Thirty years ago, the term “glass ceiling” was first coined to describe the invisible barrier preventing women from advancing their careers, despite their qualifications. Nearly every business has its own version of a glass ceiling, one made up of unseen obstacles such as sales numbers that won’t rise, unplanned expenses that undermine profit, and employee problems that leave little time for the real work of building one’s business. In this mix are the owner’s fears and unproductive habits, which create weaknesses in the health of the business.
Hitting your store’s glass ceiling is not fun, but it’s not truly bad, either; it’s simply a sign you are in the active process of evolving your business. Once you recognize your business is stuck and your glass ceiling is looming overhead, you have a choice: Move forward or retreat.
For more than 20 years I have faced such barriers in my business, and through conversations with other business owners and mentors, I have uncovered nine steps to help you break through the glass ceiling of your business and achieve lasting success.
STEP 1: Recognize your business has a glass ceiling
Maybe you can’t make it past $500,000 without your system falling apart, or when you add that fifth employee the team crumbles, or stuff keeps happening to clear out your savings, preventing you from stocking up for the holiday rush. Whatever the reason, your store’s glass ceiling is a recurring business nightmare from which you are ready to wake up. The first step is admitting you have a problem, right?
If you distill business down to its core essence, it is an ongoing balance of risk-reward to risk-failure. Shattering your glass ceiling requires persistence in moments of doubt and a willingness to fail and then learn from those failures. In the words of Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad Poor Dad), your business will either eat you or feed you, each experience a bite in either direction. So, start asking why this glass ceiling appears over and over again in your business at the same point in your growth, and get ready to shatter it.
STEP 2: Have no regrets
Most entrepreneurs have experienced a moment of ultimate frustration that clarifies whether they are in the right business. Before you reach that point, gather your most trusted advisors and have an honest conversation that starts with the question, “If I had to do this all over again, would I?” Your yes or no answer should come quickly and from the core of your being. It is likely to be a very emotional and passionate answer, and that’s good—you need that passion and emotional push to get you through the steps needed to break through your invisible barrier to business success.
The next question to ask is, “Would I do this differently?” Consider this your permission to do it all over again with greater wisdom and knowledge. You faced the hardest challenge for your business to date and you’re still breathing, so you know you can turn the discouragement of being stopped by your store’s glass ceiling into proof you have the strength and wherewithal to reach your next level of success.
As you start to plan your business do-over, take into account how you will reward yourself for your hard work, because when you get a new burst of inspiration for your business, it’s too easy to work until you drop. Entrepreneurs spend 60 or more hours a week working on their businesses—63 percent higher than the average worker—and this is when the vicious cycle of burnout happens. Burnout is a real, life-changing issue for business owners, and can itself be the cause of the glass ceiling. Each time you hit that burnout barrier, it gets harder and harder to recover. Limiting your working hours, contracting out some of the workload, taking mini-vacations, or maybe just paying yourself more (or at all!) can be the remedy you need to feel worthy in your own business.
STEP 3: Define your success
As a small-business owner, defining your store’s success is a very personal goal. Success doesn’t have to mean achieving billionaire status, it just has to be meaningful and worth all the hard work you put in. Small goals are great stepping stones, but rarely do they inspire you to reach outside your comfort zone, nor do they give you the “power punch” needed to break through your store’s glass ceiling. Would you trade your 60-hour work week for a net gain of $2,000 a year? Most would decline that invitation with fervor, yet many goals are just that—small increases that don’t significantly increase the quality of your life or your business.
Your success is not limited to net profits at the end of the year. Let your goals be whole-life oriented, working in combination with end-of-year profits. How about a boat, or more time on the boat you already own? How about a family vacation or maybe just taking time off every month to recharge your batteries? Bring your staff into this goal-making activity. You may find their biggest motivator is an extra week of vacation every year, healthcare, or just company-paid gym memberships. Everyone needs inspiring goals and rewards along the way.
STEP 4: Look bravely at your limitations—and forgive yourself for having them
The figurative bump on your head when you hit the glass ceiling of your business may jar some awareness of what your store’s limitations may be, and often it’s hard not to take those limitations personally. You work really hard! Why is it never enough? You may be the business owner who tries to be the expert on everything or who ignores what she doesn’t know, but beware: You are human—you can’t master everything.
Get real on what your limitations are. Do you hate technology and resent the move to e-commerce? Maybe you don’t like to manage people and can’t tolerate the training process, or you aren’t good at math, so you avoid accounting systems at all costs (and with them your profitability). From inventory management to advertising, the weak spots in your business can become the unsteady structure upon which your glass ceiling is built. It’s time to put your grown-up pants on, face your fears and self-doubt, and forgive yourself for having them. When you admit you don’t like a particular part of the business, it’s easier to delegate that work rather than ignore its existence.
