By Mike Wessinger
No entrepreneur starts a business they’re lukewarm about, because building and running a business is hard—and often risky—work.
The last time the Government of Canada released data on the number of businesses entering and exiting the marketplace in a given year was in 2013. That year more small- and medium-sized businesses folded than were created. The majority of those entries and exits were in the Professional, Scientific and Technical Services category.
The numbers are similar in the U.S., with only half of new businesses surviving five years or more and about a third surviving 10 years or more.
Given this risk, founders tend to nurture their business with great care, giving their company all of their attention. The problem is that they often end up stuck in the operational weeds, which is a critical mistake I see over and over again.
Typically what happens
Founder-led organizations are almost always started by people who were extremely good at one particular thing and then connected their unique ability to a market opportunity. Whether they were consultants, engineers or sales reps—like me—they turned their skills into businesses of their own.
In the beginning, likely with just a handful of employees, everyone at the company does a share of the heavy lifting and knows a little bit about everything. Founders dig in deep, using the skills they brought to the business in the first place to ensure things get kicked off right and the reality of their business aligns with their vision.
As the business grows, employees are added, and jobs get more defined. This is when the founder should be releasing his or her grip from those reins, but what often happens is that any time things get a bit rough the instinct to dive into the weeds takes over. The former sales rep thinks he needs to participate in some demos or take over a few prospect pitch meetings to get things back on track. The former consultant thinks she should set up some key client meetings and the business will get better. And the engineer wants to get back into his comfort zone of cranking out some more code.
The problem with this is that the more embedded you are in the day to day workings of the business, the further you are from seeing the big picture – which is primarily your real job.
It’s an incredibly important lesson for leaders: work on your business, don’t work in your business. The faster you can extract yourself from doing the day to day work, and work on the business, the better you’re going to be.
I think of it as navigating a ship. If, as the captain, I’m spending all of my time shoveling coal into the engines, who’s up top noticing that there’s an iceberg dead ahead? Yes, the engines are running, but what good is that if your company is about to become a statistic on business deaths?
If the CEO isn’t paying attention to where the company’s going, making sure the culture is right, and bringing together the correct team, nobody is. The quicker a CEO can get someone in to shovel that coal, make that sale, or write that code, the more focused that CEO will be on growing and working on other aspects of the business.
Don’t think that just knowing about what you need to focus on will automatically keep you out of the weeds for good. There are still days when I’ll read something on our website, have an idea about how to change it and spend time working on marketing copy. At some point I’ll have the realization that I’m not serving the company by spending my time on this task. I’ve got a talented marketing department that can be making these changes. They’re the experts.
Or, I’ll be in a meeting about pricing and packaging and find myself drafting up an Excel spreadsheet. In these moments I need to remind myself I’m not doing my job. My job is to make sure we’ve got an organization that has hired the right people who can do pricing and packaging, not to do pricing and packaging myself. Work on the business, not in the business.
The big picture
Figuring out how to find this balance is one of the most important and toughest things to do as a leader, which is why I spend so much time teaching and mentoring the leaders within my own company to learn to do the same thing. As leaders develop, it’s always more valuable to an organization to have your managers and department leaders shift the balance away from the technical and tactical tasks and work on, not in their departments. It promotes prioritization and problem solving, and provides a more holistic view of any challenge.
It’s never going to be absolute, nor does it mean you shouldn’t stay informed about what’s going on, or lend your expertise when it’s required or when it makes sense. What it does mean is that the balance of your work should be focused on the bigger picture rather than the details. The sooner you can figure this out, the better off your whole company will be.
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