Over the past few years, there has been a significant shift in the way that small business owners approach the mental health of their employees. Rather than avoiding the subject altogether, they now realize how integral their staff’s well-being is to the overall success of their business. So, what can you do to promote better mental health at your workplace? In this episode, Jon Aidukonis and Gene Marks, along with Shift Collab co-founder, Jordan Axani, discuss how small business owners can implement their own mental health initiatives and help their employees access the resources and treatment they need.
0:28—Today’s Topic: How Can Small Business Owners Improve Mental Health in the Workplace?
3:30—Mental health, as it pertains to the work environment, has two facets: mental wellness and mental illness. Mental wellness examines how well we function with the responsibilities of our daily lives. Mental illness is any diagnosable condition that can have significant biological consequences for our brains.
5:32—As a business owner, you have to examine what aspects of your work might be undermining the mental well-being of your employees and then offer the appropriate resources to support them.
9:05—Recognize that individuals of an earlier generation may have different views on how to address mental health and therefore, might be resistant to the shifts occurring in this field. If this is the case, show them how mental health can impact employee productivity.
11:42—One way to promote emotional well-being in your office is to create a time and place for your employees to safely voice their mental health concerns. By fostering this level of transparency, you can ultimately find a solution.
15:09—Business leaders must constantly balance empathy with honesty when they address their employees’ mental well-being.
17:20—Your goal is not to become your employees’ therapist. You can demonstrate compassion toward your employees while also maintaining professionalism and setting clear boundaries and expectations.
22:21—Workplace mental health initiatives are a two-way street. Your staff must keep themselves informed about all the resources at their disposal so that they can address any issues that might be diminishing their performances.
25:39—To further destigmatize the need for professional help, you should include mental health treatment as a part of your business’s benefit package. However, you need to make sure that the mental health professionals who provide these services can effectively treat your employees.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.
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Jon: Hello everybody, and welcome back to another episode of Small Biz Ahead, the podcast for small business presented by The Hartford. This is Jon Aidukonis. I am joined with my cohost, Gene Marks, and a special guest today, Jordan Axani. He is the co-founder and partner of Shift Collab. And today we’re going to have a little talk about mental health in the workplace. How’s everybody doing?
Jordan: Doing great. Thanks for having me.
Gene: Thanks for coming on.
Jon: Thanks for joining us. How’s it going?
Jordan: Great. Great. Look, there’s an awful lot of movement and things going on in the workplace mental health industry, of course, and COVID’s presented more challenges. And so it’s been a busy time, but a wonderful and fulfilling time. And it’s been so great to have these conversations out there in the open. So truly, thank you for the opportunity and let’s roll up our sleeves and get into it.
Jon: Maybe we can start a little bit, Jordan. Can you tell us a little bit about Shift Collab and the work that you do there?
Jordan: Absolutely. So Shift is a funny company because we’re an integrated business offering two things. So one is a therapy practice. So we’re a Canadian company and we have therapists from coast to coast, around 80 therapists that practice with us right now. And the challenge that we ran into is one-to-one therapy is all well and good. However, what is more beneficial in the context of our working lives is where those one-to-one aha moments that come out of therapy can be translated into the workplace. And so that is our second side of our business, where we provide workplace mental health training, talks, workshop, ongoing coaching and support for companies across North America, ranging from tech titans like LinkedIn and Shopify, to research institutions like the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, all the way down to CPG companies and service-based businesses.
Jordan: Well, look, I think the burden is all over the place. Let me put it this way. The U.S. has always been a great market for that side of the business. I suppose we could look at it that way. But by the same token, there’s a lot of pain everywhere. And what’s been really surprising with some of this work is it’s taken us to, even more recent months, deliver virtual training to groups in the Asia Pacific region, the Middle East and beyond. This is truly a global challenge when we talk about workplace wellness. And so I can assure you, it’s not just you folks.
