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Shifting Leadership Gears For Growth

“Shifting Leadership Gears For Growth”

Easing out of operations is a difficult transition that involves structural and behavioral changes.

"It felt like quicksand," says Marc Lovenworth, founder of SearchTec Group, a $6 million information-services company with 45 employees in Philadelphia. "At the end of the day, my ‘to do’ list always had more on it than came off it. I was running ragged — and yet I wasn’t getting anywhere. I finally realized that it was time to step aside and watch, rather than direct."

There comes a point when you need to put some caps on other people’s heads. Instead of being "chief doer and decision maker," it’s time to adopt a broader role — "delegator and direction setter."

Turning points

"There are only so many hours in a day, and you can only multitask so much," points out Steve Antisdel, founder of FurnitureFind.com, an online furniture business in Buchanan, Mich., with more than $7 million in revenues and 50 employees. "If you’re still doing it all, then you’re limiting your organization’s ability to grow — and you may even be increasing risk to the business."

Antisdel’s reality check occurred when he was running Bookout’s Furniture, a family-owned business from which FurnitureFind evolved. One day Antisdel attended a meeting where an attorney made a presentation about human resources. "He gave us a checklist of items we should have — an employee manual, written job descriptions, files on every employee — and what penalties we could incur without them," says Antisdel. "I remember this feeling of dread. I had already started to delegate, but this was the eureka moment for me — that I couldn’t do it all."

When Antisdel returned from the meeting, he immediately tapped a manager with an "eye for details" to take charge of human resources and began sending him to seminars and training to gain expertise.

That was only the beginning. Antisdel continued to ease out of daily operations to focus on the big picture. "As you give others more responsibilities, you need a coherent strategy to keep everyone pulling their oars in the same direction. That forces you to spend more time planning," explains Antisdel.

Easing out of operations presents structural challenges, such as finding the right people and creating systems.

"I’ve done a good job of hiring people who can do what I can’t, but I haven’t hired anyone who can do what I do," says Lauren Hefferon, founder of Ciclismo Classico, a travel business in Arlington, Mass., with $2.7 million in revenues.

But the biggest obstacle is a behavioral one — learning to relinquish control.

"Owners always think that they can do it better," says Matt Stewart, co-CEO of National Services Group (NSG), a Santa Ana, Calif.-based company that helps college students launch businesses. "I had to learn that I don’t do things better, I just do them differently. When I gave our managers more control, they really rose to the occasion," continues Stewart. "The whole company started to change across the board." NSG generated $8.5 million in 2001 revenues and is now in 14 states.

Even if you’re prepared to hand over control to others, there can be deterrents. For instance, employees often don’t want to make decisions. "It involves confidence building, stroking — and then walking away," says Hefferon. "I’m learning to say, ‘You decide. What do you need from me to help you decide?’ "

A process paves the way

Relinquishing control becomes easier when you’ve created systems. Creating formal procedures for his company’s back-end operations was an enlightening process, says Rodney Capron Jr., founder of Synthenet Corp., Northborough, Mass., a Web-development firm with $1.5 million in revenues.

"I brought in a consultant who helped me to realize that things weren’t happening correctly because I was too involved," explains Capron. "I was trying to do sales, write code and do graphic design — all at the same time. My time was so fragmented that I wasn’t being effective at any one thing."

Capron constructed a system that clearly defined what had to be done in a project and who was the best person to execute each step. "That was the big eye-opener," says Capron. "I realized that there were people who were better than me for many of our operations — and I realized that we would never grow if I continued to be a bottleneck."

Today Capron no longer designs or writes code; he’s trying to concentrate on being the company’s spokesperson, visionary and head of quality control.

No pain, no gain

Making a shift in your leadership style may not come easy, but it’s worth the effort. Learning to delegate frees business owners to:

Tackle new areas. When Lovenworth turned over daily operations, he embraced administration and finance — two areas that had been neglected.

Concentrate on areas of interest. NSG’s Stewart is able to focus on the areas he enjoys most. "Yet for me there has to be a balance," says Stewart. "I also like to work in the business. About two years ago, I completely stopped working with divisional heads for a few months — and discovered that I didn’t like my job at all then."

Have a balanced life. For six years, it was not unusual for Lovenworth to spend 12 or more hours a day at the office. "Now, I’m only there about six hours," says Lovenworth. "I go to the gym three or four times a week, I go to my kids’ sporting events — I’m much happier."

Writer: TJ Becker.