When you start a business, you are suddenly forced to wear more hats than you ever thought was possible. Call it by whatever name you like: jack of all trades, the head cook & the bottle washer, or a Swiss army knife, but the bottom line is that to succeed early, all those invested in this new business must have one unique trait to succeed — Resourcefulness.
In fact, if you are like me at least, you thrive in this mode and start to become intoxicated in this new ability to touch your toes in areas you typically avoided in the past. Topics such as payroll, chart of accounts, marketing, sales, benefits, contracts, and insurance used to make you bored but with your new business you see all sorts of new challenges to conquer and you set off with the zeal of a puppy discovering snow for the first time. You perfect every little piece of your company, twisting and turning each process until it’s optimized perfectly for your business, finding that sweet blend of highly effective with what you believe is minimal effort.
In fact, you get so good at working in the business, that you did not even have to hire anyone after last year’s record year. You are lean and mean and while your business may not compete with Google or Facebook, you are impacting lives, having fun, and making a little money in your pocket. All is well and your head fills with visions of rapid growth, planning on applying this same level of detail and management as you double or triple.
Except, it doesn’t work. It’s not for lack of trying, that’s never the issue. It’s just that you seem to have gotten all you can from those optimization techniques. There is no more low hanging fruit and for the rare stragglers you find that you can reach, the juice suddenly becomes not worth the squeeze.
What in the world happened?
Have you lost your passion?
Were you just lucky to begin with?
Unsure of what to do, you start bringing on employees and asking new or existing business partners to help strategically, convinced that this is the missing piece. You give them projects but you can’t help yourself, you want to be involved. You are not micro-managing them, it’s just that this is your baby. You want to help, hell you LOVE to help. You are just giving them an extra set of eyes…giving them the momentum they may need.
None of this works either, at least not how you thought it would.
At this point my friend, you are probably at what I like to call The Switchback. Don’t worry, after I explain what it is, I’ll give you a quick guide to figure out if you are in it!
It took me a while to realize this, but one of the hardest things to do in any business (or project) is to switch from having to be involved in every little piece of the business, to let things go in order for it to thrive. For new startups, it’s even harder because the very thing that probably allowed you to get to where you are is that laser focus on every detail. You and your team willed the company to success.
Do it too early and you get bogged down in unnecessary overhead, meetings, and process far too soon than you need to. This can spell disaster for a new business because, for the early years, it’s far more important to establish a foothold than worrying about micro-optimization strategies. Getting early products or businesses off the ground, or going through rapid growth can cause a lot of cracks in the foundation, and you have to be willing to fill those gaps to patch it along the way. If you stop begin the grout too early, you will simply run out of money or not capture the short-lived opportunities in front of you while you worry about what color tile to lay.
On the other hand, if you wait too long to make the switch, it can have real consequences on you, your people, and your overall satisfaction with the job. A good indicator that you may be at a point where you should switch is the execution of the operational side of the business. If the employees or leaders you put in place to execute the work are doing so in a way that is highly successful without you, then you are probably ready. And remember, the goal is for them to be successful in the big picture, not to do it specifically your way. Often your way only works for you, which is great, but not really the long-term goal.
Identifying the time and place in your business to make the switch, aka The Switchback, is both the most difficult and most productive thing you can do. If you are unsure, here is an experiment you can run with very little risk that can pay huge dividends.
Step 1: Go partially offline
Pick one particular function of your job and let it run without you for 2 weeks. Tell your team you are taking some time to focus on growth and go on a short vacation without telling him (More on this later). The key is to purposely not go completely offline is because, at this stage, you want to create a situation where you are seemingly fully available but still entrusting them to function. This gives them the confidence of making an actual decision and avoids the trap of the team knowing that your unavailability is only short-term which gives them easy outs to put things off in the short term. The key here is to find this middle ground.
Step 2: How to check-in
Make it a point to check-in each day for 5-minutes and make sure you do this while you are driving or walking to a destination so that you have a hard stop. Again, you want to avoid telling them you are on vacation because you do not want to create an environment that encourages others to not be able to enjoy their time off. It is critical for a leader to set an example of work-life integration and balance and during this experiment, pay careful attention to this fact. During your check-ins, save the questions about the day-to-day until the very end. Instead, start each conversation with something about future growth that you are working on. This will empower them to realize that their efforts are contributing to a bigger picture. On day 1, avoid asking anything about a client or project, simply ask them if there is anything they need help with. If they do have an issue, ask them how they would handle it and if possible, go with their approach.
Step 3: Buy them a souvenir (more on this in Step 4)
Never forget how important it is to have others depend on and small gestures of appreciation go a long way. No matter how you are wired up, the reality is that dumping a lot of responsibility on a person while you are gone was probably disruptive and stressful to them. Make sure they know you recognize and appreciate it. For me, I personally recommend something that enforces the core value you have.
Step 4: The recap
When the time is over, schedule a 15-minute meeting to discuss the recent time with your team. Start by thanking them and giving them their gift, making sure they understand how helpful they were. Then, rather than jump straight into the day-to-day, identify a few things you accomplished that week directly because of them. It is important here to show them that not only did they accomplish their goals, but they contributed to a bigger picture.
Now, reflect…and I don’t mean doing yoga on top of a mountain, I mean sit down and really reflect on the time and the good and the bad.
If after all this, you realize that not only did the business not burn down, but for the first time in years you actually accomplished results in other areas, its a really good sign you are ready for that part of the business to make a switch. If so, take immediate steps now to continue that momentum. At this point, your job as a leader is to let the wheel roll downhill without you, not sit there and push it down. Remember, they don’t have to do everything like you, or as good as you, but reflect on if they were successful.
If your results were not as desirable as you hoped, this is not a bad thing either. You now have tangible things you can improve to try the experiment again, rather than assumptions and guesses on what would happen. These direct examples are perfect opportunities for you to use as teaching and mentoring moments. Adversity is the best teacher and these will be great for you, your team, and your business.