- All entrepreneurs get lost in the details of the business, but that approach is not scalable.
- Having a CEO performing CEO duties is crucial to the health of the company.
- By focusing on the big picture, entrepreneurs can more effectively identify what they want to accomplish and how to go about it.
All entrepreneurs have probably heard the well-worn advice “Work on your business, not in it.” It sounds like just another corporate cliché, but it’s a necessary caution because any entrepreneur is in danger of getting sucked into nitty-gritty employee work instead of assuming the big-picture CEO role. Take it from me.
There was a time when my inbox overflowed with questions and a steady stream of people visited my office looking for help. I had trained my people to come to me when they had problems because I feared what would happen if I wasn’t involved in every detail of the business.
For entrepreneurs, it’s easy to get stuck trying to fill every role at once: The company may need its founder to manage day-to-day tasks in the early phases of its development, but there comes a point when that founder needs to be more of a captain and less of a sailor. Studies increasingly show that companies where founders assume and continue to play the CEO role perform more innovatively and profitably over time.
Their transition into full-time leadership requires trusting the employees they’ve hired to execute defined duties that contribute to the long-term health of the company. These are people with skills and expertise who know the expectations of their roles and how to go about getting their jobs done.
When a leader instead operates by simply giving his or her team all the answers – what I call leadership through expertise – it’s often about satisfying the leader’s own needs to feel successful and safe. Other leaders make mistakes out of their need to be important, be the center of attention, or gain validation for their ideas. Regardless, the habit of serving as a quality checkpoint turns the entrepreneur into a bottleneck that slows the workflow, stunts employees’ individual growth, and detracts from the time leadership can dedicate to steering the company where it needs to go. It’s a real danger, as 23% of startups fail because of weak founding teams.
Why it’s key to refocus on the big picture.
No matter how good entrepreneurs are at their jobs, they cannot control the quality of work across a company once it has more than 15 employees. When the leader is still reviewing every detail, employees stop taking proactive action and instead begin to wait for the owner to do the work. Employees don’t want to have to change direction after the boss comes in and tells them what to do differently, so they take initiative less often and wait to be instructed instead.
This creates a downward spiral in which the entrepreneur increasingly becomes both the team’s coach and its goalie, though he or she can’t both protect the goal and keep the endgame in mind. When a company reaches 15 or more employees, each objective becomes a full-time job.
If the CEO is still stuck in the day-to-day doing the employees’ jobs, then no one is doing the CEO’s job – and that doesn’t bode well for the company’s health and growth. Avoid getting lost in the business’s minutiae by following these four steps for transitioning your focus to the CEO role:
1. Identify CEO priorities.
To define and focus to your role as CEO, take a step back. Ask yourself what three priorities only you, as the head of the company, are capable of delivering. Once you’ve identified those key initiatives, block off 10 hours per week to work on them. Not only will it help you zero in on ways to better guide your company, but it could also attune you to some of the trends in the market that require attending.
Think about your priorities through the lens of writing your own job description. You have probably already written job descriptions for others on your team: maybe the sales manager or the customer-facing representatives. But have you thought about the important duties and functions of your own role? If you were an external investor, how much time would you expect the CEO of a company to spend on each task in your job description? Break that time into a range of hours per week. For example, the CEO spends between three to five hours per week finding new business partners or acquisition opportunities. Undergoing this exercise can help you home in on the tasks and objectives you should prioritize and be your guide to getting the job done.
2. Role-play the worst-case scenario.
To further envision where you should spend your time in the CEO role, prepare for the worst-case scenario. It’s critical to identify hidden shoals before they have a chance to sink your ship. Step back and look around. What are the top three threats that could kill your business or lead to its decline? If you’re just starting to see cracks in the hull, create a timeline to help map the course for corrective action. This kind of strategic scenario planning usually involves understanding your issues and uncertainties and predicting the implications of possible situations.
Think about the three things your company needs to get right in the next one to three years. Who is working on these things, and how much time should you spend on providing your own input? This year, CEOs across the globe have found themselves pulled in a few similar directions. An increasing number of business leaders are prioritizing digital operations while trying to marry analytical insights to their own intuition. Other CEOs, meanwhile, are boosting their international political knowledge so they can steer their companies through any disruption in global trade. Once you’ve identified the threats on the horizon, consider how much time and effort you currently devote to making sure they don’t harm your business’s future.
3. Lead with questions, not answers.
Remember that line of people standing outside my door? They were there because I was the answer man. But over time, I realized I could better lead my employees by asking them the questions instead. Asking questions puts you in a mode of perpetual learning that not only helps your employees grow, but also helps focus your leadership as you seek input into big-picture goals.
Asking the right questions in the right moments is an art form. So how do you do it? Present an open-ended scenario for someone to work through and explain. To accomplish this, you might ask a “what” or “how” question: “What should we stop doing?” or “What would success look like?” or “How will you change your response after what you’ve just learned?” Then, follow up on the person’s response in order to open up the dialogue and explore the situation. Instead of asking questions just to uncover why an employee made a mistake, present any difficult situation as an opportunity to learn and grow.
4. Design the machine that gets the work done.
Too many entrepreneurs try to create miniature versions of themselves who do the job the way they did it when the company was smaller. But the problem with that “mini-me” approach is that if all employees had an entrepreneurial bent, they would go off and start their own companies. Instead, it’s the entrepreneur’s job to design an organization in which all new hires can succeed without the five to 20 years of experience the entrepreneur has.
Entrepreneurs often lose touch with how the work actually gets done. Keep in mind that the way the work is executed in a five-person company where all the people wear multiple hats is very different from how work gets done in a 50-person company where the work is spread across specialists. Building a system that works requires meticulous planning, but it can be done. Start by taking a wide-angle view of your role in your business, taking stock of all you do to make it work. From there, break down the steps you take for each process, show how you get from Point A to Point B and all the possible alternate outcomes. Once you know what your process looks like, think about ways to either automate it or make your work more efficient.
When entrepreneurs are just getting started, becoming – and staying – intimately involved in the business’s daily operations is an all-too-familiar trap. Luckily, extricating oneself isn’t too difficult. It simply requires taking a big-picture view of what the CEO should accomplish and outlining the steps needed to truly build up the company to its full potential.