Jon: What I think is interesting is we just got through probably one of the most difficult years that, I’d say, most people living today have gone through. 2020 was a lot. I think everyone was ready for a little break. 2021 started out with some of that same intensity, but I feel like we’re settling into whatever you want to call this, whether it’s the new normal, or the expectation of every day being historical. That’s my new joke. I’m sick of living through, this is a historic day. I just want a boring day. But I think what comes with that is, most notably probably for our audience, a new way of working, a new way of leading, a new way of being led. So are there things, when you talk about mental health, and you help us define that. Are we really talking traditional and well and clearly defined things that might also be known as mental illness? Are we talking more about exhaustion? Is it this ethereal concept of burnout, whatever that might mean to you personally? If someone is struggling with their mental health, what might that take form as?
Jordan: I love that you asked this question because mental health, when we talk about it in the context of work, while well-intentioned, it’s a buzzword and it’s really a catch all now. So we like to think of mental health as a spectrum that sits on two axes. So one axis is our mental wellness, which is our ability to thrive in our daily life. And what’s interesting about mental wellness is it comes down to a lot of our preventative behaviors are self-regulation. So for example, stress management. That would fall under the mental wellness category. Being able to deal with the anxiety of changes that are ongoing in the world or in our lives, being able to navigate relationships, those would fall within our mental wellness bucket.
Jordan: And on the other axis, we have mental illness. And so mental illness, of course, being a diagnosable condition that comes either naturally or through our life’s experiences that has significant biological consequences for our brains. And so all of us, we exist on this spectrum. So imagine these two axes, it’s very possible that you have no mental illness whatsoever, but you are extremely mentally unwell. It is also possible for you to have mental illness, but to be mentally well, and other combinations too. We all exist and we all drift around this spectrum over time. And so mental health is the broad understanding of the intersection of those two elements. Does that make sense?
Jon: That does. And what’s interesting is, I guess, based on the work that you do, that maybe there’s some key themes that you see arise among today’s workforce that might indicate, “Hey business owner or manager leader, it might be time to check in with your team because this might be something that’s indicating either a struggle with wellness or illness.” Am I correct in that assumption?
Jordan: Oh yeah, absolutely. And a lot of what we see in the workplace starts off with concerns around mental wellness. And the challenge is, say something like chronic stress. So chronic stress left unchecked and left to fester in our minds, over time can very well lead to, not just mental illness, but to degenerative diseases as well. And so a lot of the burden that’s being put on leaders in business now is to become more aware of the causes of negative or not optimal mental wellness on their teams. And it begins with a lot of those everyday examples, stress, workload, supporting people while they’re grieving, assisting with accommodations when that’s required. Being able just to have conversations, human to human, and really hear your people and validate their emotions and what’s going on in their lives, all those things have so many benefits in how people start to deal with their own challenges.
Jordan: So that’s really where a lot of this stuff starts in workplaces. When we go into workplaces, it’s pretty rare that we’re rolling up our sleeves because there is a lot of collective mental illness that’s present within an organization. That may be common in some, for example, if we’re dealing with law enforcement or emergency services, there’s an awful lot of PTSD, which is a mental illness. But in more of our everyday business category, it’s the mental wellness stuff. And one way I like to put it is mental health right now, and in particular mental wellness, is not as much of a clinical problem as it is a leadership one. Every leader has the capacity to learn the fundamentals of what a mentally well workplace looks like and build that as part of their culture and their operating principles within their organization. That doesn’t require a therapist. That doesn’t require a PhD to come in and tell you exactly what to do and how. Those are the soft skills that now, I think, workplaces really, really crave.
Jordan: And in fact, it’s funny, we just did a big survey with Zero, their team out of the U.S., the accounting software. And one of the questions we asked was, is leadership in your organization… The exact wording is escaping me, but the gist of it was, do you see your company supporting mental wellness? And we asked a bunch of questions to do with that, but then the follow up was, do you believe your business is more competitive if it supports employee mental wellness? And overwhelmingly, people rate that very high. It was agree or strongly agree. And so it’s not just this soft thing that’s nice to do for people, which is, I think, how we thought of this stuff for a long time, but it actually has organizational benefits.
Jordan: And that’s really, I think, where groups like ours are starting to have conversations with leaders because we have to make things make sense in business terms. And then the fact that we’re all so, collectively as a society, we’re really trying to move the needle in how we talk about mental health and mental wellness. That has intrinsic benefits, but it all starts from a place of understanding as a leader, “Hey, I have a responsibility for this.”
