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Maria Montessori School in Harbor Town - Leading a business that feels more like family

Courtesy of the Memphis Business Journal. 

The nature of a headmistress’ work can feel similar to the role held by a family matriarch. My school’s community is close-knit and comfortable. When I come to school and see my families at the door after a long summer absence, it feels like I’m welcoming family home.

If you lead a micro or small business, your work experience may feel similar. Your coworkers and employees are family. You’ve attended their weddings, held their babies, and mourned their losses. That closeness is part of what makes your business an incredible place to work.

But, not setting clear boundaries can create challenges.

With a career’s worth of experience as an educator and leader, I have learned through trial and error how to strike that balance. Here are my recommendations to help keep your work community feeling like family while still ensuring the relationships formed are first professional.

Set expectations from the start

It’s essential you empathize with your employees. One of the benefits of running a small business is that you can provide a level of personal support to your employees that builds trust and endears them to your business. You can also create ambiguity that leaves room for employees to take advantage of you.

To find a balance, offer both grace and clear parameters on the front end. Create an employee handbook that clearly lays out your policies in advance. Address bereavement, parental leave, PTO, benefits, how to properly use sick time, expectations on personal social media accounts, and employee review processes to frame discussions.

You can be as generous in building those policies as makes sense for your business. But, once set, hold them firmly. If employees know what to expect, they can properly plan and make arrangements when life throws them a curveball.

Communicate plans early & clearly

Your employees likely feel like they have more stake in your company than they would if they were an employee at a larger organization. Every person at a micro or small business plays a pivotal role, and their investment in your company is proportionally large.

If you’re planning to take an extended leave of absence, change a major component of your business, or update your processes, communicate those changes early and clearly.

Like in a family meeting, major news can hit certain members differently. But, with time to prepare and have ongoing conversations about what these changes mean for each of their roles, you allow your employees time to adjust.

Ask for feedback and apply it

The people who know you best can be your harshest critics. In a professional setting, your employees harbor insights that could improve the way you do business. Without a proper channel to express these insights, employees might present them unprompted, often out of frustration, in a way that is detrimental to your personal and professional relationship. Instead, create regular opportunities for employees to share challenges and opportunities for growth within your business.

Take their feedback seriously and consider how you might be able to apply their recommendations to your work. Not only will you strengthen their connection to your business, but you also might end up saving time and money.

Lead by example

As a micro or small business owner, you are allowed freedoms and benefits that are not available to your employees. You don’t have to keep track of your PTO days, have your sick time approved, or strictly abide by the policies you lay out for your employees. But, continual deviances from your own policies can negatively impact how your employees view you and your business and can lead them to harbor resentment.

Lead by example, especially in the small things. If you ask your employees to put in for PTO two weeks in advance, alert them of your anticipated days out of the office along the same timeline. If you ask them to clock in and out every day, ensure they see you doing the same.

While your timesheet doesn’t matter at the end of the month, knowing that you’re keeping yourself accountable will go a long way.

Maria Schuermann-Cole, headmistress of The Maria Montessori School