3 People-Focused Leadership Tips to Hold Small Teams Together

A small team of employees discusses culture and operations

A small business is a whirlwind. Unexpected challenges whip by like uprooted trees, making it seem almost impossible to keep up or establish lasting processes. And at the center of it all, there’s you—the executive. You’re probably the only person doing your job, and it can frequently feel like everyone’s relying on you. So how do you become that anchor point for your organization and connect all the dots in the right ways?

You may be tempted to just think about business goals and operational efficiency here, but I’m going to challenge you to go down a different path. See, the real secret to leading a small organization successfully and doing more with less won’t be found if you crunch the numbers one more time. Instead, it comes when you drive culture as well as operations and center organization-wide decisions on what your people need both personally and professionally.

But like I said, you’re already busy managing a whirlwind, so let’s look at three quick tips for how to get there.

1. Open communication with HR

Whatever your human resources approach looks like—whether you’ve hired a dedicated resource to focus on HR or distributed HR functions to other roles—the team probably needs things they’re not asking for. To understand where those gaps are and how you can help HR help your people and the organization, you have to start an ongoing dialogue. The goal is to reconcile the language you use to discuss business goals and strategies with how HR talks about their workload and priorities.

Here are some questions to spark that conversation:

  • Which back-office HR tasks are eating up the most time for the team?
  • What opportunities do we have to make operational processes like pay and time more competitive to attract and keep talent?
  • How can our talent strategy fuel a stand-out culture and a positive employer brand?
  • How am I arming my HR experts with visibility into key organizational goals and putting those goals in terms they can easily relate to?

There are clear, tangible benefits to having this kind of transparent relationship with HR. In fact, recent research from UKG and HR.com proves that HR professionals who have insight into business strategy and are considered strategy experts are three times more like to make it easier for you as an executive to tie your people data—such as hiring trends, employee feedback, or workforce composition—to larger business goals.

2. Connect people and business impacts

There are a variety of potential interaction points with your people that can have both cultural and operational ripple effects. Building a place where people want to work means getting rid of the idea that the people and work systems you use are mutually exclusive. Instead, you need to identify the key moments and milestones that define the life-work journey for your employees and recognize how the actions you take in those moments can craft a stand-out culture and gain operational efficiencies at the same time.

To illustrate this quickly, let’s look at the different sides of one moment you’re probably familiar with—promoting someone to a manager role:

Cultural Impact:

  • Ensuring the new manager is prepared with learning options and resources needed to succeed as a leader
  • Using this opportunity to reiterate core cultural values
  • Watching for burnout and ensuring the new manager still takes enough personal time to remain engaged and effective
  • Providing touchpoints for feedback on manager onboarding so you can continuously improve

Operational Impact:

  • Testing how your talent management technology processes a role change
  • Being able to quickly transition and reassign direct reports under the new manager
  • Updating pay and compensation structures efficiently to prevent errors in the role transition
  • Providing a clear performance management framework so the manager can assess their new team

These are just a few of the ways something like a promotion affects the individual, the wider team, and organizational processes. When you expand this out to other common activities like requesting time off, hiring, or benefits enrollment, it becomes clear how important seeing the whole picture across all these activities is as an executive.

3. Reinforce process and culture through technology

I promise I won’t wrap this up in the typical way where I say HR technology is the silver bullet that can solve all your problems. There’s clearly much more to the picture than that, as the points above indicate.

That said, though, as you probably know, every technology investment at a small organization needs to be weighed carefully so you ensure you’re maximizing your time and getting the most value out of the solutions you choose. So how do you find a fast path to tools that both promote a culture of trust and belonging and deliver operational efficiencies?

I’ve got some good news—the evaluation process really boils down to only three factors:

  1. Experience: How do you give people confidence in the technology you choose and get them to want to use it? Look for a one-stop shop across the employee and manager life cycle that applies changes everywhere at once, takes into account all your data, and flows rules for different areas into one another automatically (a good example is a system that updates pay rules whenever your time calculations for hourly employees change). This makes operations faster, but more importantly it inspires a sense of trust.
  2. Guidance: More than just having data on your workforce, how are you using the data you have? When you’re juggling a bunch of priorities, it’s critical that your technology supports you at the right times with advice and recommended actions (like a timely tip on reducing fatigue for an employee who’s trending upward in that area) so you, your leaders, and your people can proactively stay ahead of trends affecting the organization.
  3. Partnership: Rather than dropping you into your new solution and letting you figure it out, how much is your vendor willing to step up consistently to help you succeed? Look for a partner for life who provides the right services at every stage—from implementation to training to support—so that you’re getting the most from your investment and applying the latest cultural and operational standards. A good gauge here is if the vendor comes to the table with best practice examples relevant to your goals when you discuss processes like implementation and setup.

You get asked for a lot being in the driver’s seat at a small business. But at the end of the day, if you take a moment to make sure a people-focused approach doesn’t get lost in that shuffle, you’ll see a host of beneficial results. If any of the advice above has resonated with you and you want to learn more, check out our Executive’s Guide to HR and Payroll Software for Small Teams. It’ll give you a game plan and actionable resources to help you get to the tools that will make the biggest impact on your organization both culturally and operationally.

Keen recently contributed stories on owning your HR vision and how HR and payroll can set a strong wellbeing example.