Mid-sized communities definitely have their advantages.  We get the best of the “small town feel” while we have a variety of different business and organizational opportunities available.  Within smaller communities, organizations and businesses can fall into certain habits or ill conceived strategies that could damage their culture and future growth prospects.  After working with several businesses in mid-sized communities over multiple states, we’ve seen some patterns emerge that constitute “red flags” for businesses or organizations as they continue their quest for growth, improvement and profitability.  These “seven deadly red flags” are things we thought important to share with businesses and organizations as they self reflect and mitigate threats while taking advantage of opportunities.
1. Have a defined management style/theory.  Staff and volunteers like consistency.  As a manager, it is important to define your style of management that you will use to maximize the effectiveness of staff or volunteers.  For example, I know some managers that are effective in a hierarchical management style that is very “singular task” or minutia driven.  In this style, employees or volunteers are expected to complete tasks in a very deliberate manner, within a given time frame.   “Outside the box” thinking really isn’t encouraged within a hierarchical management style.  Emporia Main Street utilizes a more organic style, where we empower staff and volunteers to spot (and take advantage of) opportunities and mitigate threats.  It’s a messier style of management that takes a while to resonate with staff, but organizations typically create more “buy in” and generate more innovation over time.  Regardless of the management style employed, you need to stick with it.  Flipping back and forth between how interactions are conducted by management can cause confusion and stress.
2.  Never, EVER, put yourself above the brand.  In my former life as a retailer, the business that I worked for targeted mainly women and youth.  I’m a guy, and I would often have other men involved with marketing encourage me to make the marketing more about men.  Everything from “real men shop Madelynn’s” to talking about “men’s style” and focusing on really specific men’s niches within the confines of the store (like barbecue supplies).  Did we have male shoppers?  Sure!  But, if I simply catered to myself saying “I’m a guy, and this is what I would want to hear” without recognizing our target clientele, I would have created a horrible branding position.  Businesses and organizations that take a 180 degree turn from their target clientele often “split their brand” which essentially creates twice the work for almost the same amount of return you got before.  So, when looking at your business or organizational branding, are you appealing to your target audience, or are you simply catering to your own likes (or placing yourself in the consumer mode regardless of your actual target market)?  I can count multiple businesses and organizations that may have received a short term boost from countering their target market, but I can count a lot of nonprofits and businesses that no longer exist because their brand drifted due to the personal whims of internal leadership.

3.  Friends are friends and business is business.  Sometimes they cross over, but realize that sometimes they don’t.  The larger the staff, the more this becomes a problem.  Several people in smaller towns have a “vetting” process that consists of “who knows this person?”  When that question is followed up by inquiries about work ethic, product knowledge, physical capabilities and other work related attributes, the small town network can be a good thing.  However, when friendships cross over into the “I need to make some money?” or “I need a few extra hours?” or “could you get my friend a job?” problems can occur pretty quickly.  The assumed chain of command can get altered by friendships, the most competent/hardest workers aren’t always hired and the business culture can degrade.  Ask yourself: “if this person came in with an application and I didn’t know them, would I hire them?”  Business is business, and personal is personal.  If they cross over, then great.  If the people you are hiring wouldn’t fit your normal hiring standards if not for a personal relationship, it is usually better to pass.

4.  Lead by example.  I’ve had the conversation with staff members about expectations.  When I tell people that I don’t expect more out of them than I expect out of myself, that statement is usually followed with “but I expect a lot out of myself”.  People have a tendency to work harder when the “boss” is working right beside them.  Absenteeism, or the belief that a bosses’ brain is everywhere but on work, causes staff members and volunteers to lose interest in excellence.  Be the staff member or volunteer that you want to lead.
5.  Don’t be pressured into decisions that hurt productivity. Every leader or manager has “triggers” that take away focus.  Individuals, locations, technology (like social media) or other things that seem to just get in your head.  You know what works for you, and you should be able to tell (over time) what works best for your team.  For example, in college I worked in an office environment that had people on each of the far ends of the political spectrum.  People would often pressure each other to get involved in whatever the political debate of the day was, someone would end up mad, and half the staff wasted three hours on topics that didn’t directly impact us and couldn’t be impacted by anything we did.  I quickly learned that if I wanted to be productive in that environment, certain topics and people were just off limits, and I needed to avoid being drawn into the discussion (which wasn’t always easy as a collegiate debater). Knowing what works best and resisting pressure to change must be balanced with just being stubborn.  But, you know what keeps you focused.  Stick with what works.
6.  Short term gains versus long term growth.  Have you ever seen a store that has “the biggest sale of the year” every weekend?  Have you ever seen a not-for-profit that threw together  a fundraiser that just didn’t seem to fit their brand and was obviously designed for the cash?  Do either of those things work long term?  It is important to break long term planning up into manageable “chunks” to achieve organizational or business goals, but you cap your ceiling if you start sacrificing your long term strategies for short term “blips”.  We’ve all been in a room where people are struggling for ideas, someone says something, and people just “go with it” because no one has anything better to say.  Or, people are so intent on looking backwards at other short term gains that they just replicate the same marginal strategies over and over.  If you ever want to get off the eternal business or organizational hamster wheel, you have to find activities that fit within your long term strategic goals.  How you support your long term goals can include short term projects, but only if they support your long term branding strategy.

7.  Planning plus flexibility makes perfect.  The world of successful business and organizational development isn’t black and white.  You do need a plan well in advance of whatever initiative you want to execute (the bigger the initiative, the more intense the planning).  However, you don’t want to get so deep into the minutia of the planning process that you neglect other opportunities and can’t pivot to take advantage of things that present themselves within the realm of what you are planning.  I’m not for quoting boxers often, but Mike Tyson’s “everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth” quote is true.  Anyone can write things down on paper, but truly great entrepreneurs, managers, staff and non-profit directors can roll with changes, identify opportunities and mitigate threats in the context of their strategic plan.

Do any of these seven points remind you of your organization?  Recognizing internal issues (and fixing them) can help businesses and organizations achieve their growth potential.  Take a little time to reflect on your internal methods and motivations to create a more positive culture, and you will undoubtedly see tangible results in the future!
See this article and MUCH more in this week’s Emporia Main Street E-newsletter!