Before I bought my company in 2009, it was part of a larger corporation, which I worked for as the director of business and legal affairs and later general manager. And while I certainly enjoyed my time in the corporate world, I have seen both the best and the worst it has to offer.
One of the main reasons I bought the company was that I knew that, if it shed the trappings of its corporate habits and culture, it could be amazing.
New small business owners, understandably, emulate the big, successful giants of their industry, hoping to see that success as well. But if you aren’t careful, adopting the wrong parts of corporate culture could drag your company down.
Tons of meetings
Don’t get me wrong — I like meetings. I think they are vital to keeping everyone working for a company on the same page. And I understand that meetings can act as a checks-and-balances system. People get a chance to run their ideas by others, progress reports are filed, and questions are answered. If something isn’t working, everyone gets a chance to discuss it.
But I’ve seen firsthand what happens when meetings run amok. Management will schedule a meeting with sales, and then follow that with a meeting with the rest of management, who will then schedule a meeting with the higher-ups. And nothing will get solved because every decision, discussion and question has to get run by the people in the next meeting.
Constant, unending improvement
I strongly believe that you should always strive to improve your company. That said, there is a difference between innovating to better your business, and improving for the sake of saying you tried to improve.
I once heard a story from a colleague about a manager who tried streamlining their ordering process, which is an admirable goal. The problem was they unnecessarily changed how customer service operated. Suddenly the people who handled sales and customer care were only allowed to handle sales, and had to pass complaints to the customer care department. But clients were used to — and preferred — dealing with the person they originally bought from. Clients were then lost for no reason, as there was absolutely no need to change how customer service was handled. The sales team was not complaining about being overworked; orders were not being dropped; and everything before had run like clockwork. But managers dealt with an expectation to always “improve” their department so, when they attended all of those meetings, they could prove how hard they worked.
My biggest pet peeve in the corporate world is the tendency to set completely unrealistic goals. I’m not sure when this happened, but at some point it became bad to actually meet the goals you set. Middle managers questioned whether or not that meant you should’ve set them higher, and suddenly you’re fielding hypothetical questions about all the wonderful projects you could’ve done.
So people just began shooting for the moon, and then slacked because they knew there was no way to accomplish what they set out to do. It was absolutely ridiculous, and yet a problem I’ve seen in multiple companies.
Small business owners can learn a lot about innovation and marketing from corporate America. But they should also remember that corporations are run the way they are for a reason — and the worst parts of corporate culture are the side effects. A company that makes massive profits can deal with the loss of efficiency, but a small business cannot.
So stay nimble and responsive by avoiding tons of meetings, knowing when, and when not, to improve something, and setting realistic goals. One of the best parts of being a small business owner is that you’re able to keep your finger on the pulse of the company — don’t be too quick to discard that.