Letting go and trusting your employees to build a better business is a struggle for many entrepreneurs. In this article our CEO shares his three-part journey to this realization and advice for business owners facing a similar challenge.
Part I: Realizing ‘the world’s graveyards are full of indispensable men‘
I first discovered this quote by Charles De Gaulle approximately 20 years ago. At the time it felt like a quote about other people – people who had accomplished something significant in life – and it didn’t resonate with me on a personal level.
Recently I came across this quote again, and this time it made me a little anxious. It made me think of all the time that has passed since I first encountered these words and the time I hope I still have left. What do I want to accomplish? What is standing in the way? The thought of graveyards filled with indispensable men is now somewhat unsettling.
So what changed?
For one, I co-founded a business. And after nearly nine years as manager and CEO, I finally learned two critical lessons:
1. I have to hand off certain responsibilities and decisions if I want the company to grow sustainably past a certain size (which I do).
2. Letting go of something I built from scratch is incredibly difficult, even when I’m handing the reins to someone I trust.
There is no defined roadmap for entrepreneurs transitioning from a small business, ‘I can do it all myself’ mentality to that of a strategically dispensable leader. Some just need to rip off the Band-Aid, and others need time to process and adjust to change. For me it came down to deciding what I want, hiring the right people, trusting them and letting go.
Or as I like to call it, setting the ‘sacred cow’ free.
Part II: Letting go… and getting something better in return
Since co-founding Proven Recruiting in 2007, my business partner Ingram and I have professed that we want to build something greater than ourselves. We didn’t just want to own a small, local business. We wanted to cultivate a self-sustaining organization that ultimately outgrows, and outlives, our day-to-day management. Or so we said.
In reality, we both held the subconscious belief that without us in the driver’s seat, the company wouldn’t survive. Who would decide on the right strategy? Who would make sure it was implemented correctly? Who would make the coffee just right?!? We existed this way for years.
Then, about six months ago, our Director of Marketing came to me and hinted that our company logo needed to be refined. That conversation gradually evolved into a detailed case for dumping the logo entirely. She reminded me that it was designed during a time when Blackberry was king and the iPhone didn’t even exist – nearly eight long years ago. She said we needed something new.
My thoughts went something like:
First: ‘Huh? I think I misunderstood her. I think she’s talking about dumping the logo. My logo.’
Then: ‘Wait. She’s serious. This isn’t about tweaking the logo; she really wants to dump it entirely. She’s out of her mind. I birthed this logo!’
And ultimately: ‘I’m the decider and I say we’re keeping it. We can tweak it but we don’t need a brand new logo.’
My thoughts came out as a gracious, ‘I don’t think so.’
But the more I thought about what she said, the more I couldn’t help but think about why we hire smart people – people who are better at their craft than we are and who we can learn from. She was the marketing expert, not me. And if I didn’t trust her on this, then she really wasn’t the Marketing Director but rather the Marketing Assistant. Why did we hire her at all?
I began to wonder if I was being closed-minded and getting in the way of our company’s progress. The thought unnerved me. I realized my apprehension wasn’t really about the logo but about who we were as a company, and my role as its leader. Was I really willing to walk the walk and trust our people, or was it all just talk? I decided I was ready to walk.
Thus began our recent rebrand. Although each change came with a prick of pain and a twinge of discomfort, each decision also provided me with an opportunity to think about who we wanted to be and what I aspired to become – as a company and as a leader. With this openness I began to see things differently. In particular, I noticed how much our business, our customers and our competitors have evolved in the last nine years. I accepted how much we have changed as a company, too. Our old logo started to feel tired. It was a symbol of the past.
In the end, we did dump it entirely. In its place we launched new logo representing our ambition for the future with a nod to our past. At first I was surprised by how overwhelmingly positive the response was. It doesn’t look anything like our old logo, and I couldn’t have come up with it by myself. But now I realize that’s the point.
Part III: Your turn.
For me, the most critical step in letting go was determining the answer to this question: What did I ultimately want?
Now I’ll ask you the same.
If you’re a business owner and you want total control, you can have it. You can be the chief cook, bottle washer and barista, but your growth will be limited to what you can do in a day.
If you want to build something bigger than yourself, you have to accept the fact that at a certain point it will become impossible to be in all places doing all things at all times. While you’re off doing one thing, something else won’t happen how or when it should. Your indispensability will eventually become a zero sum game.
That’s not to say there isn’t an inherent risk in handing off certain responsibilities and decisions. There is. But that’s where the next step comes in – the critical role of hiring the right people and empowering them to succeed. Especially if they take over responsibilities you don’t particularly like or aren’t as good at.
In the last few years, I’ve worked to hire experienced people who are more adept in certain areas than I am. Rather than viewing them as employees, I’ve started to take the approach of treating them as experts – in Finance, Marketing and Talent Acquisition, specifically. They are empowered to make decisions, like changing the logo, that I wouldn’t necessarily make on my own. I give them room to try, fail, learn and grow from their decisions, and they teach me new things along the way.
Even though some of these changes have been uncomfortable, it makes me proud to see the development of our people and the company we’re building together. Our vision for the future has matured, and I’ve become a more present and focused CEO as a result.
As it turns out, letting go and trusting the experts isn’t about sacrificing the ‘sacred cow’ I hold so dear. It’s about setting it free.
I hope that, in sharing this recent anecdote from my journey to this place, other business owners and leaders facing similar challenges will be encouraged to do the same.
So now it’s your turn. What do you ultimately want?
About the author:
Co-Founder & CEO, Proven Recruiting
With more than 20 years of experience in Information Systems Analysis, Technology Recruiting and Sales Management, Louis is the driving force behind Proven Recruiting’s innovative culture and award-winning staffing services.
Since co-founding the company in 2007, Louis has grown Proven Recruiting from seven original founders to more than 200 core employees and consultants spanning offices in San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Previously, Louis was a Managing Director for one of the largest staffing companies in the country. He managed an office of more than 70 people that generated more than $40M a year. Louis graduated from the American University in Washington D.C. with a BA in Psychology. He is active in local business and community organizations as a board member of the Asian Business Association (www.aba-sd.org), and Pacific Arts Movement (www.pac-arts.org).
Have a question for Louis? Ask him in the comments below!