Gene: Yeah. This whole thing sounds like such a… It’s such a generational thing. I don’t even think, Jordan, we could be having this conversation 20 years ago because-
Jordan: Oh, no.
Gene: It’s a new thing. And yet, obviously, mental health and mental health awareness is a critical thing that improves profitability and productivity in a company. But then we’ve got a lot of people that run businesses, frankly, that are my age in our mid fifties, where we were growing up, we were raised to not share those feelings or to not really pay attention to that kind of stuff. Just get the work already. You know what I mean?
Gene: So what do you say, Jordan, to those older business owners to make them appreciate how important this type of awareness is for their employees and their company?
Jordan: Well, I think the first thing is to acknowledge exactly what you just did, acknowledge that this has been a shift. When we work with big research institutions or think tanks, ones that often have a lot of academia in their backbone, affiliations with universities and stuff, there’s a lot of that old boys approach where it’s like, “Hey, when I was doing my doctoral research, it nearly killed me, and so it has to do that for you too.” That’s the belief that comes down. And so what we find to be helpful is, look, let’s be very honest that things have changed.
Jordan: And then let’s go a step further and say, “Look, let’s also be very honest. You have suppressed a lot too, at different points in your career. Just because you are from a different generation doesn’t mean you’re immune. And let’s talk about what that was for you. We don’t have to put you out on a chaise lounge and get into your earliest memories of your working life, but that is to say is, let’s do a little bit of thinking about the things that you wish were available to you in your earlier years or in your formative years of your career. Let’s think about how you wish your managers and your executives engaged with you on these topics.” And when we start having that kind of conversation, almost as if we could rewrite history, we tend to get a lot of movement because people will start to say, “Okay, whoa, holy crap. Now that I pull that back, actually, what I see is something that really has been a key driver in my overall intensity, or that has shaped my belief about myself and my working identity. Actually, that did come from those formative years.”
Jordan: And once we can crack open that conversation with a leader, we can start to see that’s not so scary. And one of the things that often gets mixed up in all of this is, I think, a lot of leaders believe that in order to lean into these conversations, it means that you almost have to have a town hall within your company and bare all. That your CEO is going to stand up and say, “Look, here’s every painful thing that’s ever happened to me. Here’s the lies I’ve been living.” All that kind of stuff. And that’s all well and good, vulnerability is fantastic, but the reality is you don’t actually have to do that as a leader. You just need to create space to acknowledge the things that are intrinsically going on in people’s minds, and even just lead with a little bit of that curiosity and give space for people to explore that.
Jordan: One of the byproducts of our generation, the younger… I’m of the generation just below yourself there. And one of the things that I think is very common in our generation is that there is this hunger to be seen, to tell our stories, to feel less alone. I think probably because so much of our digital lives that’s made us feel so isolated. So there’s this desire we all have to rip off our mask and say, “Hey, here I am, world.” In the context of the workplace, all we have to do as leaders is give the time and the space for people to do that. And then what I find is the rest takes care of itself, because we are so open about these challenges, which means we’re more open to ask for support. We’re more open to ask for help.
Jordan: The other thing I’ll say on this too, is there’s shortcuts that you can make. So for example, one of the tricks that we’ve used a bunch of times over the years is we built our own anonymous texting tool years ago. And we’ll go into a workplace or even an executive team for that matter, and we’ll ask them to share a anonymously using this platform, what’s keeping them up at night right now. Or what do you wish you were courageous enough to share with your colleagues? Big, heavy hitting questions. And you guys can imagine, we’re getting these looks from these executive teams in their fifties and sixties saying, “Who are these kids? What did we sign ourselves up for?” But given space and given the opportunity to share with the fewer embarrassment, most people end up leaning into this a lot and opening up.
Jordan: And the way we built our platform is it’s not traceable. So anything you share, it’s just at a time and place, we can never figure out who said what. And we show people how that works to build trust, and then when you see the responses from your colleagues, whether that’s your board members, or your management team, or your whole company, and you see what everyone’s holding, we try to get to that feeling of, “Holy crap. I thought I was alone, but I’m not.” And once you get a team to that point, or even to a leadership team that’s of an older generation at that point to see that they aren’t alone in feeling the things that they are, having the beliefs that they do, ultimately that’s where people will commit and say, “Okay. I do have to change up how we’re approaching this thing in our company.” It’s a really beautiful transition. We step in to help with that.
