Brian Goulet grew up in a family of entrepreneurs who taught him to always “work hard, be honest, be flexible.” When he started his own small business, that became the Goulet Pen Company’s unofficial motto.
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At first, he thought the business would only ever have two employees—himself and his wife, Rachel. It wasn’t until he was in desperate need to hire their first employee that he realized he had to assume the role of a leader.
“I immediately knew with that first hire that things would forever change for me. It’s different when you own it and it’s all on you,” Goulet points out.
One of the things he learned is that being a good leader means something different at each stage of a company’s growth. Goulet took notes during every phase as his business grew to a staff of over 40—so we asked him for his best leadership tips, for every stage of a small business.
How to be a good leader at every stage of your business
Team size = 1 employee (you)
Define your company vision, mission, and values.
To start, Goulet suggests having a “leadership guide,” or a structured set of tools like your vision, mission statement, and list of values. In other words, ask yourself what you want to accomplish, why, and how you plan to do it—and get it down on paper.
Goulet admits he didn’t have these in the beginning, at least not written down—but he was clear on his “why.” “I wanted to be a self-employed craftsman earning a living in a family business. That’s all I knew,” he says.
Defining as many of the three as you can, especially in the early stages, gives you guard rails. It’s as important to know what you shouldn’t do as it is what you should. Thinking about your “why”—your ultimate purpose—is particularly important because it’s easy to go astray or get desperate in the beginning. Your “why” gives you focus and clarity and keeps you from wasting time on non-essentials.
“It would come years later when I’d recognize how important these things are in building an organization,” Goulet says.
Learn from the masters through leadership books.
Small business leadership is all about growth, for your company and you. Goulet believes that leaders are readers. “If you’re starting up a business, chances are just about every situation you face has been faced a million times before by other business people ahead of you. Put your ego and ignorance aside and read some books,” he says.
Read as many leadership books as you can. Search for authors whose advice aligns with your own instincts so you can implement actions as quickly as possible. A few of Goulet’s favorites are:
Love every part of what you do.
Goulet says you have to absolutely love what you do and why you do it. Otherwise you just won’t have the gumption to do the hard stuff when you need to.
“I’ve been pushed to the very edge of where I’ve felt comfortable, competent, and capable ever since starting this business. It’s taken a combination of learning how to accept and embrace uncertainty—as well as learning how to continually grow myself—in order to grow my business.”
Break through your ‘leadership lid.’
Goulet believes in author John Maxwell’s concept of the “leadership lid.” In “The Law of the Lid,” Maxwell talks about how a leader’s maximum ability to lead will in turn determine their team’s potential. He asserts that if you are—on a scale of one to ten—a four as a leader, your team’s potential will never be more than a three.
Goulet says it is true: “My company will never go beyond my own capability to lead it.” He believes raising your leadership lid requires more of a mindset than a step-by-step process—but here are some actionable things he does that you could try, too:
- Read a lot of nonfiction business or leadership books.
- Listen to podcasts and audio books regarding leadership, business, and topics specific to your industry.
- Join forums and networking groups with other CEOs to build contacts and get challenged on the way you do things.
- Hire business coaches at times when you feel you need to be pushed.
Team size = 4 employees
Prioritize trust when you start to hire.
At this stage, trust is often the most important thing. You’re likely not looking for highly skilled labor at this point because you’re going to be working side-by-side with whomever you hire. As long as they have some basic qualifications, you like them and can see yourself working with them—and you trust them—that’s about all you need at this stage. Anything beyond that is gravy.
Ask real interview questions.
You obviously want to make your interview questions contextual to the role and the company, but what Goulet finds more important is how the questions are asked. “I abide by the behavioral interview method, which is not just asking hypothetical questions about what someone would do in a certain future scenario, because anyone can make up stuff,” he says.
Goulet recommends asking questions like, “Tell me about a time when you faced XYZ scenario and how you handled it“—with an understanding that you’ll follow up with references to verify. This gets you the most honest answers.
