It can feel lonely at the top.
You’re giving your all, but it doesn’t feel like enough. You’ve poured your heart into your work, and you love what you do. But you’re tired, too. When things get tough, who can you turn to? It feels like no one understands what you’re going through.
Recently, we sat down with Aileron President, Facilitator, and Leadership Coach, Joni Fedders to discuss the value of being in community with other business owners. Because when you open up to others, you often realize you’re not alone.
How do you handle the emotional ups and downs of being a small business owner?
Joni: In our Course for Presidents, we start by asking people what emotions they’re feeling. At first, it goes anywhere from pride to excitement. But then as we really get into the conversation someone finally says stress, or frustration. Pretty soon the floodgates get opened and everyone’s sharing how many dynamics there are in their emotions.
What I think people need to become aware of is that there’s a lot of emotion that comes with owning a business. And that’s okay! It’s normal to have a lot of emotions about your business. You want to become aware of those emotions, because emotions drive actions. If you’re proud of your business, you’re probably going to go out and tell more people about it—and as a result, more people will engage with your business.
Owning a business is a full-time job. As a business owner, you don’t check out at five o’clock. It’s a part of you just as much as having a life is part of you—there’s no separation. And it’s absolutely natural to be unable to check out and separate your business from the rest of your life, and from your emotions.
How do you work through the things that are getting in your way?
Joni: We like to ask people, “what job is your business hiring you to do?” It’s a good practice to ask yourself every year, because it changes. What your business hired you do when when you’re a startup is to get customers, to live on a shoestring budget, to figure out your niche. But as you move five to ten years into your business, what they’re hiring you to do is different. You should be evaluating your value to the business almost every year.
The next question we ask is “what are the obstacles that get in the way of doing that job?” And by far the most common answer is people. We hear answers like “I can’t attract people”, “no one listens to me”, or “I can’t retain people.” It’s not natural to know how to manage people. For most of our education, we were individual performers—and then you get to this point where you’re trying to work with others and it’s not necessarily a behavior you’ve learned over time, so it’s difficult. But the world requires collaboration today, and it’s a much more productive, effective, and joyful way to work. We need to learn how to collaborate, to give our employees autonomy and purpose in their work.
I saw this recent commercial where they were building a car while it was on the highway, and that’s exactly what you’re doing as a business owner—you’re trying to learn how to be a leader and a manager at the same time you’re selling and building a company and paying bills. You want to learn how to do it all—but there’s a lot of work to learn how to grow and develop people.
It seems like some of us need to learn how to ask for help. What specific offerings are available from Aileron?
Joni: In our Course for Presidents, twenty to twenty-give business owners come together each month and spend two days discussing topics that are important in a long-term sustainability perspective. Not many of us are in this game so we can sell out in a year. Our plan is to grow a really awesome business and then see what the exit plan could be. So we need to work on sustainable practices, whether it be our business model and how we can keep evolving, or developing our people into the future, or becoming better leaders. The program starts the conversation about how you’re working on your business for the long term.
A lot of entrepreneurs come with true grit—they’ve learned to muscle through everything. They have this independent spirit and think they need to do it all on their own. But our brains are bad neighborhoods when we’re there by ourselves. With the Course for Presidents, we get to watch people come in who think they have it all put together, but as they start talking they begin airing all these frustrations and realize that, regardless of the industry, we’re all struggling with a lot of the same issues. Good ideas can come out of that space.
Once you leave the course, the focus is really on joining a community. We offer up business advisors that you can meet with to talk about your company specifically, or peer groups you can join, and we have an annual summit where we all get together. You’re joining a community of people that have the same goal—to grow a business in a really powerful way for the long term.