Thoughts on Leadership: The Power of Thinking Small

This week my travels found me in Dallas, meeting with Chris Kelly, president and CEO of the Ebby Halliday Companies—Ebby Halliday, REALTORS®, Dave Perry-Miller Real Estate and WilliamsTrew—and his great team. During the two-day meeting, I spoke with both managers and agents.

On the first day, despite heavy rain and rolling thunder, managers filled the room and we discussed the importance of a system, recruiting and retention, as well as all the aspects of real estate operations.

On the second day the skies cleared, and I presented to agents on how to have an unstoppable mindset and routine for a breakthrough in production to have the best year yet. Though the crowd was large, the sentiment was inviting; presenting to the group felt like speaking with colleagues who quickly became friends.

Such a welcoming atmosphere as evidenced in Dallas is symptomatic of an organization with a strong company culture, where collaboration is encouraged, and innovation is seen not as a threat but as a strategic opportunity for growth. It’s the kind of ideology you’d expect from a small company, and one a business of any size should espouse.

No matter how big your company is, here are a few powerful characteristics of a small company that should be universally adopted:

Embraces—and doesn’t avert—risk. Muhammad Ali once declared, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” As the saying goes, no risk, no reward. The concept is not to avoid risk, it’s to reduce risk and manage risk in a way that creates positive, forward-moving change.

Full of urgency and never lethargic. Small companies are anything but slow-moving. If you’re not fast, your competitors will be. Paul Michelman, author of “A Sense of Urgency” and a professor at Harvard Business School, defined urgency as a combination of “thoughts, feelings and actual behavior.” He added: “The thoughts are, ‘there are great opportunities out there [and] great hazards.’ The feelings are a gut-level determination that we’re going to do something now, we’re going to do something to win. And the behavior is this hyper-alertness to what’s going on. It’s a sense of coming to work each day with a commitment to make something happen … on the important issues.”

Fast moving. Moving fast means prioritizing responsibilities and implementing a system to get those to-do items done that are crucial to the momentum of business growth. It means picking up the pace. A slow-moving team might put in 16-hour days and accomplish less than a team moving with lightning-quick speed and a heightened sense that critical tasks must get done NOW.

Creates new ideas and doesn’t protect old ones. The philosophy of “because that’s how it’s always been done” often plagues big businesses that rely on tradition and stability. Ideation, or the process of fostering the new and questioning the old, is the foundation for innovative success. New ideas imbue a competitive edge by virtue of their very newness. Big companies that think small encourage the formation of new ideas because they’re …

Idea-centric vs. rules-centric. Some rules were put in place to be upheld and some rules, against the surge of rapid-pace technological changes, were meant to be broken. A company with ideas and not guidelines at its core is one dexterous enough to change at a moment’s notice, implement an incredible idea and put it to work before competitors can.

Bottom-up and not top-down. Top-down management is defined by an autocratic system where policies are enforced, and decisions are made only at the very top by a small group of leaders. In bottom-up management, team members are invited to be part of the decision-making process. Their opinions are given weight and contemplation, no matter where they rank within the organization. This helps with retention and creates a collaborative culture of inclusiveness unimpeded by rank or title.

Nimble and not bureaucratic. Organizational bureaucracy exists to the detriment of individual initiative, productivity and creativity. In a recent survey by Harvard Business Review, nearly two-thirds of respondents said their respective companies had become more bureaucratic in the last few years. Rather than being bogged down in processes, protocols and predefined procedures, a business is at its best when it’s nimble. Writing for Forbes, author Rajeev Peshawaria stressed leading with more values and less rules. “The shelf life of values is much longer than that of rules or policies,” he explained. “Values tend to be broader than specific rules—they provide principles or guidelines for behavior rather than strict boundaries.”

Operates with fire in the belly and not complacency. As I say, once you think you know it all your slide to mediocrity has already begun.

So, what’s the message? When you lead a company with all the imagination and creativity of a small business, you get big results. But thinking small doesn’t mean having small ideas—your ideas should always be tremendous and push you to set new, ever-expanding limits on what you believe you can accomplish. Thinking small means acting like a startup and never losing the grit and grind of an organization with limited resources and endless dreams.

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