Leadership Development for “The Little Guys”

I received the following comments on my recent “Best Companies for Leadership” post:

“The list of things that make these great companies for leadership development is impressive. How do you apply these lessons to small business. A staff of five or eight or even 25? The opportunity for promotion and growth may be limited. Lateral moves don’t really exist. I’d love help to implement great leadership development with small staff companies.”

“Yeah, there are lessons to be learned, but the small business experience is extremely different than that of the large corporations. I guess the little guys need to take what they can and come up w/ alternatives for the rest!”

Great question! Yes, the small business experience is different – but that doesn’t mean that there are not opportunities for leadership development. In fact, I’d argue that there are just as many opportunities – they’re just different.

Let’s start out by reviewing how successful leaders develop. Back in the 1970s, CCL published its landmark study on executive development, which resulted in the best selling book “The Lessons of Experience”. Since then, just about every best practice company and practitioner has built their leadership development practices on this foundation.

CCL asked 1000s of successful executives how they learned the most important lessons that had the biggest impact on their success as a leader. I’ve conducted this exercise with hundreds of groups of leaders, and the answers always fall into the following buckets:

1. Job changes
2. Challenging, stretch assignments (without changing jobs)
3. Other people (good & bad managers, mentors, coaches)
4. Hardships (learning from trauma, failure)
5. Other (programs, books, etc…)

The programs that big companies like GM, Proctor & Gamble, and 3M use to develop their leaders are basically designed to provide their emerging leaders with as many of these high impact developmental opportunities as possible. Sure, they add a lot of bells and whistles, but there’s very little they do that a leader at a small company can’t do for themselves.

I think the biggest difference is your company isn’t going to spoon-feed you. You’re going to have to be in charge of your own leadership development – and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

So how can you take charge of your own leadership development if you work for one of “the little guys”? Let’s test each component of the CCL development within a small company context:

1. Job changes.
Yes, there may be more opportunities to change jobs in a large company. Big multi-nationals are like a job market in themselves, especially if you’re learning agile and willing to relocate. However, in a small company start-up, you might have the opportunity to create your own job that doesn’t yet exist. You might start off as the only salesperson – then become the first sales manager – and then start up a marketing department.

The other way to look at development through job changes in a small company is to actually change companies. You can look for jobs that provide new opportunities in scope and scale, new locations, new products, and new challenges (i.e., start-up to turnaround).

2. Challenging, stretch assignments (without changing jobs)
The types of challenges that have the most impact on a leader’s development are the same in any size company or culture. Dealing with employee performance issues, taking on new assignments that you’ve never done before, learning different aspects of your business or industry, or volunteering for a non-profit outside of work are all examples. All of these challenges have the potential to enable a leader to “earn their scars”. I would argue that there may be more danger of getting stuck in an overly narrow rut in a large company than there is in a small company, where the responsibilities are broader and everyone is expected to pitch in.

3. Other people (good & bad managers, mentors, coaches)
Again, it can just as easy to become isolated in a large company as it can in a small company. Small company leaders will most likely look outside of their company for role models, mentors, coaches, and professional and community networks. Social networking has opened up a whole universe of networking and best practice sharing possibilities. It’s similar to the impact eBay had on the little guy’s ability to sell to the entire world.

When it comes to the booming business of coaching, a lot of the executive coaches I know get a lot of their clients from small businesses.

4. Hardships (learning from trauma, failure)
No differences here – we’re always going to faced with the possibility of the death of a loved one, divorce, illness, losing a job, etc… regardless of company size.

Resilient people have the ability to turn these hardships in opportunities to reflect and grow.

5. Other (programs, books, etc…)
All right, I’ll bet this is where you’re thinking the deck is stacked against the little guy company. Well, not really. Many of the leading executive education programs are made up of participants from small companies. If you can’t afford one of these expensive programs, there are probably plenty of lower cost open-enrollment leadership development programs in your own community.

Again, this is where the internet has leveled the playing field. The quality of distance learning programs has improved dramatically. You can even get a degree in leadership or management completely online.

And let’s not forget blogs like this one and thousands of other websites, newsletters, books, and periodicals. My email subscribers are from big and small companies, and everything in between.

So no, if you work for a small company, you don’t have to settle for table scraps. There are plenty of opportunities for leadership development, you might just have to be a little more proactive and creative.

What are some of the other differences between big company and small company leadership development?