Six Steps To An Effective Small Business Transformation

I help small business owners modernize their sales practices and drive revenue as an advisor, coach, and fractional CxO. 

You’re tired of the negativity, office politics, revolving doors or teams not playing well with each other. I’ve been there. As a veteran of leading these undertakings, I’ve seen unbelievable turnarounds of toxic cultures, and I’ve seen equally incredible failures. Leading a change of any kind requires disruption, which naturally creates uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable, and because of that, this initiative may not be easy, but it will be worth the effort.

The sources of your challenges are undoubtedly ingrained in the day-to-day operations of your business. Maybe it’s a toxic employee entrenched in the business. Perhaps it’s dysfunctional or archaic processes turning allies into enemies. Or maybe it’s anarchy, and the culture you have today developed primarily by default and you are ready to turn it into something by design.

Whatever it is, real change will require real change. Here are the six steps I recommend taking to lead that transformation, based on my experience on the front lines doing the very same thing.

1. Identify the root cause of the problem. When it comes to something like organizational culture, identifying the root cause of the problem may require some time and investigation — but it’s an investment with monumental returns. If you focus only on the symptoms, it’s easy to apply the wrong remedy, meaning you bring a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed or vice versa. Identifying the root cause of the problem starts with defining what the problem is. Culture is an ambiguous term and it helps to transfer what you believe in your gut into a clear problem statement(s) you can articulate in words. Write the problem statement down, then consider incorporating the “5 Whys” exercise. Why did that happen? And why did that happen? And so on. 

2. Commit to see it all the way through. Now that you know what you are up against, really assess whether you are up to the task. Transforming a culture is no small feat, and often, it gets worse before it gets better. Consider how much time and energy you really have to devote to this, or how determined you really are. Starting a project that disrupts your business and then bailing can end up being counterproductive and reinforcing the problem rather than the solution. Think through what it’s going to really take to transform your business into the business you want it to be, and commit to seeing it all the way through. One way to do that is to write down the value, principles or virtues you want the “new normal” to stand for.

3. Plan to win. As an entrepreneur and business owner, you are almost certainly a “doer.” You’re probably biased to action, and most of the time, that’s a strength. Before you jump in and start executing, though, create a plan of attack. Jot down the steps you’ll begin to take to create the change you envision, and just as importantly, also jot down the scenarios that can unfold as you do. Dwight D. Eisenhower once wrote, quoting an anonymous soldier, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.” The same holds true of organizational change. You may not execute the plan as documented, but you’ll be glad you took the time to plan in the first place. Of particular importance is defining what it will look like when you’ve won. If you don’t know where the finish line is, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it.

4. Incorporate influencers. Just because you own the business doesn’t mean you control everything that happens in it. You probably have people on your team who represent the values and principles you want the entire business to represent. You also have people who influence others as leaders within the team, irrespective of rank. Engage these people on your team if circumstances allow you to do so without adding any negativity to the office environment as it is. These influencers can help you as you work your way through the plan and ensure you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as you inject change.

5. Act decisively. When you’ve outlined your plan of attack, be assertive in executing. You may be uprooting entrenched processes, policies and people, and you are likely to get pushback — directly or indirectly. Even as the owner or CEO of a business, you will face resistance. It’s important to stay the course so long as the course continues to make sense. If you find that you need to pivot from your plan, pivot, so long as you continue making decisive progress toward your objective to transform the culture and create the environment you envision. One thing to keep in mind is that during the execution phase, treat this like a Band-Aid. Don’t prolong, procrastinate or put off tough decisions and conversation. The faster the transition is over, the better.

6. Over-communicate with your team. Throughout the process and after you’ve crossed the finish line, communication will be your most important tool to helping secure the support of the processes, policies and people you want to secure in the “new normal.” Many of these conversations will be uncomfortable, but don’t keep the business in the dark about what is happening. Be clear about what is happening, why and where you are taking the business. This is a key function of leadership, and failing to communicate effectively can derail a well-intended initiative.

Transforming your business’s culture and creating an environment by design rather than default can be an exhausting exercise. It can be equally exhilarating and, when you cross the finish line, lead to exponential gains in morale, growth and opportunity you hadn’t even considered. It’s a major initiative. It won’t be easy. But done effectively, it will be worth the immense investment you put into it.


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