The Big Impact of Building People in Small Business (and How to Start With Your SMB)

If you want to create better potential and performance for your business, build your people.

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Hear from global business executive Ryan Patel on why you should form a culture to harness your people’s potential

Build people. If we can make an impact at an individual level, we can certainly make an impact at a global level.

— Ryan Patel, Global Business Executive

RP NYC Nasdaq Tower

If you are a leader at a small business, this quote is for you — and your people. And, if you don’t think that investing your time, interest, and network on behalf of your team could have a global impact, the author of this quote — Ryan Patel — thinks you should reconsider.

Ryan is a global business executive and a frequent guest on CNN, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in the boardrooms of big businesses like HP, Mastercard, and Lego. He also taps that context for entrepreneurs as a board and faculty member for The Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University, and as a trainer for NASDAQ’s Entrepreneurial Center.

And yes, that is a photo of him and his quote on the NASDAQ billboard in Times Square: covering a quarter acre of prime Manhattan real estate.

Ryan thinks big and is used to big stages, but he is acutely aware of the quickly-changing catalyst for the next big things: small businesses. And even though he holds degrees from schools known for fueling massive tech innovation — Berkeley and UCLA — he’ll tell you Silicon Valley doesn’t have it right when it comes to building business. They tend to put too much focus on products.

“Imagine if we put the same energy and focus into collaborating on how to build our people that we put into how to build our products? How radically different our product and business outcomes could be.”

Ryan’s premise: the best business ROI comes from actively, creatively, and purposefully working to build a diverse set of skills and connections for a diverse set of people.

“Don’t just teach for the role, teach for the human. When you tap into what motivates the whole person, you create better potential and performance for your business.”

Aligning play, purpose, and potential

Motivation researcher and author of Primed to Perform, Neel Doshi, calls this “TOMO,”  the Total Motivation that comes from fueling a sense of play, purpose and potential at work.  To be clear, play is not about ping pong tables and great snacks. It is about being so aligned with your role and what you are good at doing, that the work is like play.

In fact, the next generation of small business leaders, like those in Ryan’s Global Business classes, are driving the conversation about taking a bigger view on building people. It’s not just ensuring they’re more successful when they work for you, it’s helping to create a virtuous cycle of people-building that will carry forward to their next jobs, and in the process, building stronger networks of care.

“Let’s be clear, more candidates are coming from university negotiating their benefits around things like time off for volunteering, and they’re deeply interested in the ethos and purpose of the businesses they are joining,” Ryan says.

“You are building not just individuals, but building a culture that cares. Investing your time in sharing what you know and who you know— in and out of the office — differentiates your business and builds broader and deeper networks where people feel more safe to participate more fully. Today’s business leaders need to be invested and motivated to inspire people not just to come to work but to want to work.”

And this isn’t just pandering to Millennials. Companies aligned to purposes like better impacts on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) have a better return on average than those who don’t.

“If you are looking at it from a profitability perspective, think about the loyalty and the goodwill that can be generated by doing something positive in the community — and building your people to be part of that,” Ryan adds.

He notes that small businesses have a unique opportunity to make employees feel like they’re a part of the community — and that Wall Street is even shifting to reward companies who care about, and act on, social issues.

“If your business is open, listening carefully to your people and actively building them to know how to be heard, they’ll be better at solving hard problems, opening new ideas, new partnerships and new revenue streams. You are building not just for one person or for your local business presence you are building for global impact.”

Reasons to build your people

Ryan points out that we’ve all adapted over the last year because we had to: “But can you do it when you don’t have to? This is what we need to reinforce in our small businesses.”

Ryan is a trend spotter, identifying opportunities that can drive business and markets, world wide. Here are two opportunities he thinks small businesses should dial into from a people perspective. Are they on your business radar?

Skills gap

America’s small businesses took the brunt of the Pandemic storm, but also led some of the most breath-taking pivots in the face of obstacles. They transformed to meet the moment with PPE supplies and equipment, 3-D printing innovations and much more.  In the process of meeting demand they ran out of supply for a whole new set of skills. Building a better ethos of learning and connection will help you and your team watch for emerging trends, tap an ecosystem of expertise and provide skills to succeed in the future.


This starts with your inclusive hiring and development practices to nurture a culture of innovation and collaboration and caring. It is not just words but consistent actions and candor that will be seen inside and outside your business. Your reputation will precede you not only with hiring and retaining staff, but will have a ripple effect to customers and partners.

Where to start: building a culture of caring for the whole person

Ryan enjoys his catbird seat in the business classroom, seeing what the next generation of leaders are thinking about, even as the learning and career paths they’d envisioned a year ago have taken dramatic turns.

“Obstacles make people go new ways,” Ryan says. “People want to combine their personal passions with their professions; they want to make an impact. Even siloed in their homes, they’re using their voices to be heard individually and collectively. They are participating in the gig economy in record numbers, creating a new type of workforce. They’re tackling big problems to disrupt and reimagine healthcare, HR, and so much, and more efficiently, impactfully, and nimbly.”

With that in mind here are a few places to start building a culture to harness your people’s potential:

ryan patel infographic

  • Challenge.  Challenge the status quo on development.  Building your people is not about meeting workplace compliance regulations. What can you do to give more of your time, attention, insight and connections to powering their purpose?  Of course there are resource constraints.  But the power of small business is collaboration.  So consider how to start balancing the focus of your collaboration not only on products and customers, but on building up one another.
  • Collaborate: It’s not just that you collaborate, it’s how you frame it. Instead of thinking of it as bringing them along and making everyone better, think about the value to you and your leadership team to consider having your workforce bring you along too. Give them the resources to lead.
  • Include: Don’t overlook the power of an inclusive community. Big companies have issues of diversity of thought and it’s rippling through boardroom discussions and actions on governance.  As a small business you can be more nimble in changing how you are hiring, and how you equally include your people once they’re onboard.
  • Personalize. In this era of e-commerce and mass customization where as consumers we can get personalized experiences from the shows we watch to the music we listen to, to the things we wear. So, how do you personalize the experience for your people at work? Our people deserve more than a thank you on their work anniversary — but that’s a good start.  It could be as small as a note about an accomplishment, or a regular practice of gratitude, or in this era of Zoom where we see our colleagues’ kids and pets on the regular, simply checking in on their lives. Let your people know you care: it’s something you can’t buy.

Ryan concludes: “As leaders, by probing and prodding to think differently, we stimulate new ideas and potential for ourselves, our people and our communities. Caring for this community will pivot us to the right spots in how we look at and care for the world.  Be kind, and build people. It’s contagious.”

Intrigued by this line of thinking? Check out Ryan’s conversation on the POPS Podcast below and follow him on LinkedIn where he is regularly polling, prodding, engaging, and curating ideas on what’s next. You can also find and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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