OK, no question is stupid. But, some questions are more important than others!

I have always disliked lists of “the seven keys to” something, or the “ten most important” things you have to do to succeed at something else. These lists always seem presumptuous and simplistic. The important things in business (and in life) are more complex than this. But, there are a few questions that small business owners and managers should keep asking – over and over; not necessarily because they lead to easily distilled solutions, but, because they lead to other important questions.

Every small business person can identify with distractions that cause them to lose focus. You come to work Monday morning and you’re the CEO. Then on Tuesday you have to put on your Marketing Director hat, on Wednesday you become the HR Manager, and on Thursday you’re the IT guy. By the time Friday rolls around, you wonder who you really are.

So, here are a few questions that are meant to help you refocus. There are ten of them and, while I could make the case that they are “key,” or “important” I won’t. Just pick the ones that are most relevant to your business, or your situation and keep asking them – over and over.

Does my long term strategy have an affect on the bottom line of my business?

This presumes, of course, that your business has a long term strategy. You did once, but it’s easy for inertia to take over and for your business to drift. Even if your business is wildly successful and your strategy is to keep doing more of the same, it’s essential to keep thinking about today’s profitability in the context of whether the strategy will keep working in the future. Things change for everyone and everything – no business is exempt from that phenomena. This is not about the “dust off last year’s plan” nonsense that most businesses make an annual ritual. It’s about taking enough time to try to stay one step ahead of that one subtle change in competition, or pricing, or people, or anything else that can insert itself into your process at the worst possible time.

If a prospective customer asked me to describe the culture of my company, what would I tell him?

Don’t kid yourself – every company, regardless of size, has a culture and this culture can either enable your people to excel, or it can inhibit – even prevent – progress. The obvious answer to the question is to tell your customer how your culture is built around getting him what he needs – or something to that affect. But, then you better go back to your office, put your feet up on your desk, and really think this through. Culture is the underlying factor driving how you and your employees deal with every issue. It impacts how everyone thinks and how everyone interacts, both among themselves and with your customers.

How does my business make a difference for our customers?

Your customers are just like you – they have their own customers that they are (or, should be) asking the same question about and they are most likely in business to make a profit. So, the answer is “we specifically show them how we help provide value to their customers so they can sell more.” That’s what a customer value proposition should accomplish. You have to be able to specifically and regularly prove to your customers that you add value; and as their situation changes, or evolves, you have to be aware of that, so you can change and evolve with them.

Does my leadership style help, or hinder the growth of my business?

Notice that this is about leadership style, not management style. Managers cope with complexity and process; leaders cope with change. Your primary role is to recognize when change is needed and to make it happen. Most people need some help on this one – trying to assess your own effectiveness as a leader is a tough thing to do, without some objective input from people that you trust and who will tell you the truth. But, you are “the man,” or “the woman” in your business and you have to know that the people that count are going to follow your lead – and why.

Do my employees tell their friends that they work at a “good place?”

It seems as though every business says something like “our employees are our most important asset.” The problem is few of them really mean it. A small business almost by definition struggles to find adequate resources and its employees are absolutely critical to the success of the business. Get your employees in the game – make them part of the process. We all go to work because we have to eat, but what makes us enthusiastic is to contribute and to be part of something.

Who can I really rely on to give me feedback and tell me the truth?

In some ways this gets back to the culture question and it’s the small business owner, or manager that sets the tone for how up-front people will be. You should be hiring people that can do things that you can’t do and, if you run an open company with a learning mentality, you’ll end up getting honest feedback from almost everyone. However, there will be times when it’s hard for people to be forthcoming; make sure you know – and go to – those individuals that will always tell you what you need to know, not just what you want to hear.

How often do I really think about the way my business does things?

The Quality and Customer Care gurus are always talking about “process improvement” – and they couldn’t be more correct. Their scenario is to start with the typical interaction with a customer and work backwards from there, making sure that every facet of your process ultimately supports and improves how your customer is taken care of. Whether you approach things from a customer, or some other perspective, maintaining an efficient operation means taking it apart once in a while and putting it back together in a way that best supports the future, not the past.

How do I know I’m always looking at the right things?

A little imagination and thoughtful creativity can really make a difference when it comes to keeping your finger on the pulse of a small business. Inertia can be a horrible trap – you keep doing what you’ve always done, continue to monitor the reports you’ve always looked at, and always ask the same people the same questions. Every once in a while we all have to step outside of the box and think things through a little differently. Of course, this becomes obvious when there’s a problem; the trick, though, is to have the foresight to look at your situation a little differently in anticipation of those problems, not just when you have to deal with them.

How well would my business work without my being there?

The ultimate objective of any small business owner should be to make his business an investment – for someone else. When someone else can buy your business and manage the process without your having to be there, you have something of value, whether you want to sell it, or not. Until your business can pretty much function without your involvement every day, you own a job, not a business!

Why am I doing what I’m doing?

… because it’s fun! … to make money! … because I have to! Those answers are very different – and you don’t need to hire a consultant to figure out which is the right one!

Jim Deyo is the President of Business Advisor Online, an internet based service that provides small businesses with the ideas they need to grow and the resources they require to make the right decisions. As a former Sr. Vice President with a major banking institution, Jim worked extensively with small and medium sized companies and has over 30 years experience in commercial and consumer lending, accounting, finance, marketing, and strategic planning. Visit the website at http://www.businessadvisoronline.com and sign up for a six week free trial of the service, or e-mail Jim at jimdeyo@businessadvisoronline.com

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