Editorial
How to Be a Good Boss When Your Team Is Understaffed
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One of the unspoken rules for running a startup is that everyone on the team wears a lot of different hats. One person gets used to taking on the job and workload of 3-4 employees, and everyone works together to get the business off the ground and running. It can be challenging at first, but most employees and workers are hungry for the experience and eager to dive in and make a difference.

However, even team members with the strongest work ethics begin to feel the pinch when an understaffed team stays understaffed for extended periods of time, but the workload continues to grow. How can a small business owner and manager keep spirits high with a lean team?

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these problems, there are some ways leaders help workers feel appreciated and want to contribute to the success of the company. Here are some rules for a great boss to follow when the going gets tough—or insanely busy.

1. Act like a team player.

I’ve long been a fan of the saying, “Lead from within, not from out front.” Whether the company is a startup or an established business, bosses and managers are often somewhat removed from the daily grind. While the subordinates are hard at work, their bosses might be out playing tennis or taking a long lunch.

What can a good manager—and great boss—do to turn the tide? The best answer is to lead by example. That means you need to act as a leader and work side-by-side with your team members, rather than taking a break and letting your employees do the heavy lifting.

Your team members might not be used to seeing you in this kind of role. If you think it might strike them as odd, talk to them about what you’ll be doing, and explain why you’re stepping up to help out before you make the transition. And then step up to the plate! Be willing to roll up your sleeves and get things done. Remember: This is part of a being a good leader.

2. Communicate!

What should you be focused on at your job? Which duties require the most of your time and energy, and which ones can be set aside for a moment? Which person should you reach out to if you’re having a problem? Now that you’re working alongside your employees, part of your leadership strategy should include a communication plan for any issues that might arise.

Not sure what to cover when creating this type of plan? Here are a few suggested areas to target.

Determine your goals. If you’re not sure what they are or should be, ask yourself if your person goals are aligned with the company’s strategy and long-term goals, how important they are to your boss and team, and the level of passion and energy you can bring to the table.

Define clear expectations about where the focus should be on new assignments and how they stack up to existing ones. Depending on the short- and long-term goals you’re trying to reach, you may prioritize new projects first and shelve older ones—or vice versa. Much of this prioritization may be for the time being, so in order to be an effective leader, it’s important that you communicate often with your direct reports and other team members if anything changes.

Talk to your direct reports and other team members in one-on-one meetings to discuss their existing responsibilities and get a better understanding of what each employee does. During these one-on-one meetings, strategize together on how to solve workload problems. If you find that your employees are focusing their time on low-priority assignments, you may want to help reorganize their workload in ways that reflect more important work. If your employees struggle to get work finished in time, work together to minimize any distractions. You may even want to schedule in weekly or monthly meetings with various team members or departments to check in with them and see how they are doing with their existing workloads.

What about the after-hours workload? Part of your communication plan may include determining if you have your team limit the emails and work that they do once they’re off the clock. You may even want to have your team unplug entirely, to give them the chance to rest and take care of their personal well-being.

3. Let your team know that you are hiring.

When you finally do have the resources to start hiring more employees, let your team members know that you’re seeking talent. Encourage employees who may know like-minded people to refer them to work at your business, and consider implementing a referral system for your team members. Include your team in the hiring decisions, too. If you’re hiring a new employee for a specific department, you may want to have the other members of the department present during the interview or help vet resumes.

When hiring, take care to ensure that you are not overstaffing. If your startup experiences a nice wave of sudden success, you may think that’s the perfect time to hire more staff. However, if you hire too many new people all at once, it could ultimately be detrimental to you and your business if you hit and stay in a slow season. Hire your full-time staff carefully—you don't want to make any mistakes. You might even hire freelancers or contract workers to help out and save on hiring costs.

4. Keep a positive attitude.

You work side-by-side your team members, communicate with them to better understand their needs, and slowly but surely are hiring new employees. All that’s left to successfully run an understaffed team is maintaining a positive attitude.

In order to be a good leader and a good manager, it's important to keep a genuinely positive attitude and view the glass as half full. Don’t let the minor setbacks and busy nature of the company get you down. This is always easier said than done, I know, but it’s worth making the extra effort to do little things that help change your mindset and cultivate your personal well-being. Exercise each day, meditate, or journal so you have a couple of moments to yourself to reflect and express your gratitude.

Bring this great attitude to work with you, and while you’re at it, make sure that your company culture reflects this kind of behavior. While every company culture (and leadership style) differs depending on the business and its mission, yours should, at the minimum, be able to offer its employees challenging workloads, flexible scheduling, and environments that allow for collaboration and positive energy. If you’re not already on that, start strategizing on what you can do to change your company culture for the better. Consider it the bonus #5 on this listicle to running a lean startup successfully!

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com, which provides online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, startup bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent services, DBAs, and trademark and copyright filing services. You can find MyCorporation on Twitter at @MyCorporation and Deborah at @deborahsweeney.

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