By Andy Lopata, host of the Connected Leadership podcast and author of Just Ask
Running a small business can be a lonely experience. The business owner and leader is expected to know the answers, inspire their team and reassure everyone when times are tough. But who is there for them?
When many people hear the term ‘networking’, they will immediately think of salespeople exchanging business cards and elevator pitches over warm wine and cold canapés. Those perceptions drastically underestimate the impact of networking for business leaders. Strong networks exchange inspiration, ideas and insights. And that support can be the difference between a thriving and a struggling business. Here I will explain the importance of an effective support network and how you can build yours.
Remember we all share the same challenges
When I interviewed Phil Jones MBE, the Managing Director of Brother UK, for my book, Phil stressed the importance of senior leaders sharing their challenges with peers.
He told me, ‘I hear from a lot of people whose business is experiencing growing pains. What then happens is they feel a bit helpless as individuals. As the business has grown, they often feel they haven’t got the skills to address sometimes-difficult cultural or leadership issues that might be coming around. Nine out of ten times it’s not the strategy that’s the problem. It’s confidence or imposter syndrome.’
Phil believes that there is plenty of support available for senior leaders who need it. ‘In my experience I’ve found that doors at the executive level open easily and quickly for that peer group. Everyone has got the same problems. People are quite honest with their peers about when they are struggling or under pressure. They will share when they have been through the same thing and offer support.’
Explore virtual peer support group options
Before the pandemic, getting out and meeting other business leaders was reasonably straightforward. There were plenty of formal opportunities, from regional FSB meetings to more focused peer-level support networks, such as Vistage UK.
But lockdown meant that the days of networking events and mastermind groups seemed numbered, at least for the moment. Leaders had to adapt to working remotely, focus on keeping afloat, managing supply chains and servicing clients all while working out whether to furlough staff.
Self-care and support for the leader was put on the back burner at precisely the time they needed it the most. Charles McLachlan, the founder and CEO of The CEO Growth Academy, told me, ‘Our existing members continued to engage despite the changes and 1:2:1s and group sessions became even more important to them. But we recognised that we couldn’t sell leadership development in a crisis, so we developed a ‘rapid response team’ to provide daily emergency support for SME leaders and the speakers who had served them so well in the past.’
As this approach demonstrates, it didn’t take long for peer networks like The CEO Growth Academy and Vistage to adapt to the new world, both quickly moving workshops online as well as putting on additional programmes to support time poor business leaders who needed support.
Despite the lack of physical meetings, formal peer support groups are still a strong option for people looking for help. You could also expand your network through small breakout rooms at events you attend or social networks, like LinkedIn.
Build your network by soundboarding ideas
Whatever your preferred choice, however, it remains important to carve out time for the support and sounding board you need.
In my conversation with Phil Jones, he told me, ‘I have something I practice called Out, On, In. I spend a third of my time out, a third of my time on, a third of my time in the business. The ‘out’ bit is really important. That’s meeting people.’
We might not want to meet in-person right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t exchange ideas and ask questions of each other. Just as we have got used to teleconference calls for day-to-day business, we can embrace the same technology for interpersonal support.
Reach out to other leaders you have worked with and ask how they are coping with the pandemic. Identify your biggest challenge at the moment, and ask yourself who you know who can help and call them.
Ask how others are doing
Create conversations that are ‘out’ of the business. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of just having transactional, operational conversations when everything takes place remotely, but it doesn’t take much to shift your focus and create a group of peers who can support each other.
Helping each other isn’t always a reciprocal exchange. Perhaps the opportunity to help them will come in the future; perhaps you will be able to pay it forward by helping someone else. Demonstrate your willingness to help by checking in with others.
It might be lonely at the top but it doesn’t need to be. Even with lockdown restrictions it’s possible for you to reach out and seek support, and receive it.