Advice for Employers – Guest Column – Developing Leaders in Small Businesses


Developing Leaders in Small Businesses  |

By Susan Sterritt Meyer  |   Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), MS, BS, BA  |

Published in the September/October 2010 issue of print Search & Employ®  |

Meyer helps individuals and companies craft credible, image-enhancing communications. She served nine years in the Army Reserve, with two activations. She devoted more than 20 years of her career to management positions in human resources, and now uses her expertise to teach, coach, and develop leaders.

What training do you see as critical to a company’s success today?

Outside of technical training to stay current with the latest technological advances, the tighter the economy, the more a company’s greatest asset becomes well-trained leaders. Businesses need to make sure they continue to develop leaders, but use their training budget efficiently in doing so. Making sure that their organizational structure supports and reinforces the leadership lessons learned is a critical consideration to making those training investments equate to dollars well spent.  Learning won’t stick where it’s not valued and reinforced in a real-world way.

What about businesses without big training budgets?  How can they develop leaders?

First of all, when companies tell me that training costs too much, I ask them to consider the price of ignorance.  Many companies are reluctant to set aside training budgets because they are afraid the results won’t be tangible, yet when training needs are properly assessed, prioritized, and training is delivered professionally, the results will be there. Like anything else, it has to be done well to get good results.

For many, however, the current reality is that training budgets are eliminated or training takes too much time. That’s when hiring veterans can be very helpful.  Vets are individuals whom Uncle Sam has already trained to lead others. Here are individuals who have withstood tests of their leadership time and again with success. Today’s veteran leaders can really shine for the civilian employer, especially in their understanding of planning, considering what can go wrong and being prepared for it,  seeing opportunities for alternative avenues all around them, and taking action at their appropriate authority level without waiting to be told what to do. Veteran leaders also know to keep authority informed, and can step right up because they are accustomed to doing so.

What are some trends you see in the design of learning materials for leadership?

I see a greater interest in designing learning materials focused on a company’s pre-identified managerial competencies rather than providing generic, “take it because it’s good for you” leadership training. In the case of veterans, especially commissioned and noncommissioned officers, companies are often building on specific course material presented in the military.  For efficiency, ROI, and measurable results, there is more emphasis on compartmentalizing and testing those skills deemed necessary by the company to build a good manager, and sometimes, a visionary leader.  Veterans have already been tested in many of these core competencies and are eager to show their civilian employers what they can do.

How else are companies with little or no budget for this training developing leaders?

Forward-thinking businesses are providing shadowing experiences throughout all departments in their organization, usually after a new leader has been on board for at least a month. Some knowledge of how the company operates before shadowing makes the difference between someone sitting there idly watching someone else work and their understanding the challenges other departments face, including how their department’s behaviors affect others downstream. Veterans take well to shadowing routines because their military experience had a strong element of shadowing. In many cases, vets were physically present when their superiors were making important decisions.

Due to time, financial and distance constraints, many companies are edging toward more blended learning opportunities. Leaders gain information from e-course material first and then participate in instructor-led training in a group setting to develop and practice new skills based on the information they acquired online. Veterans are accustomed to what used to be called “correspondence course” programs. I learned through many of these courses during my service time.

I am seeing more Webinars advertised, although I suspect this will prove to be less effective in changing or building behaviors than anticipated.  Unless the quality and structure are improved, reliance on these will wane.

Some small, progressive businesses are getting on the bandwagon with LMS (Learning Management Systems) and are creating a culture where continuous learning is the responsibility of each individual and leader. They realize that to stay ahead of the competition, learning has to be a natural work “habit.” Veterans who qualify for leadership positions already have this habit, due to the “up or out” promotional policy.

What are one or two of the biggest skill gaps you’ve identified?

Crisp, efficient, customer-sensitive writing has been undermined, in part, by social writing habits associated with texting, IM’s, and other electronic communication media. Another factor impacting this skill is the erosion of its significance in civilian academic settings. Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen the unfortunate workplace consequence of the “dummying down” in American education. A widespread knowledge of the basics of sentence structure, grammar and punctuation is lacking, even within the ranks of college graduates. Luckily, officers in the military are expected to write efficiently, clearly and well to move up and get ahead. Proportionately, I have seen this to be less of a problem with officer veterans than with similarly situated civilians.

Also, basic, individual problem-solving skills seem to be underdeveloped in Generation Y and some Generation X employees entering the civilian workforce.  Again, I have not found this to be the case with young veterans whose military training and experience made it important to be able to think on one’s own as well as within a team structure. (The helicoptering taking place wasn’t helicopter parents.)

What is one of the most troubling learning gaps that will impact leaders?

In addition to the challenges I’ve already mentioned, I think the absence of cultural awareness and meaningful, horizon-broadening diversity training alarms me the most.  Companies either ignore festering issues and future demographic projections, or hold poorly written “shame and blame” diversity classes that pigeon-hole employees and create backlash and resentment.  As we become a global community, misunderstandings are magnified by the lack of awareness and sensitivity that bars us from working smoothly with others here and abroad.

This learning gap will increasingly undermine business and personal success.  On the other hand, hiring a veteran means you have hired someone who has lived with, eaten with, learned with, slept with and possibly fought next to people of all races, religions, ages and ethnicities.  To veterans, diversity is the norm and they already “get it.”

About the Author

This article was written by Jay Myers