Jon: Jordan, that’s interesting, because, to Gene’s point, I think there’s one generational difference where sometimes you might’ve been raised to keep your work self and your personal self really separate. I feel increasingly, we hear in companies, bring your whole self to work and see what that can do and if you can really be inclusive of your strategy and create this environment for openness, you can see better business results, which I agree with. But I think what’s often, what I see sometimes, and I think you got here when you were talking about people look at the software buzzword, is how do you balance empathy with honesty? I think that’s sometimes the balance that I’ll witness being tough, where I personally don’t think empathy means being super nice and socially pleasant all the time. I think it means being able to have open and honest conversations that are going to help move somebody forward or something forward.
Jon: And I think the truth doesn’t always, it’s not a Teddy bear. The saying is the truth hurts. And I go back to growing up in my career in the early two thousands, there was literally a book called If You Have To Cry, Go Outside, where the notion was learn to take that advice and trust your intuition and be bold and be brave, and it’s not always going to be comfortable if it’s going to be the right thing for you. You have to be okay with that. So as a leader who’s trying to really bring out the best and drive change and shape and grow, which we all know is an uncomfortable process, typically. That’s where the magic happens. How do you balance that with empathy? What do you think when someone who’s in there is the difference?
Jordan: That’s a great question. Look, I feel like a lot of times when we are talking about anything to do with mental health in the workplace, we can feel the need to be extremely gentle. One of the things that I’ve come to believe, not just in our own company, but in working with other leaders, is people typically know what they need. Given the opportunity to ask for what they need, people will do it. Given the opportunity to be vulnerable and open in a way that works for them, they’ll do it. Given the option to take time off or have an accommodation plan made up, people will do that. And I’ve come to realize, I think that employees are a lot stronger than we give them credit for. And so a lot of this stuff, it’s not about creating these endless cycles of vulnerability, where we feel like, as leaders, that we have to be the therapist to our employees, but rather how can we be boundaried and firm and clear?
Jordan: And I think you can be those things, provided you’re also transparent about where you’re coming from, what your concerns are, and tackle some of these challenges in a very easy way. I’ll give you an example. This is a hypothetical, but something that we deal with all the time with our clients. So say you have an employee that maybe has suffered a loss and is grieving. And you initially give some space and time for them to take care of the needs of the family or their individual needs, but then at a certain point in time, you could see that there’s this lingering thing where someone’s not quite all there. They haven’t really bounced back. They’re not feeling that resilient. Many leaders will just turn a blind eye to that and say, “Okay, well, I’ll give it more time.” Other leaders are really courageous, will lean into that and say, “Okay, look. So what is going on here? How are you really doing? What do you need from us? Because here’s what we need from you.”
Jordan: And then create a game plan where either accommodations can be made and there could be some flexibility there or otherwise, just have it out in the open about why there’s this disconnect. And that’s totally fair game, even with employees that are not in an ideal or mentally well state. It’s still okay to put the organization’s needs on the table. It’s just on the flip side, you also have to be willing to make accommodations or exercise some flexibility, but there’s nothing wrong with getting everything out there so that you can make that plan. And I think that’s what leaders are often really afraid of, we’re just going to lead to these long circular conversations. Nothing’s going to change. We’re not going to be able to support this person. They’re going to transition out. Whatever the case may be.
Jordan: But ultimately, I think our opportunity as a leader, to your point, hold that empathy, but then also exercise a lot of, to use Kim Scott’s reference, radical candor at the same time, even around these delicate topics. It’s just, you can’t do it, you can never do it from the leadership position where you are exerting any judgment or prejudice. Instead, you can just be very matter of fact. And to your point, I think those things often are at odds against each other, and it takes a lot of thinking and confidence on behalf of leaders to be able to put both out there at the same time.
