by Valerie Delaney, Principal, Learning + Development
It’s Small Business Week (October 17 – 23) in Canada – an annual celebration of entrepreneurship, with multiple events and learning opportunities available. Its theme is “seizing the opportunity to build the way forward”.
As this is our 25th year operating as a small business, I took some time to reflect on things that helped us maximize our opportunity to establish a small business.
While I think I could honestly write a book about the ups and downs, the dos and don’ts of starting and running a small business, here are my top four ingredients for success – with a dash of engagement musings on the side.
Surround yourself with good people – These people are talented at what they do and honest in how they do it. I’m talking about professional service providers who understand the needs and challenges of small businesses. From the first print shop we ever worked with (and still do!), accountants and bookkeepers, insurance brokers and, yes, even lawyers, they have been our partners and the foundation to our success. Let them be the experts in what they do, while you focus on what you do.
What does that look like for the engagement professional? It means building the right team for the job. It takes communications professionals, technology hosts, facilitators, planners, and data managers, along with the engagement staff to build and activate an engagement plan to get results. Building a solid engagement team for each project can be overlooked in what is often the time-pressed, budget-strapped engagement environment these days, but it is perilous to do so.
Build relationships for the long term – We say it all the time. Relationships are important, but for the small-business owner, they can be life saving, or business saving. You want substantial relationships with partners, clients, staff, and service providers – not just for the good times, but also for those difficult times that are bound to happen. It might be a computer crash, or a cash-flow crash! It might be an urgent contract request or an injured staff person. You are building yourself for success when you remember that relationships are for the good times and tough times. Do whatever you can to let people know they are appreciated – phone calls, thank you notes, and kindness – and they will be there to help you when you need it.
Same goes for engagement. We encourage our clients to build relationships not just in the context of an upcoming engagement but for the future as well. People are more likely to be engaged if there is a positive, on-going trust relationship in place. Building networks and sharing information well in advance of engagement initiatives is helpful. Some of our clients have established engagement networks – patient networks, for example – so they don’t have to reach out to the same group of people, which respects people’s time and reduces the risk of engagement burn out.
Dig deep – There are times when it feels like you are doing it all, as a small-business owner. That’s because you are, and it’s tough at times. I was probably not the best of me after pulling an all-nighter to meet a deadline, or lugging suitcases and exhibits through winding conference centres, or cleaning the office kitchen every weekend, or being apart from Richard more times than not as he travelled across the country. But it had to be done. It did get easier. With success, you can access more help and you have all that lived experience to keep you from making the same mistakes!
Engagement professionals are often in the same boat – looking after a myriad of little details before the big event. The invitations and information packages, the technology checks, chat rooms and actual rooms, gluten-free muffins, and free-range eggs! The catering seriously stressed me out as I tried to meet everyone’s needs. So many things to think about that might seem outside the scope of one’s practice, but the opportunity for great engagements rests at least in part in all those details. And, sometimes, that means digging deep to do that little extra, or go that extra mile.
Know who you are and what you do – I guess you could say this is the values proposition. It’s important to get feedback, to be a reflective practitioner and a life-long learner. Absolutely. But only you know what matters most to you, what you will and won’t do. If it’s not working, that’s time to look at the big picture and ask where you need to adjust. We’ve certainly had to do that. There were lots of opportunities along the way where we said, “pass”, because they just weren’t for us.
When we first started out, we were an environmental management company, learning about community engagement at kitchen tables and on shrimp boats. We had to move swiftly to become more learned and more active in the fields of engagement, facilitation, and training, however, when governments reduced the demand for the work we were doing. Professional training and real-life consulting experience brought us to where we are today.
At the end of the day, for engagement people, it’s all about the feedback. That’s the whole point – to support durable decision making. But, even here, it’s important to remember that you won’t please all the people all the time, stuff happens, and things get messy. Know who you are and know you gave it your honest best effort. Learn. Don’t take it personally. Change things up if you must.
Seems like a good time to send out a “thank you” or two – to Richard, our founder and President, to our talented team led by Jessica (shout out to Martha employee #1 who took a chance on us and laughed at us as needed and to Brenda our longest-serving employee but not our oldest!) and to all our favourite clients and partners. You know who you are, and you are appreciated.
To you, readers, I wish you all the best as you seize the opportunities that come your way. I hope they are happy and fruitful.
Stay well. Valerie