The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. “If someone has job-hopped every six to 12 months at their last several jobs and is telling you ‘I’m really looking forward to being here a long time,’ that’s probably not going to happen,” Goulet says. “That’s where I’d ask something like, ‘Tell me about why you left your last three jobs,’ and then, ‘What would cause you to leave this one?’ to get to the heart of it.”
Goulet asks questions like:
- “What was your first job you ever had?”
- “Tell me about a previous manager you disagreed with. How did you handle it?” — If they complain and blame them a lot, they’ll probably do the same about you!
- “What were you looking for that you didn’t find in your last role?”
- “What did you really love about your previous role(s)?” — Asking about the past and what they’ve actually done will tell you the most about what to expect—and cuts through a lot of the BS.
Goulet also warns that you just CAN’T get there in one or two interviews. His company brings people back three to four times, going deeper, longer, and involving more people each time. “If they’re not being honest—sometimes even with themselves—about being the right fit, it’s tough to keep that up through so many interactions,” he says.
Be your small team’s ‘Chief Repeating Officer.’
Goulet refers back to the phrase, “To be unclear is to be unkind.” As a leader at this stage, you have to say everything seven times before people hear it. Think of yourself as the “Chief Repeating Officer.” You’ll likely hire people you know and like, and the impulse to think they just “should understand” or somehow care as much as you do creates a huge potential for lack of clarity.
Repeat yourself as many times as you have to in the beginning to ensure your vision, mission, and values are coming to life. “My methodology was 100 percent living it out,” says Goulet. “I’d spend so much time and effort radiating what I wanted this company to be through my own actions that it was impossible to ignore.”
Give feedback—honestly, positively, and often.
Practice radical candor, and give real and honest feedback regularly—both good and bad. Speak about your vision, celebrate wins, and help people see how their work is building the business. You likely don’t have a lot of perks for your team at this stage, so you have to give lavish praise and constant feedback to them.
Team size = 10 employees
Find the right managers.
Six or seven employees is about all anyone can manage effectively. So think about that as you grow.
Management is funny, says Goulet. The temptation to put your most effective team member into management is real, but managing requires a very different skill set. “I went the route of raising from within—which is huge for trust. But it comes with a giant learning curve if you have inexperienced leaders, especially if you yourself don’t have a lot of leadership experience,” he explains.
So decide where you want your managers to come from based on the pros and cons of each scenario:
- Internally—You can raise your leadership team from within with a ton of time and effort, which allows you to mold your leaders exactly how you want.
- Externally—Hire from the outside for that management experience, and know that you’ll have to get them up to speed on your company culture and values and balance out any contradictory experiences they might bring.
Goulet says there’s no right or wrong way to do it; there are trade-offs either way.
Be clearer than ever with your messaging.
Clarity becomes exponentially more important at this stage because everything you say and believe gets diluted—simply because your managers aren’t you. Be exceptionally clear to your leaders, and make sure you’re still communicating with the employees who are actually doing the work, as your relationship with them now has a layer in between.
Goulet holds an all-hands meeting with his entire company once a week, and he also has semi-regular one-on-one meetings with leaders who don’t report to him directly. “Even once a quarter for 30 to 60 minutes can help a lot,” he says.
Determine what leadership style is best for you and your team.
At this point, you know quite a bit about your growing team. Do you feel that people can do their best work when they’re all friendly and know each other? If so, you’ll want to spend time on team-building events and activities not directly tied to productivity. Or do you think people work best when they’re incentivized by competition? If so, focus on metrics, contests, and rewards for those who “win.”
Research and observe what the top motivating factors are in your industry and for your specific team. Also spend time reflecting on what style of leadership you want to foster and be known for as you grow. If you’re unclear about that, you’ll probably end up with a mix of leadership styles with each new manager you raise up, and you’ll feel like you’re herding cats.
Goulet had several managers who were brought up from within with no prior leadership experience in their jobs. In the beginning, he wasn’t clear with them about what leadership expectations were in the company, so it was left largely to their personalities to determine the leadership experience their teams would feel:
“One would be really friendly and view themselves more as peer than ‘boss.’ Another would be very firm and at times distanced from their team. We did internal surveys that showed our team was experiencing very inconsistent things based on which team they were on, so we had to work on that with our leaders. It’s still not perfect but we’re much more aware of it now.”
