“I had no more friggin’ time.”
Stephane Rouleau is talking, quickly and passionately, about the moment he came of age as an entrepreneur. Ever since he co-founded Montreal-based software developer Innobec Technologies Inc. in 2003, he enthusiastically embraced the jack-of-all-trades identity so common among people shepherding a business through the startup phase. An engineer by trade, Rouleau found project management, IT and even accounting well-suited to his skills—at least at first. As the company grew, so, too, did his workweek—to 65 hours, to 70, to 75-plus. Then he enrolled in a full-time MBA program, too. Suddenly, he simply wasn’t able to deliver things he’d promised. Staff, frustrated by his unavailability, started doing things without consulting him. The relentless pace he had thrived on stopped feeling exhilarating.
That’s when Rouleau got—really got—the message he’d been disingenuously telling himself for years: he had to step away from the day-to-day. He’d read the books; he knew, intellectually, that he had to adopt the “work on the business, not in the business” ethos. “I’d thought it rationally, but until then, it wasn’t something I felt in my gut,” Rouleau says. “It hadn’t hurt enough.”
I had no more friggin time.
That “hurt” of just not having the time to do a lot of his work, let alone think about the business, forced Rouleau to make a choice: he could scale down the company (not an option), he could burn out (not ideal) or he could delegate. He opted for the last option, beginning a process that would challenge the identity around which he’d built his life. “As entrepreneurs, we are the business,” he says. “Letting go of that is not easy.”
Will you recognize yourself? Read: The 7 Deadly Sins of Control Freak CEOs
Like Rouleau, you may hate the thought of relinquishing day-to-day control, but doing so could be the smartest decision you ever make. Study after study has shown that growing companies stagnate when the founder meddles in the small stuff instead of thinking big-picture. What’s more, the annals of entrepreneurship are filled with stories of enlightened CEOs whose companies—not to mention their personal well-being—improved dramatically as soon as they brought in senior management to
handle the busywork. Your schedule, your bottom line, your succession planning and your peace of mind stand to benefit. Here’s how to figure out what kind of person you need, identify the right fit and—hardest of all—learn to let them do their job.
Jim Estill, a tech-sector veteran and consultant based in Guelph, Ont., knows whereof he speaks. His specialty is helping CEOs maximize their productivity, and those two traits “don’t exactly go hand-in-hand with delegating,” he says.
Estill is attempting to explain why hiring someone to run your business feels so unnatural to most entrepreneurs. The same characteristics that propel business owners to success in the scrappy early years tend to hinder their ability to hand things off (see The 7 Deadly Sins of Control-Freak CEOs). Alone or in tandem, these traits fuel the compulsion to be a martyr in the business. And when you’re spending your rare free moments complaining about how busy you are, that’s not conducive to growth. “Do you want to be doing the same thing 10 years from now, or do you want to scale up?” asks Estill. “If you want to scale, you have to bring in others.”
The first step in appointing a second-in-command (or a tier of them) is evaluating your own strengths and weaknesses. And it’s not simply about ability. “If you started the company, it’s likely you can pretty much do any task—maybe not perfectly, but you can do it,” explains Cameron Herold, a Phoenix-based consultant who draws on his experience building companies—including years as COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?—to help entrepreneurs manage fast growth. This “I can, therefore I should” thinking is likely what overextended you in the first place. Effective delegating hinges on first honestly assessing what your role should be as the founder. In Herold’s view, the question is: “What am I good at, and what should I be working on?” And the answer depends on a mix of talent, preference, efficacy and need.
One way to figure this out is to ask those around you. What you think you’re good at may not be what others think. By asking close friends, family members and direct reports to list your top strengths, you may discover the areas in which you truly excel (and, perhaps, also, those in which you just plain suck). The exercise, Herold says, will help you “whittle down” your priority list.
All entrepreneurs are control freaks and perfectionists.
