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10 Traits of Successful Small Business Leaders

True leadership is a missing link in most small businesses in my 44 years of working with businesses of all sizes and industries. And, yes many things have changed during those 44 years of observing other business leaders first hand and running my own business.

Yet, one thing is more important than everything else – no matter what industry you are in, what geographic region you are in, or even the size the business you are in. This one thing as Curly stated in “City Slickers” is the most important thing for you and your successful business.

The “One” thing is Leadership.

Early in my career as a banker and then as a consultant, leadership was the great separator of the successful businesses and the big losers. In fact, it is one of the Top 3 reasons over 80% of small businesses fail within the first five years of existence. 

Leadership became a topic of importance for me (leading my own business for 32 years) so I spent more time learning how to do it right. Interestingly, I discovered I had to start with improving personal leadership traits first. Then, the transformation of the business leadership was much simpler.

Through the years I have discovered traits used by excellent small business leaders. These leaders have been successful in their industry, dealt with the changing economic environments and grew their small business into a business enterprise and greater personal wealth.

Here are ten traits for the small business leader to embrace and use in their role as an Effective Business Leader…

  1. 1. Focus on Continuous Improvement
    You begin this process by measuring your business performance and tracking key data points and indicators. Most only track lagging indicators – such as revenue – which is about history. Leadership needs to be tracking Leading Indicators to insure their performance objectives are met. Then look for better methods and models to improve the performance before crisis enters the picture on a daily basis.
  3. 2. Think Strategically
    Here we are thinking about two things. First, how are you positioning your business in the market to be a dominant player? Yes, I did say dominant! You want to establish your dominant position in your market or you will also be playing the low price, commodity game. Second, you must begin to think longer term. I have worked with executive teams who could not get past the next 30 days in their thinking. Which was why they were always in a crisis mode, high staff turnover from burnout, and missed opportunities for game changing breakthroughs. Plan a minimum of one year in advance with revisions every six months to maintain focus on the important priorities. As a small business, you need to focus first on a Marketing Plan. Strategic Plans are not required until you have over 100 employees on your team.
  5. 3. Never Compromise Your Integrity
    This is something I should not need to mention, yet, it is an issue in many businesses today. Greed is closely aligned with a lack of integrity. The importance of maintaining a high level of integrity is you will seldom lose a valuable customer or client and survival is definitely an easier track. A lack of integrity creates all types of issues for the long-term success of the business – including total failure or legal issues.
  7. 4. Understand Your Business & Industry
    Usually small businesses have owners who understand their business in the early stages, then as the business grows and more people are hired – the leader loses touch with the business & industry. As you grow, there are business models available to assist you in the transformation of your business. If you have a growing business and feel you are losing touch, then contact us to discuss business models to help you in making important decisions about your business. 
  9. 5. Consistency
    Customers enjoy consistency – especially in the customer service side. Since the Great Recession, this has become a hot issue and especially the need for a higher sense of urgency in engaging your customers and prospects. Never sleep on customer engagement and execution of commitments.
  11. 6. Willingness to Make a Mistake
    This seems out of place, yet it is important in two ways. First, your goal is obviously to minimize mistakes – especially big ones! – just remember, there is no perfection in business. You must be willing to make a mistake to learn what will happen. Think of testing a concept, taking a risk for greater returns and allowing staff members to expand their competencies. Second, I have seen business leaders become complacent. Worst is to totally avoid all risk. This action is the equivalent of a slow and painful death. Without taking new risks in a strategic way, the business dies on the vine – losing customers, losing product lines, losing a competitive advantage due to old and obsolete technology, etc. Another way of thinking about this element is in your investment portfolios. When there is no risk – US Treasuries – there is little to no returns on investment. When you increase your risk – prefer calculated risks – your yield will increase over time, thus increasing your personal wealth. Business has the same balancing act going on at the leadership level. Expand your opportunities since cost cutting and contraction is proven to lead to lower performance and lower staff morale and performance.
  13. 7. Continuous Learning
    This one is very BIG in my opinion. There is too much change to ignore this vital trait. I learned this lesson during my turnaround years. Leaders who stopped learning, reading and keeping up with trends were the primary businesses in financial disarray. Leaders who read, attended industry meetings, and asked for advice from visionaries – were the ones leading successful companies or would get their business back on stable foundations during chaotic economic times. Use competent business advisors who have been in your shoes. Beware of the “Certified Coaches” who have never made a payroll in their lifetime. 
  15. 8. Focus on the Customer
    Another of the traits based upon Common Sense. Yet, so often, the leader of a small business has become more engaged in working inside their business while ignoring their marketplace. You need to stay connected to your customers and their industries. Especially stay connected to your best accounts. Visit these accounts on a regular basis and discuss what is happening in their industry, what are they happy about and what would they like to see improved (see trait #1). Test yourself using this question “What am I focused upon currently?” The answer must contain some direct benefit to your customer or client base – external rather than internal benefits in your initial thoughts.
  17. 9. Ability to Listen to Others
    As a small business leader, this is actually a difficult trait when you have taken all the risk to start and big a business. Most entrepreneurs are passionate about their business and have little free time. So the natural thing to do is to be efficient and just tell everybody what to do. Interestingly, if you actually want to save time, become more effective and efficient in the long run – then it is better to be an active listener. Listening allows you to guide the dialogue using clarifying questions for understanding. This also allows you to teach your staff how to make decisions the way you want the decision process to work in your absence.
  19. 10. Decisiveness
    Leaders make decisions; this is the plain and honest truth. If this is true, then why do some leaders delay important decisions so often. As I see it, there are three factors in play. First, they really don’t know how to make critical or tough decisions. To correct this, you need to learn to think faster, get your facts straight and figure out the consequences in advance, using  laser focus and faster pace. Procrastination is not healthy for you or your staff. Second, you over analyze and become obsessed with making a “perfect” decision, so you delay for more study, thought and analysis. This is usually an unnecessary practice since it slows down the flow of work, people are waiting on your decision so make one. Third, you do all the set up work for the decision without engaging your staff. Engaged staff members can assist you with new ideas or different perspectives regarding the facts or the effective course of action. You are still the one with the responsibility, and you will ultimately need to make the decision. Involvement by your staff will also increase commitment to execute on the decision made, therefore making the process work faster. There are also guides for business leader decisions – download the one I use located at
Small business leaders and owners are usually the most passionate people regarding their business. When these same passionate leaders forget or overlook the importance of their leadership the business can fall into disarray. When this happens, focus and clarity are lost in a haze of inefficiencies and lost opportunities.

