A Plan for Working on (Not in) the Business
Lots of business owners wish they could be less involved in the day-to-day operations of their businesses (see “It’s Never the Employee“). When you have 10 or even 20 employees, you can be intimately involved in all aspects of the business from sales to finance to operations to purchasing. But if you want the company to grow and perhaps get to that elusive “next level” everyone’s always talking about, you have to build an organization that can get the job done without you managing every detail.
Over the last 33 years, I have gone from running my business with one employee to five, 10, 20, 50 and now 105. For many years I felt like the old-time entertainers who would spin dinner plates on poles, running from one to another as the plates started to slow down and wobble. For me, it wasn’t entertaining at all. It was stressful, it was frustrating and it was exhausting.
Today, I have an organization, and I have less stress and aggravation with 105 employees than when I had 10. It has allowed me to work on marketing, new business opportunities, this blog or absolutely nothing (which I don’t do often). Below are what I believe to be the issues that must be hurdled to make the transition from doer to manager to executive. Naturally, surmounting these hurdles is easier said than done and can take years to accomplish. This list does not have all of the answers but should at least provide you with the right questions to ask yourself.
1. You. You really have to want to get out from under the day-to-day. It requires getting out of your comfort zone, learning new things, and unlearning old habits.
2. Hiring. If you don’t learn how to hire the right people, you will continue to chase your tail. (This does not come from a fortune cookie; if anything, it comes from a no-fortune cookie.)
3. Standards. A company’s reputation and its customers’ satisfaction will be determined by what a company expects of itself. Setting standards should not be done casually by whoever happens to be in the driver’s seat. The standards should be well thought out and aggressively communicated, and they should be lived. Whether it is response time or product quality or how clean you keep the bathroom, there are numerous things that define a company.
4. Training. People are not going to figure out everything on their own. And if they do, it will be after messing up orders, customers and your reputation. How many different kinds of customer problems can there be? How many solutions are there? Money back? A credit? Free shipping? An apology letter?
5. Systems, Procedures, Planning and Tools. There are ways to avoid mistakes, to keep track of things and to be more effective and efficient. Every time something goes wrong you should ask yourself, is there something we could have done to avoid this? In my picture-framing business I had special tape measures made that have a one-inch space at the beginning of the tape. People frequently measure from the one-inch mark because it is easier to hold the tape without scratching the art and is more accurate. Guess what? These people sometimes forget to subtract that one inch from the measurement, and everything is cut too big — by one inch. I’m sure our tape measures have saved thousands of dollars and many late orders that would have had to be redone.
6. The Wrong People. Sometimes it is bad hiring, sometimes it is just a bad fit. I used to put out fires all of the time. I finally figured out that it was better to get rid of the arsonists. That doesn’t mean these employees don’t mean well. It may mean, assuming they have been properly trained and managed, that they can’t do well. This step requires will — as in you will do something about it. Is there anyone working for you that you would be happy to see quit?
7. Delegation. This one seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But delegation only works when you have the right people. And the hardest part is accepting that some of the things that you delegate will not be done as well as you could have done them yourself. You can afford to fix occasional mistakes more easily than you can afford to do everything yourself.
8. Compensation. It is difficult to run a smooth operation if you are constantly losing good people. What is your turnover rate? Do you pay enough, respect enough and provide a pleasant work environment?
9. Feedback. Have you surrounded yourself with yes men and women? I have numerous (15?) people who I believe will tell me the truth. Of course, you have to be able to handle the truth! Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes I am oblivious, sometimes I am delusional. The last thing I want is to stay that way. This is where fear of the boss can do the most damage. Don’t get me wrong, I am not naïve enough to think that no one is afraid of me because I am the boss. I do feel that the lonely-at-the-top thing is very, well, lonely. But there is no greater feeling than knowing that people are with you on a common cause, and you don’t have to read their minds.
10. You, again. Maybe you really like being the sales rep, the production manager or the one doing the work. Maybe you are trying to be someone you are not. I have learned that there is such a thing as big enough. It can be liberating to people who are ambitious to recognize that they have limitations, and that they do not have what it takes to be the next Bill Gates — and that it is O.K. More than O.K.! I have also learned that many entrepreneurs want to hire someone to take care of the things they don’t want to do. I would be very careful about thinking that one person is going to come in and handle everything. Build the organization. Or not. Small can be beautiful.
Bonus Round! Do you find yourself getting mad at employees all of the time? That is a waste of energy and bad for the moral of the company, including the people you never get mad at. It guarantees that no one will want to make decisions. There are three possibilities: you haven’t trained people properly, or you have some people who should be working in a different job (for you or for someone else), or you still think that everyone should think like you. If everyone thought like you, they would own their own business. And then they could have the opportunity to be mad all of the time.