By Max Berry

A certain amount of ambition is necessary when running your own business. If you aren't expecting a lot from your ideas and from yourself, it will be hard to deliver much to your customers. But at what point does ambition become a hindrance? If your expectations are too high for one person-or one business-to meet, they may be doing more to hold you back than push you on. Dreams of glory are healthy, but so is the understanding that every race is run one step at a time.

Pace yourself
"There is something rewarding about crossing things off a list," says Duncan Brodie, director of the British leadership development company Goals and Achievements ( ), "but there is also something rewarding about not putting so much on the list that you set yourself up for failure. The bottom line is that you have twenty-four hours in a day."

Some of us are list-makers and some of us aren't, but a great many of us do our best work under pressure. Approaching a project with the belief that stakes are high and success is imperative can galvanize everyone around you. But without a measured perspective on just how much quality work can be crammed into one day, that galvanizing pressure can quickly give way to a whole lot of stress. "Ultimately, if you don't manage expectations well, you'll become stressed out, you'll lose focus, and you'll start doing substandard work," says Brodie.

Rather than placing all your focus on achieving one goal as quickly as possible, Brodie recommends taking the long view. "There is a difference between one-time wins and losses and running a long-term business, achieving sustainability," he says.

Whether you're hoping to run your business until you retire or take it public and cash out while still relatively young, try seeing your business as an evolving enterprise. It is unlikely that one great fiscal quarter or one successful project will turn your company into a Fortune 500 sensation overnight, but it may put you on the path to a wider array of clients and more brand awareness. These are both great achievements for any business owner, and meeting either should be seen as a success-especially in difficult economic times-whether they're your ultimate goals or incremental steps on a path to something more.

The eyes of others
The most difficult expectations to manage are often the ones that others place on you. Chances are that neither your employees nor your clients expect you to be a superhero, but people aren't always upfront about their expectations, which is why you need to be proactive about discussing them.

"You need clarity with the client," says Brodie. "Ask them questions: ‘what do you want to happen by the end of the project? What do you want to be different?' Clients are often vague about their expectations. It helps if you can give them clarity."

Set the tone with customers at the outset of a project. Establish an agreement and, if applicable, provide your client with a time and cost estimate. When setting a timetable for a project, be realistic. This helps not only with achieving your objective, but also in building confidence in employees and clients. If your timetable doesn't seem reasonable and grounded, it may actually cause those around you to question your judgment. You want to project confidence in your abilities, but be careful not to commit yourself to more than you are capable of completing, or to completing the job in less time than you need to do it well.

This doesn't mean you can't strive to outdo yourself. "The reality is, subconsciously, most small business owners will go the extra mile to make the project a success," says Brodie. "They want that relationship to be long term. Surprise clients a little bit by giving extra."

As you carry out the steps of a project, provide progress reports to the client and meet frequently with employees to discuss how you're all measuring up to your own expectations. When the project is completed, ask for feedback. Maintaining a dialogue even after the job is done builds trust and encourages future business.

Handling the inevitable
No matter how well you manage your expectations and those of the people around you, there will be moments when you wind up frustrated that you couldn't do more. Nobody with high standards will feel like they passed with flying colors every time. The key is to take the disappointment in stride, and to have a support system in place. "For self-preservation, it's important you've got someone to speak to, someone you can use as a sounding board," says Brodie. Chances are that if you confide your frustrations in someone else, they'll tell you what you probably knew along: that if you never got frustrated that you couldn't do just a little bit more, you'd probably never achieve much either.

Bearing that in mind, it gets easier to see the value of the occasional disappointment. "Think about what you have, in fact, achieved and use your setbacks as opportunities to learn," advises Brodie. "When things don't go well, you can often learn more than if they go perfectly."

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