I used to work for someone who owned his business, and every morning when he arrived, he’d march right past his (mostly) bright-eyed and bushy-tailed employees without making eye contact, without saying ‘Good morning,’ without even a royal wave of acknowledgement.
Then he would disappear to his private office, likely never to be seen again unless you had a meeting with him.
It drove me bananas.
Not saying good morning might sound like a small, insignificant thing, but to me, it said everything. This guy might have been the owner of the company, but he certainly wasn’t leading it.
You might be thinking, “Maybe he isn’t a morning person, maybe he needs coffee before he starts, maybe he’s super busy.”
Here’s what I say: Baloney.
A business leader sets the tone, a leader recognizes his team, and a leader acts like a grown-up, regardless of how caffeine-deprived he might be.
I know a lot of people who own businesses. I don’t know as many who are leaders in their business.
Knowing the difference between business leadership and ownership can help you motivate your employees, win the respect of your clients, and grow your business.
Owning your business vs leading your business
The business owner is just that: the person who owns the business. They likely started the company, they finance it, they hire people, they pay the bills, and they probably bring in clients or have some other function that contributes to the actual output of the company.
But just taking care of business — the daily to-do’s and don’ts — isn’t enough. If you really want to make an impact on your industry, on your bottom line, and with your clients, you need to be a leader in your business.
A simple analogy might be one of parenthood. Whether you have kids or not, we all know there’s more to being a good parent than putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads.
Those are important, basic duties that come with being a mom or dad but there are many other aspects to raising children that are critical. Like motivation, guidance, kindness, and challenging them to reach higher.
Let me be clear that I’m not talking about hand-holding your employees so they'll eat their peas. I’m talking about leading all aspects of your business—not just the mechanics of it—to be better.
Here are some traits that transform business owners into business leaders:
A friend of mine was hired to do business development for an agency. When I asked her how things were going, she told me the biggest challenge was that the owners couldn’t agree on what they did, what their differentiation was, where their niche lay, or what they wanted to achieve other than just bringing in more clients. It made her job of selling their services exceedingly difficult and eventually her relationship with the agency ended.
I’ve worked in places where if you went around to all the employees and asked them about the vision of the company, you’d get a different answer from each person. Maybe the owner had a vision, but as a leader, it’s clear they should have communicated it better.
As a business leader, you need to have a clear vision that you can easily articulate to your team members so that they, in turn, can understand their role in achieving that vision.
Everyone needs to be singing from the same songbook, and the leader needs to pick the tune.
Leaders don’t tell people what to do; they motivate them. Your employees need more than a task list; they need to be inspired and empowered to think independently and creatively in how they do their work. It’s your job to make sure they understand what you expect of them and what they can expect from you in return. It’s your job to make sure everyone stays engaged with the vision.
Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it. - Dwight D. Eisenhower
So how do you motivate people and keep them engaged with the vision?
Be the champion of the company and the superhero who leaps complacency in a single bound.
When someone shares their enthusiasm for a topic or a cause, it can be contagious. It gets people excited; it triggers new ideas, it can make people feel like they are part of something important.
As a leader, you need to be the most passionate ambassador for what your company does, who you do it for, and how you’re doing it. You need to demonstrate to your team, your clients, and your industry that you believe in your vision, and in them. Because if you act lame, so will everyone else.
And a culture of lameness is more dangerous than kryptonite.
”As a leader, you're the champion of your business and the superhero who leaps complacency in a single bound”
Connect with your team
I once had a boss who was very personal (but not inappropriate) with his team. He took the time to get to know everyone, asked us about our lives, shared information about himself and nurtured a close, we’re-in-this-together kind of environment.
I had never experienced this before. Everywhere else I had worked there was a polite cold-war wall between staff and owner. Where in past workplaces there was an us vs them attitude with behind-the-scenes animosity, in my new office there was a fierce loyalty, an air of camaraderie, a strong commitment to good work, and, dare I say, happiness.
Being best friends with your employees isn’t necessary, or necessarily recommended, but it is important that you take the time to get to know them. Business leaders find out what’s important to their team - their family situation, what motivates them, what they find challenging, and what they like to do, both on and off the clock.
Understanding members of your team as whole people will help you manage both your human and skills resources better, provide the key to their motivation, and make them feel valued.
For the same reasons you need to understand your target audience, you need to understand your people.
To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
A good leader knows they don't have all the answers, aren’t necessarily the smartest person in the room, and that it’s their team that makes the company stronger, smarter, and more successful.
You’re not just hiring people to do your bidding. You’re hiring people who bring different experiences, skills, perspectives, and solutions to the table. They help you improve your offering and grow the company.
So while confidence is an important characteristic, ego, on the other hand, can be a barrier to producing better work.
The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.
– Ronald Reagan
Challenge the status quo
That’s the way we’ve always done it.
– Said no leader, ever.
One of the things I like about working at Proposify is how hungry our co-founders, Kevin Springer and Kyle Racki, are to try new things, to learn from others, and to figure stuff out. It’s not only refreshing; it motivates the whole team. When they challenge the status quo, it, in turn, challenges me to think differently, to question, and to find solutions.
Leaders welcome input, embrace change, and are open to new ideas other than their own. Leading is about moving forward, and you can’t move forward if you’re stuck in the past.
Sure, there are lots of things worth maintaining — no one wants to throw the productive baby out with the inefficient bathwater — but if your first reflex is no, or stop, your business is going to go nowhere.
And by challenging your team, you’re helping move the marker on their potential, expressing your confidence in their ability, and setting expectations for even better work. The result is a win for your team, your clients, and most importantly, your business.
Are you the right person for the job?
Not everyone is up for being a business leader, and that’s totally OK. If you feel like your forté is in running the details and keeping things between the ditches, there’s no shame in that.
But that means you need to appoint/hire someone else to fill the role. As the business owner, you can still be a part of the decision-making, but you need to find someone with a different skill set who is better suited to leading the company. And doing that makes you a leader.