By Bob Irish
Starting a company and nurturing its growth is as difficult as it is exhilarating. From the get-go, the entrepreneur is necessarily involved in everything. Consider just a short list of typical tasks: customers to identify, money to raise, employees to hire, vendors to procure, bank relationships to establish, infrastructure to build and on and on.
The leader of a new or growing business has a vision of where he or she wants the business to go and how he or she sees it getting there. But the devil is in the details.
Early stage business leaders — less than $20 million in sales — often find themselves too busy to succeed. The lure into this pool of quicksand is subtle. Like the frog splashing around in a slowly heating pan of water, an entrepreneur may enjoy his activity, until the situation becomes clear.
It is usually necessary and generally unavoidable that the founder be the primary if not the only decision-maker. After all, he is the one with the concept, the vision and control of the purse strings. At risk are his own resources and those of the early investors, typically referred to by venture capitalists as the three F’s: friends, family and fools.
Here is a cautionary tale about a software firm launched with the usual high energy and expectations. Let’s call the founder “Jim.” Jim focused on getting the first release of his new suite of programs installed at as many customer sites as possible. Instinctively, he knew what needed to be done and how to do it. Being single-minded, he expected his staff to execute the tasks just as he did. Why? Because Jim knew his way worked. He felt less vulnerable to negative surprises. Why take a chance on something else?
Of course, the staff didn’t instinctively do things his way, and Jim took back more and more of what he viewed as critical tasks. The downward spiral began. The more he did things himself, the less time he had to train his subordinates. Jim’s workload increased along with his need for staff members who could read his mind. Soon he found himself doing most everything. He seduced himself into being a manager rather than a leader. He did things right, but didn’t have time for doing the right things.
One day Jim woke up nearly burned out. Exhilaration of being continually busy with his firm, the adrenaline rush of crisis management and being the one who knows everything about everything had left him exhausted and his company stalled out. Without realizing it, he had trained his employees to let him do it all. For a while, they had used their own initiative, skills and abilities. But repeatedly their efforts were thwarted. Eventually, they just let Jim do it all. They kept taking home their paychecks, but Jim was doing the work.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. A friend and fellow chief executive had the savvy to ask Jim for a lunch appointment and made a few helpful suggestions. His gentle advice went something like this: “There are many ways to do something right, which makes delegation such a critical element of business success. If you are uncomfortable at first, start with a few noncritical tasks. That lets subordinates show some initiative, take responsibility and be held accountable for results.” Jim agreed to try it. After a few successes, he became increasingly comfortable allowing employees to do what they had originally been hired to do.
A few circumstances are important here. The company had been launched for some time. Authority and responsibility delegated now wouldn’t sink the company as they might have in its early days if a mistake was made. In time, Jim shed the need to make all decisions and do every important task. His stress level dropped as he communicated a clear vision of what he expected. He coached when necessary and then inspected what he expected.
His employees regained their energy, enthusiasm and creativity, and the company began to grow again. And this time more profitably. As a result of giving his employees a chance to show what they could do within appropriate guidelines, this entrepreneur’s life got easier and his employees grew in their responsibilities and accountability. Most importantly, the company grew and prospered as he had originally envisioned.