Another method is to record your activities for a period of time—Herold recommends a month. Pretend you’re watching yourself as a spectator. Then, at least once a day, record everything you did. Rate your performance on each activity as incompetent, competent, excellent or uniquely positioned to do it. Once you’ve amassed a month’s worth of data, cross off those tasks that tend to fall into the first two categories. “Anything you’re no good at or even just kinda good at should go off your plate,” says Herold. For what’s left, apply the “fun” test: if you don’t enjoy doing it, give it to someone else—even if you’re great at it. This should leave you with a short list of functions—ideally, two or three—that you’re good at and you love. Says Herold: “Once you become OK with releasing things that you’re excellent at but don’t really love to do, you’re ready to get someone in place.”
A caveat to this approach: the “do what you love” maxim applies only to tasks that will advance your company’s goals. If you’re a $10-million company with visions of reaching $100 million, you should not be handling a $1,000 order—no matter how far back you and the client go.
Such exercises in self-reflection serve another potentially valuable purpose. If the tasks that have been eating up your time turn out to be largely administrative, transactional, low-value jobs, maybe you just need “someone to free you up to run the company,” says Herold. “Maybe you don’t need a $250,000-per-year COO but a $50,000 assistant.”
But when there are strategic portfolios at play, such as finance, business development and HR, senior support will be required. Call the positions what you will—VP, president, COO, even CEO—they’re the people who will manage the chaos, make the daily decisions and save your sanity. You just have to find them.
I was keeping up client relationships and struggling at it. I was in the office, running payroll, even manually writing cheques.”
Mandy Gilbert is running through a typical day in her entrepreneurial life in early 2005, a few months after her son was born. Her company, Toronto-based staffing agency Creative Niche Inc., was in its third year and starting to grow. She was so invested in its success that she insisted on maintaining business as usual while concurrently handling the demands of parenting a newborn. After three months of this impossible schedule, one of her mentors— yes, she found time for these meetings, too—suggested she consider hiring a president to handle operations.
Not one to dawdle in acting on a good idea—even one as as potentially ego-deflating as this—Gilbert agreed. In fact, she already had someone in mind. Stephen Hodges was a former client who had taught Gilbert a lot about the staffing industry; he had since gone on to manage an office for another company and had spearheaded some initiatives she admired. So, Gilbert pitched the idea to Hodges. He came back with a proposal detailing how he’d run things. They negotiated back and forth for a few months. After some onboarding, Creative Niche had a new president and Gilbert was able to take maternity leave. Best of all, revenue started to soar.
I was trying to be an effective manager.
The relationship between Gilbert and Hodges works to this day in large part because of their differences. Where she tends to be impulsive, he thinks things through. Where she’s big on ideas, he thrives on detail work. Together, they’re running a firm that is growing: she focuses on strategy, he on execution. “He runs his own show now; he’s very self-motivated,” Gilbert says. “It’s a respectful partnership.”
In delegating to someone whose strengths complement hers, Gilbert avoided a pitfall that often trips up entrepreneurs. Many business owners make the mistake of filling a senior position with someone just like themselves because: a) they like the guy, b) he fits the culture or c) it just seems easiest. That’s wrong-headed, says Herold: “You want someone who is strong where you are weak.”
To find that person, you may have to recruit externally. And that brings up another pitfall: entrepreneurs tend to prefer hiring from within because it’s the simpler, cheaper option. Those who’ve been through the process, however, warn that promoting an insider to second-in-command can backfire. First, don’t be blinded by tactical aptitude: an ace sales manager might lack the managerial skills to serve as COO, and might need more mentoring time than you want to provide.
Second, don’t offer a fancy title and little more. “Entrepreneurs tend to be cheap,” says Maureen Lucas, president of LucasWorks! Inc., a Windsor, Ont.-based recruitment firm. In an effort to remove herself from the day-to-day, she promoted staffers by offering executive titles (and responsibilities) in exchange for middle managers’ salaries. It didn’t work. “If you know your own dollar value, you have to value whomever you hire to replace you that much,” she says. “You’re not going to get me’ unless you’re willing to pay for me.'” The old “spend money to make money” chestnut you’d use to justify purchasing new equipment applies here, too: you’re investing in your business’s future.
Marion Witz says this with a rueful laugh. She’s explaining her early attempts to shed managerial duties at her company, Toronto skin-care products manufacturer Elizabeth Grant International Inc. That was more than five years ago; she had hired a CFO and a head of HR and was finding it difficult to hand over the reins. “I was very much micromanaging,” Witz recalls. “You have to understand, I’d been doing everything—I was in the lab, on the product floor, writing our material and ordering. It took a lot of discipline to stop doing that.”