Learn how to delegate—and actually do it.
Goulet points to author Dave Ramsey’s tips on the art of delegation. According to Ramsey, there are two things you need to be able to trust in someone before you can delegate to them: their integrity and their competency. If they have those, and you feel that they’re capable of carrying out the task to 80 percent of your own ability, then you should delegate it to them.
That doesn’t mean dumping it on them and leaving them to their own devices. Provide all the things that usually help you get the task done; give them the authority, support, compensation, and decision-making ability to carry it out.
“Delegation is a skill like anything else. You have to practice it to get good at it. And you’ll screw it up—a lot. Especially at first,” Goulet says. “Keep trying though, because if you can’t learn this, you’ll struggle to grow your business beyond four to five people.”
Team size = 20+ employees
Maintain your values and consistency as you scale.
Goulet says that this is where your mission, vision, and core values are critical. You should be so clear and constant about these that everyone on your team can recite them. Build your hiring process, disciplinary process, annual planning, budget—everything—around your company’s why, what you’re trying to accomplish, and how you expect your team to behave while accomplishing those goals. It’s your job as a leader to make sure these guard rails are defined, understood, and lived out daily.
“We speak them out a lot around the office,” says Goulet. “We lead meetings with our mission statement. We have a Slack channel called ‘Express Gratitude’—one of our values—where we just shout out great work we see others on the team doing. We take time in our weekly company meeting to recite and share ways our values are lived out. And we map the team’s efforts to the values in their annual development reviews. It’s just ever-present in how we operate.”
Get creative about staying connected with your employees.
As you scale, things will change. Your relationships with managers and employees will change and become more complex. “I have 40 employees now, with two layers of management between me and most of my team members. I don’t bump elbows with them working beside them day-to-day like I did in the early days. So I have to get creative and find ways to still connect with them and allow them to understand what’s going on in the company,” says Goulet.
A few things that help:
- Having informal lunches together can help keep you connected to the team.
- Have employees draft up and send regular reports of what they’re working on and highs/lows in their lives.
- Schedule time to walk around the office, notice things, and have impromptu conversations with team members at all levels. Have a few stock questions like, “What do you see that’s going really well here?” “What is causing you friction?” or “What can I do to make things better around here?” Goulet says you just can’t replace the “Manage By Walking Around” method.
Goulet warns against the temptation to build silos as you grow. As the business gets bigger and more complex, people no longer see the big picture, just their part. Speak regularly with the whole team about what you’re doing, how various activities are impacting the company in significant ways, and inspire them with new goals while celebrating old ones.
Change how you think about your ‘work.’
At the 20+ stage, a shift has to happen in your brain. Know that you’ll spend more of your time in meetings and solving problems than actually “doing your work” (at least what you previously thought of as your work). Goulet says:
“Once you make the shift that dealing with escalated issues, solving new problems, and taking the flak when the poo hits the fan IS your job, not what’s keeping you from doing your job, then that changes everything.”
Get ready to face daily problems.
It’s not unusual for a lot of business owners to really resent this stage, as your company becomes too big to be small and too small to be big. Simple, patchwork solutions just don’t work anymore, but enterprise-level solutions are too expensive or complex.
Problem-solving will be your daily task, and to keep delivering solutions you need to focus on building up good leaders. Otherwise it will feel like you’re getting beat up every day. Without a leadership team starting to form at this stage, you’ll likely stagnate or burn out altogether.
Goulet recommends reading Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Advantage” for help at this stage. The book lays out a meeting rhythm focused on specific contexts. Goulet’s team has daily huddles, weekly “tactical” meetings for each team with a set timeframe of one week or so of impact, longer-view ad-hoc strategic meetings, and quarterly off-sites for the senior leadership team.
There’s no formula for becoming the best business leader, but you can become the leader your business needs by finding the guidelines you want to lead by. Ultimately, Goulet believes in author Zig Zaglar’s mantra: “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”