Run a Small Team? Don’t Just Look to the Big Guys for Advice

By David Hassell

Why do we spend so much time dissecting and analyzing the leadership styles of the CEOs of large companies, when the average American business (except companies with no employees) only has 20 employees?

The reality is that managing a team of 20 is very different than managing a team of 20,000. The skills needed for each are quite different, and as a small company, you can often find better advice from those that have just outgrown 20. 

Here’s why.

Stop Treating People Differently 

We all have our favorites. We tend to connect better with people of similar values or with those that can stroke our ego. Although it is difficult to disconnect from having these relationships, it’s inevitable. As a leader or manager, you must walk that fine line between thinking (I want to be buddies with that person) and doing (setting an example for the entire organization.) How you approach your leadership style will set the tone for the company. Are you individual-focused or group-focused?

1. Individual-focused: With small teams, it is not only better to choose team leadership over  individual-focused, differentiated leadership — but that differentiated leadership (a management style in which leaders treat individual members differently), can be harmful to small teams.

2. Group-focused: According to those survey results, “teams working under group-focused leadership were more likely to feel connected to their organizations and committed to their bosses. They were happier with their jobs and their roles in those jobs, and were generally loyal to their supervisors and hopeful for the future.”

That’s not to say that a good boss shouldn’t know the strengths of the people in his teams: it’s simply that she shouldn’t treat star members of their team any differently to the other members.

Make the Most of What (or Who) You’ve Got 

When you have a small team, each person will be wearing a variety of ‘hats’ — which will likely change and develop as the business grows. When managing a small team, it is important to be open to changes in job descriptions and responsibilities, as the unique skills, abilities, and interests of your team members become clear.

Even as the team grows, according to Lily Kanter, co-founder of of Serena & Lily, “you always need entrepreneurial people who can wear a hundred hats forever.” To keep the small team mentality going, she believes that the maximum number of people working on a particular project should be four: with one person taking ownership of it.

Passing the ‘Hit by a Bus’ Test

When you have hundreds of employees, it is likely that one or two staff missing work won’t have an overly detrimental effect on the company. But in small teams, it is essential that all members have an excellent understanding of the work that is being done at any given time, so that they can jump in if/when necessary. This goes for leaders, too.  Always be generous with knowledge and build trusted relationships with your staff. You never know when they may need to step in for you. Don’t let your staff need you in order to get their things accomplished.

 One small team who knows this well is the Shropshire Council Web Services Team (in the UK), a five-member group who inspired the new organisation and navigation of the main UK government website. Thanks to open communication and togetherness amongst team-mates, there is no lull in work rate as members jump in to help out team-mates when there’s a lull in their own work.

Ensure your team knows that they’re encouraged to act on their own will, making sure they have clearly understood expectations and that they know when they really should consult a leader. The Shropshire Council team work on the basis that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission” but presumably there are limits to this.

Finally – The Benefits

Large companies as a whole are more productive than small teams, but a study by Wharton Management Professor Jennifer Mueller, referenced in Time found that individuals within a large group are likely to be less productive as individuals: simply because it becomes more difficult for them to find the resources and agreement within the company to do what they need to do.

Organizational communication becomes more complicated and decisions take longer to implement as numbers increase: agile working within a small team means that changes can be made quickly and new decisions made added without years of deliberation.

One of the most successful CEOs in the past few decades is Richard Branson, and in his early days as owner of Virgin Records, he found that splitting the company into smaller groups as they grew maintained “the vibe and hunger.” A certain amount of enthusiasm can be lost in larger teams and “social loafing” can creep in as less hard-working individuals find places to hide.

In the words of Wade Foster of, stay small and you’ll cultivate a “lean, mean, productivity machine” but above all, give the members of your small team the information, responsibility, and encouragement and they’re likely to do their jobs very well indeed.

Image Credit: Steven Guzzardi

Are you a small team? Where do you seek advice? Share in the comments below.

Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.

Human Resources Today