Use the continuous learning trait to stay ahead of changes and trends as well as maintain and improve your personal leadership skills. You can do this. There are local sources for leadership growth, if you need help in your leadership development. In addition, you can engage a business advisor to help you successfully grow your business. 

Voss W. Graham is an Organizational Architect helping small business owners to grow a successful business enterprise for InnerActive Consulting Group. You can reach him at 901-757-4434. Read more from Voss here.

Posted: 8/20/2015 2:19:50 PM | with 0 comments
Filed under: 10, Big, Business, Consulting, Council, Graham, Ideas, InnerActive, Leadership, Small, Traits, Voss

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Your business may be small, but that doesn't mean that your impact can't be huge! The Greater Memphis Chamber's Small Business Council serves to encourage, support, recognize and be a resource to small- and medium-sized businesses in the Memphis area. Here, our talented panel of contributors will present big ideas that could make a huge difference to your small business. And don't be afraid to ask questions ... no matter how small.

Sales & Small Business Ownership
Voss W. Graham is CEO and Senior Business Advisor for InnerActive Consulting Group Inc. He is known by his clients as "a knowledgeable partner who helps our team achieve business growth." He provides practical experience as a small business owner for over 29 years, yet is often engaged with Fortune 500 companies in the development of their people and business strategies.

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Several professionals and strategists from the local Obsidian Public Relations firm provide excellent advice on everything from research to media relations to event planning. They believe that all companies, no matter how big or small the company or its budget, should have a public relations plan driving how they manage their relationships with key stakeholders. Public relations is an integral part of doing business the right way.

Human Resources
Joel Myers is a career Human Resources professional, with over 40 years in the field including 26 years in consulting.

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Design and Digital Strategy
Founded in 1999, inferno provides brand development, advertising, public relations, design and digital marketing services to clients across a broad spectrum of industries. Headquartered in Memphis with a satellite office in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the award-winning firm produces results-driven work by passionately combining strategic thinking, creativity and culture to ensure the success of its clients. For more information, visit

Labor & Employment Law
Fisher Phillips attorneys are ready to help you take a stand: in court, with employees and unions, or with competitors. Fisher Phillips has the experience and resolve to back you up. That's why some of the savviest employers come to the firm to handle their toughest labor and employment cases. The firm has 350 attorneys in 32 offices, including Memphis. For more information, visit

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