Jon: I think it’s scary. I think having a really honest conversation about your feelings or perceptions can be difficult for anyone, even the most seasoned manager. But I think about that even in the context of the small business owner. And Gene, I’m curious to get your thoughts here, because I think sometimes, probably on the larger side with coaching like that, you can build a process. And even though it’s still personal and genuine, you have the protection of the many. You got a team behind you. But if you’re a guy with a team that really is like your family, and you’re in there day in and day out, do you find challenges as an owner, either maybe flagging something that might be concerning for you because you don’t want to overstep or because maybe you have a level of a personal investment in someone’s wellbeing that makes you think about it more like, “I don’t want to aggravate them or question them,” as a friend or someone they care about or a family member versus just an employee where you’re thinking about business needs?
Gene: Yeah. I definitely have issues about stepping over the line and digging into people’s personal lives, and there’s two issues that I have with it. One is, I don’t want to make any mistake and offend somebody or say anything that goes, like I said, over the line. That’s number one. And number two is, speaking so selfishly, because I’m really bad at this. I don’t want to even like get into it. I keep thinking, it was like a month ago, I was at a client and it’s a manufacturing client. There’s two owners. They’re both around my age, we’re in our mid fifties, and I’ll never forget this. I was in a conference room and right outside the door, this employee was crying and one of the owners stumbled on the employee, and it turns out she was just crying to him about she was going through some stuff in her life.
Gene: She had some financial issues and then she had whatever. She was weeping. And I caught the guy’s eye, because her back was to me, and he caught my eye and he started rolling his eyes. And I got it, I felt bad for her, but you put yourself in the business owner’s position, he’s trying to run a company, he’s got a hundred employees. He’s got his own issues that he’s dealing with. And now here he is having to play psychiatrist to one of his employees. It’s a really tough… It’s almost too much for someone to deal with.
Jordan: It is too much, and that’s the whole thing. One of the biggest misconceptions around workplace mental health is that it’s this top-down thing. In reality, workplace mental health initiatives are a two-way street. It takes employee active involvement to understand the pathways of support, to understand the boundaries of their colleagues and managers. And there has to be tools and strategies in place so that doesn’t come to something like that, where someone is tearing up out in the open and opening the flood gates to someone that may not be ready for that or where was unanticipated. Of course those things are going to happen at times because we’re human, but this is the whole thing.
Jordan: We’re scared of it because we don’t really have an operating system for how these things should be treated on teams. So as much as a lot of the work that groups like us do is with the executive and leadership teams to figure out what can be done at a higher level from a managerial approach, we also do a ton with your interns all the way to your mid-level employees around understanding how to go about something like this. I just said about as a Canadian, oh no. How to figure that out in a way that is…
Gene: We knew a Canadian that used to cry. We’ve seen her cry over everything.
Jordan: Yeah, we cry over spilled milk. It’s one of those things where, I think, again, it’s scary. You’re absolutely right. The business owner is like, “I’ve got enough. I can’t be this person’s therapist.” And our message is they don’t have to be that person’s therapist at all. If these things are out in the open in the company, if you’re talking about these things, if you’re providing training, if you’re reviewing with your team how to handle difficult situations, stuff like that shouldn’t happen. And that’s where a lot of companies are starting to get to. And then the other thing I will say too, is there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hearing someone out. Those vulnerable moments will happen. Someone will try to hold it together, but be holding in an immense amount of pain and they’ll just pop.
Jordan: And in those moments, there’s nothing wrong with just hearing that person, taking them into a private place, a private setting or an individual Zoom room these days, and just asking them a couple clarifying questions. And then at the right time, all you have to do as a leader is say, “What do you think you need?” And this is what I mean by what I said earlier. Most people, when they are in a vulnerable and compromised position, they intuitively know what they need. And so the leader’s opportunity is just to listen and ask that question, connect them with the right thing, internally or externally, try to facilitate that, and then just check in one week later, two weeks later, three weeks later. Even just over a quick email, “Hey, how you doing? How are you doing?”
Jordan: And then you’re not getting back into these dialogues and these incredibly difficult emotional moments, but instead you’re making sure that that person, that employee is getting what they really need, whether it be counseling from a professional, or support from outside of work, or engaging families, whatever it is. And that’s the kind of thinking that I think is really important to have when we start to get into these moments.
Gene: We’re talking about benefits, certain actions that employers could take. We’re talking about small businesses that are listening to this right now, so there’s definitely a budget issue, a resource issue here as well. But having a relationship with a counseling firm, people that provide mental health therapy, and making those services available to your employees, encouraging your employees, confidentially say, “As part of the benefits of working for my company or working for our company is you can reach out to these people if there’s somebody that you’d like to talk to.” Is that something that you see other firms doing? Is that something that you would encourage a business owner to consider as a benefit?
