Here’s the scenario. You started your business some time ago, before or during the last recession; you heroically survived cash shortages at the beginning and have personally shouldered every burden ever since. You mainly sell services in a knowledge-intensive industry – your area might be consulting, or executive search, or marketing strategy and research, or financial services. You’ve done well, hired a few people, and you subcontract regularly to a team who you’ve come to regard as almost your own employees.
Your own team has changed over the years. Some members have stayed and become loyal employees. Others came and went, but you know they were all special cases. Just like some of the big clients you had for a while, who also didn’t stick with you: they weren’t typical, and you tell yourself you wouldn’t want to work with them again anyway.
You also like to believe that no other entrepreneur has ever gone through the kind of problems that you’re experiencing.
You remember the period when you were growing fast. There was a buzz; everybody was busy and happy. But now you’re tired and the effort has taken its toll. You gaze at the annual figures and you can’t see where further growth is going to come from. You’re back where you started and nobody in your team seems to care. When you push them to show initiative and to come up with solutions, there’s a deafening silence.
In such a situation, the problem might actually be staring at you in the mirror. Maybe you have become a liability to your own business.
Here are some signs that tell us when you, the entrepreneur, are no longer the solution but part of the problem for your own company.
You are the sales hero. You are a larger-than-life character; a brash, speedy sales person who manages all the big clients and still has time to bring in new business. Your attitude is bullish; you control the core of the business and challenge your employees to match your success. Alas, none of them can.
You are the service hero, too. You’re perfectly capable of delivering single-handedly all the services your business provides – and you do so even when it’s not strictly necessary, such is your pride in still being able to ‘do it all’. No one does the work as well as you do, and clients confirm they would rather work with you than with the others in the team. In fact, a lot of clients don’t really respect the others in your team, which is why they come directly to you whenever there’s an issue to be sorted out.
The rules are your rules. Back when you were starting out, it was you who drafted the rules and values of your business, and they’re still valid today. No one has added or changed anything – indeed, the rules are never even discussed. You hire, you fire, and the others never say what they think of your decisions. But then again, you never ask them.
Numbers are irrelevant. You don’t look at your figures for fear they will ‘restrict your creativity’, i.e. you don’t want to be told that doing whatever seems a great idea at the present moment might have negative consequences further down the line.
You create artificial crises to prove you are still irreplaceable. Every now and then you call a meeting with your staff to discuss your dissatisfaction about how things are going and the urgent need to do something. You see some raised eyebrows in the room but no one actually challenges you, which in your mind confirms that there is indeed a crisis and that someone needs to act. That person will be you, again.
To help your company grow and build a team around you, you sometimes need to let things be. Stop taking control over everything that moves. Reframe the role you defined for yourself when you started. You needed to be the heroic multi-tasker back then, because everything was dependent on you. But that was then. These days your business isn’t just about you.
If you can’t separate your business from yourself, you’ll be limiting its potential for development. To risk an analogy with raising a child, you might end up with a 40-year-old offspring living at home with you, unable to fend for themselves. You wanted an independent individual who would help provide for your retirement? Well, too bad, you never let your child grow up.
Do what’s best for the business, not for yourself. Maybe there’s a big and demanding client who you really don’t like: instead of casting them aside for personal reasons, see if your senior team members can service the client and thereby continue a profitable relationship. Or maybe a certain employee irritates you because he seems slower than the rest: if you step back, however, you might actually see that he’s doing a steady job with a satisfactory end product, and that the rest of the team have no problem with him.
As for you being the most successful sales and consultant in your own business, that will always be the case as long as you keep a tight grip on all of your portfolio. No one will ever sell like you do because no one even gets a chance to build up the kind of relationships with clients that you have.
Another reason why no one will ever provide the service as well as you do – an even simpler reason, in fact – is that you set the standards. There’s only one definition of success, and that’s yours. Even if, in reality, your team members would do just as good a job, or better, you wouldn’t be able to see it.
If you recognise yourself in any of the above scenarios, there’s something you need to do. Step back. You’re scaring talent away. And you’re arresting the development of your business.