Most entrepreneurs operate their businesses in the steadfast belief that no one could possibly run their company better than they can. For the first 18 years of my company, I was no different. Never could I have imagined the day I’d want to delegate full operational leadership of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? to someone else. But now that our 19th year has passed, I’m about to hand over the reins. Although it took me almost a year to realize the necessity of this move, it’s one of the most exciting — and, I think, best — management decisions that I’ve ever made.
In May 2007, our previous chief operating officer, Cameron Herold, left the company. The year prior, we’d reached $100 million in annual system-wide sales. Some mentors had warned me that $100 million is a key inflection point in any company’s pursuit of $1 billion, and 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was a textbook example of this phenomenon. As soon as we hit the $100-million mark, our rapid, turn-on-a-dime style seemed to stop working; the company was getting too big to adjust on the fly. Surely, our next phase of growth would require more rigour, more disciplined planning and more frequent measurement of individual and company performance. It became apparent that we needed a new, more seasoned level of operational leadership to help us prepare for and execute our next wave of growth.
At the time of Cameron’s departure, I didn’t have a clear enough picture of what I was looking for in a new, more senior COO. What I did know was that I needed to better understand our former COO’s responsibilities and why sustained rapid growth was beginning to pose problems — so I decided to dive headfirst into the role. It was a great wake-up call. Without playing COO for almost a year, I’d never have learned what gaps existed in 1-800-GOT-JUNK?’s leadership.
Jumping into the COO role gave me a better understanding of my strengths, limitations, likes and dislikes. I gained an appreciation of just how crucial good operational leadership is to the health of the brand. In fact, with me in the COO’s chair, our growth suffered in the last half of 2007 and early 2008. During Cameron’s tenure, he owned execution while I determined where to set the bar for growth. After his departure, whereas I once spent most of my time as president identifying sales opportunities and as CEO developing the company’s vision, I was now too buried in operational details to keep the company going full steam ahead. Despite my best efforts, we were desperate for a new COO.
However, the decision to bring on a seasoned COO soon morphed into a decision to replace myself as president with a professional manager. Why? I realized that if I wanted to continue growing myself and the business, I had to perform the tasks that I’m best at and most passionate about. I needed to maximize my value to the business.
I asked my leadership team, franchise partners and others with whom I worked closely for clear, direct feedback on my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve always followed the Jim Collins mantra that you need the right people in the right seats on your bus, and the feedback from my colleagues indicated I was in the wrong seat at the company I’d built and driven for 19 years.
It became clear that I work best strategically, versus operationally, with a knack for the creative: vision, PR, culture and big ideas. I don’t enjoy lots of detail and hands-on management. My team was crying out for more planning, more structure and more executional rigour — the skill sets of a big-company president. While a COO is perfect for handling operations in a rapidly growing, smaller business, a slower-growing, larger business needs a president who can create and implement well-defined systems and processes — and who, in the case of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, can evaluate and execute the ideas I put before him.
As I write this column, I am nearing the final stage of this long process, when I will get to make an offer to the person I hope will become 1-800-GOT-JUNK?’s new president. It’s exciting to know that soon I’ll be focusing on what I do best and what I love. And it’s especially relieving to have overcome my initial fears of hiring the wrong person — something I can’t afford to get wrong. (Executive recruitment giant Korn Ferry has helped me through the selection process.)
I’ve learned from speaking with many of my mentors that the question of when it is time to bring in seasoned, professional leadership is one every entrepreneur needs to ask and too few try to answer. While I believe that now is the right time for me to step aside, I don’t think the company could have waited much longer and continued to grow.
Have you thought about your own business and what seat you’re in? Have you considered whether or not your seat will ever change? My energy and passion for 1-800-GOT-JUNK? has climbed to a whole new level, knowing how much more I will contribute to our brand and our growth by working in the areas that suit me best.