STEP 5: Recognize things need to evolve
Being resistant to changing a process, belief, or attitude may be the first clue to what your store’s glass ceiling is made of. Turn over every rock and find your unhealthy practices—they usually hide where you are most reluctant to look. This process starts at the top with you bravely uncovering limitations you have set for yourself. When you find them, step away from the “should” and let go of self-judgment. If you can move toward an understanding of how your habits and beliefs were formed, you will quickly find yourself in a place of problem resolution.
This rock-turning process is also an eye opener to your staffing challenges. You will find where you have taken on too much, where current staff is incapable of the next step you want to take, and where you have underutilized employees. It’s true some employees may need to be freed up for their next opportunity, but before you indiscriminately bring out the dead-wood hatchet, remember it’s more expensive to train new staff members than retrain or reassign existing ones. Maybe retraining or a change in responsibilities is in order.
STEP 6: Bring in the professionals
If your store has a glass ceiling, it may be you have reached the maximum potential of your knowledge base, in which case it’s time to take classes, hire a consultant, find a mentor, and read some books. Traction by Gino Wickman and E-Myth by Michael Gerber describe two of the better known organizational systems for small businesses. SCORE (Service Core of Retired Executives, www.score.org) offices around the country provide free mentoring for your business. Even your local chamber of commerce will have a handful of reputable business consultants to recommend. The goal is to find a system that helps your business grow.
You might cringe at the idea of a system—you may have started your business to get away from corporate restrictiveness. But, even nature in the wild has an organic system of growth. Learning new ideas and getting help isn’t about losing your identity, it’s about finding the rhythm of your business so you have the resources and energy to do what you really want to do. When you find a new system, trust the process and, very important, learn the system intimately before you start implementing changes.
STEP 7: Reacquaint yourself with your passion and core values
Every business coach will start your glass ceiling disassembly by helping you define your values, mission, and vision. You are already working with these values, especially on a subconscious level. They frame your business culture, influence the decisions you make, and even skew the interview process for new employees. When you pull the values into your conscious mind and let everyone in on the secret, you can help everyone travel in the same direction.
Without the backing of your values, it’s hard to stay on course and easy to be distracted by the next great idea (which probably has nothing to do with your current one). By rediscovering the passion you have for your business and recommitting to your values, you will find the strength needed to smash through your glass ceiling.
STEP 8: Prioritize work-life balance
Your business growing pains can show “bruises” in your personal life. You may start out being one with your business, but as it grows up, you can—and should—have a life outside it. Strategically taking time away from your business will force you to have better systems in place, shore up staff accountability, and get everyone on the same team. When you are always at the shop micromanaging every detail, your team has no opportunity to shine, because your light is just too blinding. It almost seems counterintuitive to embrace the philosophy that your business would be healthier if you spent less time in it, but that’s the truth!
STEP 9: Decide to be profitable
Deciding to be profitable is the key to crashing through the glass ceiling of your business and finding lasting success, yet that decision can be the very one store owners refuse to make. “I don’t want to be one of those over-priced stores.” “I want our prices to be fair.” “My customers won’t (or can’t) spend more on these products.” “We’re doing okay and making a little profit every month.”
There is no question you love and respect your customers. They keep you in business, keep your day interesting, and love you for being open and providing them a source of joy. They also make sure you pay your rent, have a chicken in your pot, fix your car or the hole in the roof, expand your product base, and hire new staff. In other words, each sale you make contributes to all these eventualities, so you must make sure your products are priced right to put money in the bank—money which allows you to reinvest in your future.
In Rich Dad Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki talks about paying yourself first. This means planning for profit and growing a savings account for the eventuality of a crisis. In Simple Numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits, Greg Crabtree says a five-percent profit margin is akin to being the Oruborus, the snake that eats its tail: You will eventually consume yourself and have nothing left to reinvest in your business in times of crisis. You know crises happen, so prep for them.
Choosing to be profitable is not taking advantage of your customers; it’s ensuring everyone wins with each purchase. Your customers win because they get what they want; you win because you can stay in business and grow. Everyone expects prices to go up, and no one likes it when they do. Yes, there will be complaints and an adjustment period, but if you don’t ensure a comfortable profit margin, you have a temporary job, not a viable business.
Becoming successful doesn’t just happen; it is a process that requires hard work, personal growth, and a positive attitude. When you muster courage in the face of uncertainty and recognize your business has a glass ceiling, you empower yourself to start asking questions about why it’s there and what needs to be changed to break through it.
Breaking through your glass ceiling takes tenacity, courage, sacrifice, and diligence. It also takes passion, excitement, vision, and love. Kick out the fears that create “analysis paralysis” and make the changes that will remove your barriers to success. Reward yourself and your team along the way and you will feed your own enthusiasm, avoid burnout, and soon realize the sky’s your only limit.
First published in Vol. 28 No. 6 of Retailing Insight. © 2014 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.