The Small Business Leader

Michael D. Watkins wrote about the seven seismic shifts of perspective and responsibility required for how managers become leaders in his piece for Harvard Business Review by the same name.

In this article, he shares that “all of the shifts a function head must make when first becoming an enterprise leader involve learning new skills and cultivating new mindsets.” The specifics of enterprise leadership are quite different from that of small business leadership. Still, while rereading’s small business research findings from earlier this year, it struck me that the pattern of shifts Watkins describes correlate to themes I saw emerging in our findings.

This had me considering small business owners not just as hardworking individuals who were striving to make their vision a reality, but also as budding leaders at different stages of their individual evolution. I now find myself considering their journey and development in this regard more than I had before—regarding them as small business leaders as well as small business owners.

For this post, I’m going to focus on just the first seismic shift Watkins outlines, how I believe it affects small business owners, and some things Watkins recommends for the enterprise leader that, if I’m reading the cues right, just might support this vital audience as well.

The First Seismic Shift: Specialist to Generalist

A specialist is a person who concentrates primarily on a particular subject or activity and is more skilled in that area, while a generalist is a person who is competent or capable in several different areas.

While these terms aren’t specifically used in our findings or the customer quotes shared within the findings, it should come as no surprise that small business owners tend to need generalist skills since they manage many aspects of a business with limited staff and other support systems. In fact, our research goes to great length outlining emergent themes — a multitude of roles and responsibilities that small business leaders have taken on, requiring learning new skills and adapting to new mindsets. These emergent themes include: managing the business, time, money, marketing, clients, technology and tools, supporting personal motivation and growth, while pursuing continued education. More than enough responsibility to render the small business leader a generalist.

The research also indicates that each of the three categories of small business owners we dove into experience challenges across the full range of these themes or responsibilities. This communicates that, in the segments we’re focusing on, these leaders are actively working through the shift from specialist to generalist.

Watkins describes enterprise leaders needing to make the shift from specialist to generalist, noting that this requires them to:

Understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for evaluating the leaders of those functions.

Here, I believe we see small business owners working similarly to make the shift from specialist to generalist, requiring them to:

Understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for subsisting as leaders and growing leadership support across those functions over time.

Emotional Response

This type of shift—for a new enterprise leader or a small business leader—is likely to have the individual in transition feeling disoriented and less confident in their ability to make good judgements. A change in scope of work and the complexity of that work can leave anyone feeling “overwhelmed and uncertain.” This emotion can ebb and flow, sometimes taking a backseat to the excitement and empowerment of their role and at times taking over as the driving emotion.

The research findings seem to underline this as it shows the lessened presence of these fears and doubts for the more established segments who have progressed further through the transition and are more comfortable multi-tasking (as noted in the research, sometimes to a fault), delegating, and focusing attention on developing in new areas.

The more small business leaders are able to see they can rely on others, internally or externally, for the support in making good decisions for the business, the easier this transition becomes. The more stable coaching and professional development guidance they receive, the more confident, consistent, and strategic they are able to become—helping their business and professional development progress.

This post is by no means comprehensive. I hope to continue to learn about these segments, understand their hopes, needs, blockers, and drivers so I can work with my colleagues to better support them and their dreams.

By Ashleigh Axios

Creative director, digital strategist, designer, maker, mentor, RISD alumna, AIGA national board member, Design Observer editorial board member, former creative director & digital strategist for the Obama White House.


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