might think you can develop yourself but when it comes to probing your own limitations, motivations and possibilities, a good coach won’t let you off the hook and slink back into your comfort zone.

If we really can’t persuade you to sign up a coach, here’s our shortlist of must-read books for every leader:

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

  • Prioritising trust and psychological safety as a people-first leader.

The XX Factor:  How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World by Alison Wolf

  • Something of an antidote to the better-known Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, this book is more of an explanation of working women’s place in society and why all but a few continue to juggle traditional roles.

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

  • Strongly US-flavoured, this book nevertheless makes a decisive call for leaders to be vulnerable and empathetic.

Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change by Stacey Abrams

  • Black female politician Abrams targets this book at anyone outside the traditional white male power construct and includes exercises to help you hone your skills and realise your aspirations. 

Are you tackling the challenges facing SMEs today? Discover our tips on what to do NOW to thrive in a post-covid world.