Jordan: So I think, in short, yes. But I think the space is looking a lot different these days. So what we recommend companies to do now is to reach out in your community, and if you’re a big company with offices all over a couple states or whatever, you can still do the same thing, but find practices near your offices that you can engage with and say, “Hey, we’re an employer nearby. Our people have healthcare benefits for what you offer. Can we figure out how to have a warm transfer?”
Jordan: And what I mean by that is, can your HR person work, and you as the business owner, get to know the owner or someone that manages that clinic and ensure that someone, if you recommend that they reach out, will be well taken care of. Because that’s what most people need to access therapy or counseling. Gene, I would need you to say, “Hey, Jordan. Sorry that things are tough, man. But you know what? I actually know Rick who runs the counseling place down the road. He’s a great guy. A couple of other employees, not going to say who, have used the services, really happy. Why don’t I email the two of you and you guys can set up a time to talk about what you need.”
Jordan: And it’s local. And people want to feel that there’s people nearby them that care about them, that understand where they’re coming from. So that would be my recommendation, honestly. So have that benefits pool one way or another, that would allow people to access some sessions. For a bunch of our clients here in Canada, our corporate clients, they actually buy small pools of sessions that their employees can access, in addition to their benefits plan that they can use with us. We do things like set up a little landing page for different companies and stuff, and that gives that sense of a warm handoff. But any company can do that. So just find a nearby practice, and you can email those practices out of nowhere and they would be pleased to hear from you. So don’t think that’s off the table. I think it’s all about what can we do to make access and care more of a human experience. No one wants to feel like a number, especially at a time of vulnerability.
Jon: Awesome. I think that’s really great, because I think there is that question on how personal and how much do people trust the services that come through when you talk about some of those value adds. So I think that’s a really interesting way to think about replicating that experience, especially for a small business.
Jordan: Yeah, and what a relief for the business owner too. Right? Look, there’s confidentiality. You can’t know if someone’s accessing services anyway, and that’s just life. But you can try to really grease the wheels so that you can ensure there is least amount of friction as possible for someone getting support. Look, a lot of our therapy clients come to us when things are hunky-dory. There’s no such thing as things being bad enough to have to go to therapy.
Jordan: So I encourage you to just reach out whenever, and especially at times of need, it’s great. It gives the business owner peace of mind. It keeps things local. And in our experience, it’s just a wonderful way to be able to have that boundary in place. So you know, as a leader, “We’re going to stand behind our people’s mental health. We’re going to have a service or a bunch of options that support them. We’re going to have this service nearby that we feel confident in. And so when difficult things come up, I know exactly what my next move is as a manager.” And that gives that sense of hope and control.
Jon: Well, thank you, Jordan, so much for spending your time with us today. I feel like we could almost do a series here. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of questions that come in from this episode. But really appreciate the time, and is there anything else you’d want our folks to know before we sign off?
Jordan: One last thing. And I think I’ve hinted at this a bunch of times, but just remember when it comes to anything that we’ve just discussed, it is entirely in your hands as a human being with a pulse to do something about it for your colleagues. These conversations can happen regardless of how many degrees you have or if you’re a social worker or a therapist or not at all. And we’re all humans, and just remember that at the end of the day, we all want to feel heard. We all want to feel valued, and however you can do that and communicate that to your team and your colleagues, that is going to be a net positive. And that’s what I mean earlier when I said mental health in the workplace is more of a leadership issue than a clinical issue at this point in time. And so it’s a wonderful challenge for all of us. And so, step up into it as much as you feel comfortable to.
Jon: Awesome. Well, thank you so much and Gene, thank you, as always, for spending the time with us today. Again, I’m going to stick with a, I think we should definitely continue this in a part two, because I think we can definitely get a little bit more into maybe some of the ways leaders can actually take action on some of this really good advice. But I appreciate everyone’s thoughts, and Jordan, thank you for sharing your experience and expertise. And this was another episode of Small Biz Ahead, presented by The Hartford and we’ll catch you on the next one. Thanks everybody.
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