For most of my career, I worked for small businesses – offices with employees ranging from less than 20 (single office) to roughly 300 (with global locations). They cross all industries, from finance and construction to marketing and beauty. While the customers they target were (obviously) quite different, there was one consistency at each company: get more with less.

Employees consistently come to the table with solutions because every project has one persistent problem – there are never enough people, money, time to get what we needed done and be profitable. But profitability in a small business is vital. Small businesses can go under in a single account, before ever even achieving recognition.

How do organizations operate lean and mean?

One of the most important steps is hiring right. You need people who are ready and able to provide a solution any time a problem arises. This is a trait that can be trained but, if you can start with an employee who has this mindset built in, you will reap the reward faster and they will continue to grow that mindset and continuously improve their solutionizing.

How do you find employees that are solution-izers? How do you encourage your current teams to always come to you with a solution vs. a problem and not just push them away (because replacing your team costs more money than you want to lose)?

1. Relationship Building

We’ve all worked with a difficult personality – or many. And we’ve probably all worked FOR someone with the same temperament. In a small business it gets you nowhere. With Glassdoor reviews bringing up the opportunity for disgruntled employees to shred your name apart, word of mouth spreads like wildfire. The last thing you need to do is create an environment where any employee feels like they don’t have a voice or a relationship with you.

Ask questions about your employees

“Do you have any exciting plans this weekend?” or, “How was your weekend/holiday/vacation, etc.?” Know about their families and their hobbies – do they love their pets, do they partake in local activities – finding commonalities allows you to relate to each other better and improve your work relationship.

Know their skills.

This will benefit both of you in the long run. Knowing what your employees do well will make it easier to coach them to grow those skills and to benefit from their natural skills and interests. Additionally, they will have a stronger loyalty to you if they aren’t constantly thinking, “Why am I doing this? This is not where I perform best.”

Consider their day-to-day.

Employees know this is your business, and time is how you make money. But your employees value their personal time, maybe more than any other non-tangible thing in their life. They want to have a balance between projects, which will then lead to a natural balance between work and life. Check in with them, and listen to what they need from you.

  • Are they overwhelmed with projects? Prioritize so they can focus and be experts where they are meant to be experts.
  • Are you asking them to do tasks that are either outside their wheelhouse, or taking up valuable time they could be doing something more relevant to their skills? Just because something needs to be done doesn’t mean it has to eat away at the time that could be better spent on other projects.
  • Check in regularly and ensure they don’t lose valuable time doing work that you could potentially shoot off to a virtual assistant, take in under a different employee or find efficiencies (or encourage them to find efficiencies) so they can get back to doing what they do best.

2. Mentoring, training, education

In four of my last six companies, ongoing training was HUGE. And just the fact that each one put forth the effort spoke volumes. Besides the fact that it helped me understand my company’s business goals and reasoning better, it also trained me to think strategically and effectively.

On-site training improves employee retention.

Employees feel like your willingness to invest in their professional growth through training means they have more growth opportunity within the organization. But, check in with them (or at least those who are actively engaged with your training) to see and hear what else they’d like to learn more about, how you could make it easier for them to get the education they want and how you can translate that into their career path.

3. Create a partnership

We have several sayings at SPP about our culture – we’re fostering a culture of learning, we’re a culture of yes, we’re a creative culture. What works is that it’s something our leadership supports, plans and drives. We each have a commitment from our leaders to carve time out of our week to foster our learning. We see firsthand the mindset to say, “yes.” We might caveat with “let me think about that” or, “let’s explore the possibility.” But it’s rare to hear a “no.” I have been in a lot of places where this is not a standard policy, and without it everything else falls apart. This will drive more solutions than problems over anything else you can do.

I’ve worked with teams who consistently said no to every idea. That mindset festered its way through the entire organization. It made the people who had the ideas second-guess whether they should share those thoughts, as they immediately thought it would be knocked down immediately.  (Side note: the client never saw this first-hand, and they still knew what was going on.)

4. Value the competition

Everyone has a competitor that is constantly mentioned in the office. This is the company that is either right on your heels of success, or you’re right on theirs. Or maybe they have a thought process and strategy that makes so much sense you’re constantly watching what they do and trying to find ways to re-engineer it for your business. Whatever the case may be, stay positive about them. It will first generate a sense of excitement and passion in your employees versus one of worry and stress. But, it also carries over to your attitude and positioning when meeting with customers and prospects. People naturally feed off of your personality, and keeping that positive will ensure they stay positive – which can only mean good things from a customer service standpoint.

A great example of this comes to mind from a company we recently began a partnership with. This business has been completely transparent and open about their business. For a while we were on hold with the project and they reached out with a note saying they found a competitor recently launch a new service that could be perfect for us today. Rather than waiting for everything to work out for a relationship with them in the future, they put our business’ needs first and offered up advice that could help us.

What is so great about this thought process is that they have made it clear our objectives being met are their first priority. And because they focused on building the relationship with us, we will definitely find a way to make it work with them. They want to be a partner to our company, not just a provider. And that means so much more.

Making these strategies a priority for your business.

Staples Business Advantage released its annual 2016 State of the Workplace Index, giving you insight into how your employees feel about their day-to-day. This survey can help you create better strategies to ensure employee satisfaction, which can lead to better operations and success for your business.

Staples Business Advantage Workplace Index 2016 from Staples Business Advantage

All of these strategies aren’t something you can just implement overnight and see change by the week’s end. They require a paradigm shift in thinking, from the top down and vice versa. They require everyone to stop their first reaction to a problem or situation and think through how they can better the situation in the most efficient and effective manner. And that is just the beginning of great, lean-and-mean business thinking.