7 Habits of Small Business Owners Who Think Ahead of the Curve

Diana is a business owner of a popcorn company. She’s busy leading, working, delivering, packaging, presenting and planning. Some call her a nonstop force of energy. She hasn’t taken a vacation in three years.

Jack, on the other hand, is always the life of the party. No small wonder he is in sales. The problem is he has overpromised. Again. He just told a new customer that he could deliver 20,000 tins of caramel popcorn. By Friday. Why? Because Jack is looking out for Jack, and a big order translates into an even bigger commission. He doesn’t see how the decisions he makes affect other areas of the business. After all, his job is to sell, right? RIGHT?

Wrong. His job is to think strategically (moment of silence as you let this settle because this is THE key to growing a small business).

Of course, Diana’s company doesn’t have the manpower or the equipment to deliver 20,000 tins of popped perfection by Friday. The upshot: nobody is doing the TGIF dance. And Jack, the customer, the head of operations, the CMO and, especially Diana, all feel frustrated.

While an exaggerated scenario, good intentions gone wrong happen every day in business. Oftentimes, problems are rooted in the tactical – those must-do activities that shape a person’s job description. This is especially true for the business owner who has a foot in every corner of the company.

Growth-bound businesses, however, act differently. They think ahead of the curve meaning they are intentionally and strategically growing.

Here are seven habits to practice ahead of the curve thinking.

1. You take the time to assess where you are as a company.

Step one is to assess where you are. You have to look at where you fit within the marketplace, what the external forces are, customer needs and wants, how technology is impacting business, shareholder/stakeholder circumstances, the state of the industry and economy, competitive landscape, what you do well, and your challenge areas. This is what we call the discovery phase, and it’s the first step Apex takes toward helping a company grow their profits and empower their people.

2. You take an honest snapshot of what your organization is – and isn’t.

Vulnerability is like getting your lake house ready for summer. It’s necessary, but it’s messy. Few of us wake up excited to bare our weaknesses, share our screw-ups, or show our fears. But knowing your company’s vulnerabilities is a goldmine of opportunity. Do you have high turnover? Are you competitively priced? Is your brand relevant? What do customers think of your services? Are you meeting their expectations? Are your employees ticked off about the new hours? How are you contributing to the community?

3. You go WAY beyond the SWOT analysis.

A SWOT analysis, an assessment of a company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, is a great tool, but it’s too general to trigger real change. In our FutureBiz program, a growth acceleration program for small businesses, we look at nine essential areas in your business that demand separate, in-depth analysis: vision, strategy, organizational structure, culture, products and services, financial, systems and processes, people, sales and marketing.

4. You align your personal goals with the company’s vision.

Believe it or not, this is one of the hardest habits to nurture for a business owner. They are so tied to the everyday tactical side, they don’t take the time to focus on the bigger picture. Get unchained! Staying ahead of the curve means you are aligning the company’s direction with where you want to be. The company is serving you, not the other way around.

5. You ask everyone in your organization to think and act strategically.

How clear does the vision of the company and the strategy supporting that vision match up with everyone in the organization? Clear accountability empowers people inside your organization. But that’s only half the story. You also must share what’s in it for them. I see a lot of companies who “tell” their team the vision, but don’t ever share how they will benefit from living towards the vision. Think about it: if everyone saw the rewards of their collective work, wouldn’t it be a more adventurous, happier road to success? Plus, when issues arise, it’s a whole lot better to face them together than figuring it all out by yourself.

6. You and your team create a strategy map.

Ahead of the curve thinking has meaning when it’s written down. You – and your team – need to visually see every business area. Remember Jack? He worked in a silo. He didn’t see the impact of his decision on other parts of the business. A strategy map says “you are here” and “this is where you want to go,” most likely in five to seven years. It offers a path toward continuous improvement and filters out symptoms from causes. If you fix one root cause, oftentimes, you solve a larger, more endemic problem.

7. You embrace diversity thinking.

You’ve heard of strategic thinking, but diversity thinking is just as relevant. This means getting multiple perspectives and eliminating blind spots. It helps the accounting department understand how they are impacting sales and how the operations management team can impact marketing. Example: If someone in operations is a bottleneck, then trust and relationship building for the sales team is marginalized. Silo thinking is dangerous. There are decisions made in each major function of the organization that affects the company as a cohesive unit. When one is out of joint, it creates disruption in another part.

So these are the seven habits for ahead of the curve thinking for business owners hungry to grow their companies. Now, the tough question: how do you know if you’ve been successful? Answer: your vision is fulfilled. Your personal goals as a business owner are achieved. Transformation has occurred in you and you are being recognized in direct proportion to your efforts (translation: you don’t feel so twitchy about your 12-plus hour days). Your company is growing, profitable, confident.

You’ll know a business with ahead of the curve thinking when you see one. They have vibrant innovation, streamlined processes, less risk, less “bad” surprises, and a proactive culture where EVERYBODY is working toward the vision and being rewarded for their efforts.

And one more thing. Jack’s story becomes a scary, almost forgotten tale from the past.


1. Allocate time to think ahead.
2. Embrace vulnerability when it comes to your company.
3. Everyone on the team is a strategic thinker.
4. Sharing responsibility for strategic thinking gives shared ownership.
5. There are many decisions made in each major function of the organization that affects the company as a cohesive unit.
6. Ahead of the curve thinking connects an owner’s goals with the company’s destination.

Apex CPAs and Consultants, Inc., is the largest CPA firm headquartered in the Tri-Cities. Apex’s FutureBiz program helps growth-minded business owners achieve life goals through the success of their business. A member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the Illinois CPA Society, Apex undergoes a voluntary peer review every three years and has received the highest rating issued under the program since the firm’s inception in 1998. Contact Apex at 630-584-4555. The firm is located in St. Charles, Ill.

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