Honestly, I believed no one could do it as well as me.
Over time, as Witz’s seconds-in-command demonstrated their capabilities, the delegating became easier. Now, not only does Witz have time to focus on what she does best—leading the business—but her tier of senior executives doubles as an advisory board that helps ease the burden of big decisions. “I’ve learned to listen to them; it’s not just me giving them direction,” she says. “It’s a collaboration.”
Micromanaging is the peskiest—and most self-sabotaging—of entrepreneurial instincts, says Estill: “The consequence of micromanaging is that, long term, nobody else can do anything. Is that what you want?” Although you may itch to tell your new COO that she’s chosen the wrong paint colour for the lunchroom, you must learn to pick your battles. “You might have angst because things aren’t being done exactly the way you’d have done them,” says Estill. “Instead, think: Isn’t it great that I didn’t have to choose a colour or clean up the brushes?’ By framing it that way, you start to see it differently.” Remember, you hired your second-in-command for a reason. If you’ve chosen well, that person will produce the same (if not better) results as you—even if they go about it in a totally different way. Accepting that reality is part of delegating. “When a decision is made that you don’t fully agree with but it’s not earth-shattering, you need to just smile and say, Great,'” advises Estill.
Of course, it’s possible to take the hands-off approach too far. “Often, when entrepreneurs delegate, they end up abdicating. They just dump it,” explains Herold. “They run away because they don’t like doing [something], instead of providing direction, being clear about what they want in terms of outcomes and supporting that person. Then they feel they have to dive in because the person just isn’t doing the job properly.'”
In most cases, a clearly defined job description (complete with a list of responsibilities, including areas in which the executive has decision-making authority) and a structured onboarding period (during which you directly familiarize your appointee with the role and make all appropriate introductions to staff, shareholders and clients) will set the delegate up for success. “People are inspired by authority and responsibility,” says Estill. “If you want them to care about the business like you do, give them responsibility—they’ll rise to that.”
Herold is discussing possibly the toughest part of this process: the post-delegation identity crisis: “Entrepreneurs start something for themselves. Their name is associated with the brand, and they wear the logo everywhere. When they give up that control, they ask, What’s my role now?'”
When you delegate the day-to-day, your function becomes that of a strategic guide, setting the company’s course and monitoring its performance at a high level. And it’s not for everyone; many entrepreneurs find hands-off leadership exceedingly uncomfortable. There tend to be two options for these folks: either they assume a tactical role and hire a senior person to manage strategy, or, more commonly, they sell the firm once it’s too big for them to manage on their own and start something new.
A lot of entrepreneurs really struggle with releasing their identity from the firm.
For Rouleau, taking a more strategic role was not a natural fit. An innate doer, he struggled with letting the senior managers he had hired at Innobec (including a controller and a head of HR) do the work he used to love. At first, he felt envious of— even a bit threatened by—his new executives. But those emotions began to ebb as the benefits of the new arrangement became clear. Rouleau found he had time to actually think, and his confidence as a business leader improved (something he chalks up to his MBA). “I see now the benefit of hiring people who are good at what they do, and I’ve learned that they aren’t there to take my place,” he says. “My job is to have the vision and take the calculated risks. I can still be useful.”
Today, Innobec is firmly in growth mode.
Its revenue grew by 405% over the past five years, and the company is on a hiring tear, expanding from 55 employees to nearly 100 this year alone. And Rouleau is convinced much of the success stems from his decision to step back and bring in people with specialized skills. In fact, he has become such a passionate advocate of delegating senior management that he chose the topic for the final paper of his MBA. “I thought I would miss it,” he says of the daily grind. “And I do, at least some- what. But I’ve found pleasure in a different way: my job is now to build an environment in which people excel. I needed to become something else. As the business grows, you can’t be the engine anymore; you have to be the conductor.”
Do you struggle with delegating responsibility? What’s keeping you from stepping away from the day-to-day? Share your thoughts by commenting below.