Believe it or not, there is a lot you don’t know about your own company, and some of what you think you know is actually wrong. At least, that’s what Lorraine Allen, regional director of the New Jersey Small Business Development Center, usually finds when her office performs strategic needs assessments on local companies.

Allen’s office evaluated one company where the management had a clear strategic vision, but the employees had no idea what it was. The miscommunication was lowering morale, she says. At another, the two people who shared leadership of a company each had their own goals and visions. The result was that half the employees were following one vision, and half another. (Allen can’t name names, since the assessments are strictly confidential.)

The problems these companies faced were serious, yet the owners would have never known about them if not for a simple questionnaire. Now a similar tool is being offered to area companies — and at no cost. Strategic needs assessments, which usually cost $1,570, are being made available for free to any business with more than 10 employees, through the Small Business Development Center at the College of New Jersey. To find out if your business is a good candidate for a strategic needs assessment, take a survey online at http://goo.gl/fl8Kz. For more information, contact the New Jersey Small Business Development Center at 609-771-2947, or visit www.tcnj.edu/~sbdc/.

The assessment process, which was developed by the University of Michigan, gives a 90-question survey to the owner or owners of a company, asking them about human resources, strategic planning, finances, and marketing.

Questionnaires are then given to employees of the company, with steps taken to ensure the employees remain anonymous so as to provide honest feedback. Then the evaluators compare the answers and give the results back to the CEOs.

“Do the employees see the same mission as the CEOs, or do they think the company is headed in the same direction as the CEOs think it is? It’s not an end-all, but it’s a great indicator. Each CEO we’ve worked with has had an ‘aha’ moment,” Allen says.

Allen knows a thing or two about leading a business. Although she started her career in the art world, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree from Millersville University and owning her own art gallery for a time, Allen has done everything from owning a housecleaning business to overseeing marketing for a national chain of wall covering stores before joining the development center 18 years ago.

Allen says that many businesses can often identify areas that need improving, especially in the realms of marketing and long-term planning. She says CEOs, especially those who started off with small companies that have grown over the years, can lose touch with what their employees are thinking.

“As they grow and build a team around them, they can become isolated,” she says. The assessment can give CEOs the means to look at their business from a strategic point of view, rather than focusing on day-to-day problem solving.

“This gives them tools they can use and interpret, just like a carpenter with a hammer or a plumber with a special wrench. We show them how to use it and why they should use it to their best advantage.”

Allen says the program might dispel the persistent myth that the development center is only for startup companies. She says 73 percent of the companies that use the center’s services are already well established. The development center is funded by tax dollars, through the Small Business Administration, and is one of 1,100 such centers around the country.

Allen says the assessments were initially offered only to members of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce, but that the chamber, after having undergone one, decided to fund the program to open it up to companies outside the chamber without cost. Allen says there is no dollar cost, but there is a time investment.

However, she says, it’s usually an investment that pays off. “Though every single business is different and the results are going to be different for every single company, it will make a difference.”

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