If you’re an IT leader in a small- or medium-size business, or an SMB leader whose responsibilities encompass the IT operation, you’re coming to the end of what has almost certainly been yet another exhausting year of change management, resource optimization, and personnel headaches. Here’s a news flash: 2013 probably won’t be a whole lot easier.
So what can you do now to grease the skids for a smoother ride next year? Bill McBean, an entrepreneur and author of the book, “The Facts of Business Life: What Every Successful Business Owner Knows That You Don’t,” has come up with a list of seven year-end “must-dos” for SMBs, and I think his advice is spot-on for IT leaders in smaller companies. Check these out:
Hold a 2012 post-mortem. Start by analyzing whether you’ve been an effective leader. A skill every great leader has is the ability to self-analyze, away from the high fives of success and the consistent pressure tight cash flow brings. This is a good chance to gauge the effectiveness of your leadership. Good leadership begins with defining the destination and direction of the company and deciding how the business should look and operate when it arrives. If you haven’t done those things, you aren’t leading, and if you aren’t leading, no one will follow. Ask yourself: Did your business have a successful year? What did it do well? What could it have done better? Where are the future opportunities that will grow your business? What are the threats to your company’s success, or what is holding your business back? These are serious questions that demand serious answers. And once answered, then it’s up to you to define the leadership skills needed to move your business from where it is today to where you want it to be tomorrow.
Do a top-to-bottom walk-through of your systems and procedures. Examine what is working and what isn’t. You may find that a system that once worked well no longer does (because the marketplace has changed, your competitors have changed tactics and strategies, or your customers’ needs have shifted) or that your business has fallen into bad habits that hinder success. In particular, look for inconsistencies in how employees handle tasks, especially those that directly impact customers and those who handle the data you use to make decisions about the business. This allows you to catch problems before they develop into crises. Great procedures and processes need controls, and these controls in turn create great results and skilled employees. The key to understanding the importance of processes is to understand the concept that processes operate your business—and employees operate the processes.
Pinpoint your best customers and give them a heartfelt end-of-the-year thank-you. Protecting your company’s assets is Job One. Those assets are not just monetary—far from it. Customers are some of the most important. (After all, without them, no one gets paid.) What’s more, all customers are not created equal. Some are more profitable than others, and they’re not always who you think they are. Once you’ve identified your VIPs, create ways to enrich the relationship and continually create added value for them. Obviously, saying “thank you” doesn’t hurt, no matter how often they hear it. No one likes to be taken for granted. A call or letter from you will show them that you don’t. It’s amazing the ROI you’ll get from such a simple action.
Don’t neglect your other big asset: employees. If possible, meet with each one individually. Even if it’s not a formal performance review, a quick end-of-year conversation one-on-one can help you shore up relationships, challenge low performers to do better, and reward your highest performers. (Rewards don’t have to come in the form of a big end-of-year bonus. You might offer an extra couple of days off, a gym membership, or a gift card for a spa treatment as a thank-you for a job well done.)
The idea is to show employees that you recognize and appreciate their contributions. A heartfelt thank-you, a compliment passed along from a customer, an inquiry into an employee’s goals and aspirations, or a simple handshake and acknowledgment can be incredibly meaningful.
Meet with your accountant, your attorney, and other key advisors. These specialists almost certainly know things you don’t. Their perspective can be extremely valuable to an entrepreneur who has been chained to his or her desk all year (and, as a result, is out of touch with changes in the external business environment). Planning for a future you can’t predict is part of your job, and these advisors can help you gather the information needed to make smart decisions. Ask each of them, “What are the three most important things I need to know right now?” In fact, you might pose this question in advance of the meeting so they will have time to think about it and won’t just give you an off-the-cuff answer. Then you can factor their feedback into your plans for the upcoming year and beyond. Successful leaders have a good grasp of business in general. By regularly touching base with important members of your larger network, you are educating yourself on the various aspects of the business world beyond just your industry.
Kick off a cost-cutting, gross-profit-building mission. No one knows what the future holds. But it’s a safe bet it won’t be smooth sailing. More likely, it will be choppy waters filled with sharks and the occasional iceberg. When tough times and financial uncertainty loom, it’s always a good idea to have some cash on hand. And one of the best ways to create cash is to find added gross profit and at the same time cut some expenses. Ask yourself: What expensive mistakes did we make last year? How can we avoid them next year? And what can we do to build up the cash cushion that might help us get through any market corrections or uncertainty? Don’t cut out the wrong things, but do look for smart, well-thought-out ways to save money and start building up your cash cushion.
Set some realistic goals for next year, then, dial up the “aggression factor” just a little bit more. In other words, aim high. Don’t be lulled into complacency or let the continued talk of doom and gloom handcuff you. You might be okay now, but that doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. Every company has competitors, or if it doesn’t and it’s successful, it soon will. Successful leaders know they have to fight not only to win market share but to retain it as well. I always say that the marketplace is a war zone. You must develop a warrior mentality and maintain it for as long as you’re in a leadership position. If you take your focus off the market, competitors will step in and take what you have worked so hard for. It’s just the law of the marketplace jungle.