5 Survival Tips from Successful Small Company Managers

Truth be told, few things in business are more complex than running or managing a small company.  While our counterparts in Fortune 500 organizations have the benefit of things like goals and job descriptions and long-term plans, the only constants small company managers have on their side are change and uncertainty. . . and a minimal amount of job security.

It takes a special kind of manager to voluntarily parachute themselves into the middle of chaos every single day; and in reality, even the strongest and most experienced managers regularly question whether it’s all really worth the trouble.  After nearly two decades of working for and with small company managers, I have picked up a number of survival tips that have allowed them (and me) to maintain some degree of sanity through some very difficult situations—and I would like to pass along my five favorites.

Survival Tip #1: Don’t Expect People to Agree with Every Decision You Make

When it comes to gathering input, I have always been an advocate of a team approach.  But in terms of actually making a decision, you need to keep one thing in mind: management is not a democracy.  As a manager, wearing people down until you gain 100% consensus for your initiative is not  a productive use of time. Are managers paid to manage?  Sure.  But they are also paid to make decisions—confidently, and with a willingness to bear the consequences.  Over the course of my career, the biggest compliment I ever received from an employee was “I don’t always agree with you, but I have no doubt you know what you’re doing.” If you don’t have this same level of confidence with your employees, it might be time to change your approach.

Survival Tip #2: Understand that Playing Politics is a Waste of Time

Eventually, experienced small company managers all come to one realization: that the glad-handing, backslapping and ass-kissing typically dished out by employees at multinational mega-firms doesn’t work within small businesses. Entrepreneurial organizations are always understaffed, meaning managers who work for them have no time to trade favors with other managers, dance around major employee issues, and support projects they don’t believe in.  As a small company manager, your key to success is to be honest and up-front, and always follow the #1 rule of any good manager: “Do your job like you don’t really need it.”

Survival Tip #3: Always Remember: You Don’t Own the Place (If You Don’t)

At a Fortune 500 firm, things like flawed business decisions, poor execution and questionable hires will eventually get an executive fired. But when those same missteps are made by an owner, a manager’s life can get messy in a hurry.  When the company owner takes your firm down the wrong path, it is your obligation as a manager to offer input, and thoroughly explain all risks.  But if the owner doesn’t agree, you really only have two choices: 1) quit your job, or 2) stick around and do your best to minimize the damage.  If you are currently a non-owning manager and find it hard to swallow the owner’s decisions, keep this in mind: the owner is leaving the company to her kids—not yours.

Survival Tip #4: Distance Yourself from Perpetually Unhappy Employees

Keeping yourself in a positive mental state while working at a small company is a difficult task on its own.  But having to absorb the drama and negativity of those around you can make it nearly impossible to survive on a day-to-day basis—much less accomplish anything productive.  There is a difference between employees who care about the company and have legitimate concerns, and those who complain on a daily basis for the sake of hearing themselves talk.  The former should be supported whenever possible, while the latter should be avoided at all costs; or at a minimum, encouraged to find employment elsewhere.  Although many have tried, the fact is you can’t grow a small company by filling the employee roster with people whose primary objectives are to bring everyone else down.

Survival Tip #5: Leave Your Work  . . . at Work

Whether you are single, married, divorced, committed, or living in a frat house on a campus somewhere, there is one rule that can NEVER be ignored when it comes to being a manager at a small company: don’t bring it home.  Entrepreneurial organizations are notorious for the “always on the clock” mantra.  But as a manager, working at a relentless pace for years at a time will only get you three things: 1) gray hair, 2) multiple stomach ulcers, and 3) a distinct lack of a social life. No management textbook that I know of lists ’severe burnout’ as a key to small company success.  The real key is a true passion for what you do—and it’s difficult to be passionate about something you can never get away from.

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