So I woke up to a warning from Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), that the rate of unemployment in Nigeria may rise to 33.5% next year from the current rate pegged at 23.1%. According to the body, lack of employment opportunities and the shutdown of several companies are the reasons for the renewed fears.
Now, this came to me as I noticed a growing trend, the constant criticism of small businesses aka one-man businesses.
I am inundated with remarks on how people do not want to work for them, how badly they are run and how badly they treat employees.
As a business owner, I find the stories lop-sided, and as I haven’t really seen anyone speaking on behalf of these unique group of people, I have taken it upon myself to do the honours.
This piece is not about giving excuses for the poor practices that many one man businesses are supposedly notorious for, it is instead an appeal for support and a peak into some pertinent factors that perhaps drive those unbecoming behaviours.
These businesses have always existed and serve a worthy purpose to the greater socio-economy. My father has run a business for over 40 years, with a good number of his staff working for over for 30 years. What has changed over time? My take, the operating environment.
It was William Marston’s theory in his book The Emotions of Normal People, that postulated that human behaviour is a function of the environment in which the individual finds himself. His theory describes the environment on a continuum ranging from friendly to challenging, with the individual ‘s behaviour largely defined by their perception of their environment and their reaction as a result of that perception. Going by his theory, it is seemingly unfounded to judge the behaviour of businesses and business owners in isolation of the harsh operating environment in which they find themselves.
Today, Nigerian businesses run in a very hostile environment. The problems are a myriad when you consider institutional corruption and the erosion of national values. Aside the rising socio-economic ills, the economy is very VUCA; volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. There are no strong public sector led initiatives, tackling a robust array of needs of the small business. The statutory especially tax bodies seem to be on a mission to frustrate the plight of the small business owner. Sometimes, it is difficult to accept that their isn’t a deliberate ploy to kill off small businesses.
Despite these setbacks, these one-man businesses are the largest employer of labour, they account for 98% of employment opportunities. I tell job seekers all the time, excluding this group of businesses in a job search strategy is as good as saying I don’t want a job.
The outcome of their demise will be devasting to the economy, as millions of homes that they provide a means of livelihood will languish in poverty. Their eclectic survival is by far a better outcome than their demise.
In my experience and discussions with entrepreneurs, there are three other pertinent issues that the small business owner grapples with; inadequate levels of financial capita, human capital and one that is never spoken about, mental health issues.
Financial capital is often at suboptimal levels. From unpredictable revenues to spiralling costs, the business owner is working day and night to meet up with their financial responsibilities. Debtors abound and debt collection is a necessary competence for the business owner. The anxiety that befalls every month-end preceeding staff pay day is like clock work. I remember a friend ascribing her male boss’ month-end mood swings as Pre-Menstrual Syndrome.
On human capital, the issues I see these as three-fold, with the most cited issue as poor structure. This largely stems from not knowing what the optimal operating structure of their business should be and/or not being able to implement the structure the business requires. Implementing a structure is achieved by implementing corporate governance via a functional board and hiring the right number people with the right competencies to fill the critical roles the business requires. Many small businesses do not know how to do this for themselves.
This brings me to the next issue, that many business owners lack adequate knowledge and skills in the areas of business operations management. You cannot give what you don’t have. Ignorance in this case is not bliss but additional pain and longer suffering. As a result, the one man business also operates as a one-man army, wearing multiple hats and executing many roles, the result is often counterproductive.
The third and biggest human capital issue is what the small business owners I regularly encounter think their biggest problem is; that they are unable to attract and retain the type of talent/staff their businesses need to thrive. The best talent in the market are not the cheapest options. Many small businesses feel they cannot easily access or afford the quality of talent that they need to hire for their businesses.
While talent attraction issues border around the inability to pay competitively, retention issues are a bit more complex. I have seen employees of small businesses behave in ways that they are unlikely to behave in larger firms. Notwithstanding, there are also negative behaviours that are more likely of small business owners.
This brings me to the last issue with no one really talks about; the issue of mental health of the business owner.
Need I say, anyone under perpetual pressure, without a special annointing, will struggle to be the wonderful boss you desire them to be.
Research reveals that entrepreneurs share innate character traits that make them more vulnerable to mood swings. Those mood states include depression, feeling of worthlessness, hopelessness and suicidal thinking.
Many entrepreneurs are clinically depressed. The US statistics cite that 49% of entrepreneurs have experienced mental health issues, we can only guess what the Nigerian numbers are.
I know a few entrepreneurs that drift in and out of depressive states, one of them I got to find out when I noticed he regularly shuts out for 2 to 3 days. He explained those times where when it got particularly rough, and he battled more fiercely with suicidal thoughts.
Forget the resilience mask we often pull off, the reality is daunting for the entrepreneur.
Running a business anywhere is a big feat, running a business in Nigeria will tinker and tamper with your mental health.
I cannot speak on behalf of other employers, I can only say that I possess a unique profile haven been in senior management as an employee and now on the other side as an employer. Recent assessments using validated tools of my personality profile show a dramatic change. Let’s just say, I have manifested some behaviours that I either didn’t have before or I didn’t feel the need to use as an employee. I currently display more of what is described as dominant behaviours like directing, driving results and pushing boundaries. Like all strengths, if over used, these behaviours come with their fair share of limitations.
I will be the first to admit that I have not always been proud of my behaviour in certain circumstances but one thing I am clear of is that my behavioir at work is very much situational. The lessons have been brutal, and the experiences have challenged me on several occasions to end my business owner journey for something less mentally and emotionally draining.
When I studied psychology, I learned that with understanding an individual’s context can help us move from judging them to understanding thereby improving our relationships. I wrote this because I hadn’t seen anyone really speak up on the small business owner side.
The average small business in Nigeria is either dying or struggling to survive. Very few, if any are truly thriving.
The average small business owner is either depressed or on the brink of depression. Rather than the criticism often spewed, business owners need a lot more help and plenty of support.
The demise of small businesses is our collective demise, if not tackled it will simply compound our socio-economic woes.
Small businesses and their owners really need help. Rather than criticise them, they need to be nurtured by providing real action in the form of public and private sector led initiatives.
Initiatives such as knowledge sharing sessions, business management training, management coaching, access to funding, tax breaks, counselling and therapy support groups are few ways we can help small businesses and save them from failing.
Let’s take real action to save this crucial part of the eco-system. Let’s improve the operating environment for small businesses. Let’s tackle unemployment and lift individuals and homes out of poverty. Let’s help and support small businesses owners. Let’s save small businesses from impending demise. Help them become the companies that many of them desire to be.
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