Featured image

Develop Leaders in a Small Company

Originally published
Originally published: 7/6/2015

Tom invited me into his company's staff lounge for a cup of coffee. This same room also serves as the training room, sometimes the packing room and occasionally as the nursery when a parent has to bring a child to work. Like so many small businesses, every person and every space has to be flexible & bending to the needs of the organization.

In small, family-owned and closely-held businesses, most owners and team members wear many hats and rarely have clear job descriptions & working wherever and whenever they're needed. The organizational structures tend to be fairly flat and very lean.

As Tom explained, he had several really good team leaders, including his own daughter, but the company was so small & 30 employees & that he couldn't figure out how to give these potential leaders opportunities to develop the skills needed for a successful succession strategy.

We discussed several ideas to both help and encourage his senior people to develop the leadership skills they needed for the future.

To begin, work with your team to identify the types of knowledge, skills and abilities the leaders of the future will need to run the company.

You might start this process by developing a short strategic plan, or at least some guiding goals you believe will be important to support the long-term success of the company. Will the skills you have in your team today be enough? Are they the right ones to achieve these goals? How will the company's needs be similar or different in five years or more?

Once you've taken the time to list these important skills and the types of knowledge needed to execute the plan, move toward activities that provide your team members with multiple opportunities to grow.

Give potential leaders specific projects to work on with clearly defined goals, including budget and project milestones. While this type of work often happens in small businesses, it's rarely formalized, discussed or documented & it simply gets done!

In this case, take the time to talk about expectations, who the project team members will be and what will constitute success. Ask your project leader to write out the results and what they learned along the way so they can share their experience with you and other managers on the team.

With your team, identify community boards or other local volunteer opportunities that are in alignment with your company's values. Suggest your potential leaders volunteer for a key position, again formalizing the process. You might work with your emerging leader to set some personal goals about the skills they want to learn and ways they might apply these skills to the company.

Consider a "talent-trade" & negotiating with a non-competing company to trade potential leaders for training and skill development.

In most cases, the companies will identify both a potential leader and particular opportunities or projects the trainees could undertake & receiving coaching and feedback from someone senior in each firm.

This is a wonderful way to provide participants with a look at different management and leadership approaches, as well as a chance to learn quickly on a new job and test their skills. To ensure effectiveness, identify goals for the process and projects, establish clear guidelines for feedback and coaching and agree on a timeline prior to the trade.

Finally, a professional, executive coach can provide guidance, feedback and coaching aligned with the company's culture, values and goals. Sometimes the most important skills a leader needs to learn have more to do with how they manage themselves and their own communication style than with how they manage a project.

The key to leadership development in small companies is to build on what you do well already & flexibility, resourcefulness and creativity will continue to be the path to success.


Lisë Stewart is founder and president of Galliard Group, a training and consulting firm specializing in family-owned and closely held businesses. You can reach Lisë at 


More Articles

article image

Develop Leaders in a Small Company

Once you’ve taken the time to list the important skills and the types of knowledge needed to execute your plan, move toward activities that provide your team members with multiple …

article image

Forget Succession Planning — Plan for Success Instead

Succession planning means planning for the long-term success of the business.

Time for a Difficult, but Necessary Conversation

An important aspect of both business and personal planning is to explore your values concerning money, and the values of your spouse and/or business partners.

Breathe Life Into Your Strategic Plan

A strategic plan should be a living document — with a solid foundation in the form of a clear vision for the future and short list of the core values …

article image

A New Way To Do Performance Evaluations

Helping people work together to improve the overall performance of the company can be a rewarding and exciting conversation. Many employees don’t really understand what is expected of them, and …