Are you Firefighting more than 10% of your time?

I recently talked to a business owner who’s done a great job growing their business. They’ve gone from 50 employees to almost 350 in just a few years…! But they are coming up to a common inflection point in terms of growing a business – a point where they have to purposely address how they operate as an owner (and it’s a big change from what got them here).

We talked a bit about how they spend their time – and the business owner used a phrase I don’t hear very often. He talked about how much time he’s been spending as a firefighter over the last few years. I asked him what he meant and the answer is pretty much what you might think – he’s personally swooping in to put out the fires… emergency situations that are impacting the business.

In short, he’s being a Hero – and it’s starting to have an impact on his business (and likely on him as well).

Firefighter? Hero? What’s the problem?

When you’ve owned a business for a long time, especially if it’s a business that you started, then you, the owner, are going to have a huge advantage when it comes to getting stuff done. You’ve likely worked every aspect of the business, you know the details and you know the history. You are likely going to be the most effective at dealing with issues.

But that doesn’t mean you should. Especially as your business grows.

The biggest issue is that you jumping in to save the day isn’t sustainable. As the business grows, so does the need to resolve day to day issues. When the business is big enough, it’s more than a full time job all by itself – and as the owner, you have other critical responsibilities (like leading and managing).

On top of that, you are training your team that they can’t (and shouldn’t try) to solve problems. Instead they should just call you and get out of the way. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how that kind of company culture leads to major issues down the road.

What’s the alternative?

Face it, as a business that’s growing, you’re always going to have issues. Things that need to be handled quickly and cleanly before they impact the entire business in a negative way.

Here are a couple of things that can help keep the fires contained:

Boring but critical – Processes and Procedures

One of the things that happens when a business grows quickly is that things start getting handled in ‘expedited’ ways. You and your team don’t always have time to figure out the best way to do something, so you end up doing something that works for now (good enough) and you move on to the next challenge.

And then, when that situation comes up again… you don’t remember how you handled it last time so you do something different. Maybe that works as well, or maybe it ends up creating some ripple effects that have to be handled down the line. Either way, continually solving challenges on the fly takes a lot more effort and time than if you had a clear cut, proven approach.

I have a client in manufacturing, and they’ve learned the important, but painful lesson that they can’t afford to be too accommodating to clients when it comes to special orders. It’s not that they can’t customize a product, they can and they have, but every time they do, it shuts down almost all the other work they’re doing and puts everything else on hold.

As a way to combat that, they now have a process that starts with sales that makes it very difficult to special order a product. The result is that they have a lot fewer fires to put out in the shop…

Having documented, consistent ways of doing things makes it a lot easier to do more.

Even more important… Get out of the Way!

The other big thing you need to focus on as an owner is building a great team that has the time, expertise and most importantly, the authority to handle fires when they come up (without you)!

I’ve talked before about the importance of Delegating versus Deciding – deciding is assigning tasks to others, but keeping the overall responsibility for the outcome for yourself. Delegating, on the other hand, is when you truly empower someone on your team to own the outcome that you’re looking for – including handling things if and when they go wrong.

A great example of this comes from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4 Hour Work Week where he talks about empowering his customer service reps to handle customer complaints as they saw fit as long as it was less than a $200 impact. The outcome from that approach was a drastic reduction of customer service issues that were escalated to the owner.

If you want to free up your time to deal with the big picture stuff (which only you can do), you have to let other people take on responsibility for getting stuff done and solving problems.

Not easy, but necessary if you want to grow…

Implementing solid processes and policies takes time and will initially feel like a waste of time. You (or your team) could just get the work done and move on to the next thing. But that’s not going to help you when the same (or similar) challenge comes up again in a few weeks. Solid processes however, will make a huge difference down the line if you make the investment.

Likewise, the idea of empowering an employee to handle things that have a direct impact on the core of your business (financial or otherwise) is a scary proposition.

  • You have to hire the right kind of people – the ones who believe in what you believe in.
  • You have to take the time to train them and clearly set expectations for what’s needed.
  • Hardest of all, you have to be able to step back and let them take over… even if (or especially if) they are going to make mistakes or at least not do it the exact way you would do it.

The business owner I was talking to was shooting to cut down his firefighting time to 10% (which is still a 1/2 day per week). Directionally that’s a great start and a worthwhile target – and it helps him set his priorities for the year… focus on creating and implementing solid processes and hiring and empowering key leaders.

It’s a lot of work, but considering this guy’s track record, I’m sure it’s a transition he’ll be able to make.

What about you? How much time do you spending fighting fires in your business? Have you attempted to get in front of it and find a way to reduce the fires? What are you working on? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach