Great Leadership Starts with Letting Go

Most business owners are really good at something – that’s usually how and why they started the business in the first place. Plumbing companies are usually started by plumbers, restaurants are started by chefs, bars are started by people who like to drink… just kidding 😉

In general, that expertise is a great thing, especially for a business that’s just starting out. It’s hard to create or sell something if you don’t have a lot of background in it – and by definition most start-ups only have the owner(s) and maybe a couple of employees, so that know-how has to come from somewhere.

The problem comes in when you start to scale the business. For most business owners, that means you have to start hiring a team in order to get more done… and you have to start leading that team.

But here’s the rub – just because you’re good at whatever you do, doesn’t mean you’re good at leading a team – it’s a different skillset and mindset.

And if you can’t successfully lead your team, then you’re going to hit a wall (sometimes really hard) when it comes to scaling your business.

Leadership starts with letting go…

What does good leadership look like in this context? You need to have a vision for your company, you need to set the tone in terms of your values, your culture, how people are treated and how things get done.

But mostly, you need to hire the right people and get out of the way.

As the owner of a business, as the leader of a team, your primary job is to make sure everyone else is successful doing the work that needs to be done. NOT doing the work yourself.

That’s not to say that you won’t do some work – especially early on, but the goal should be to eventually get to the point where you, as the leader, aren’t directly responsible for any day to day operational tasks.

That idea makes a lot of business owners uncomfortable – but it’s the best way to create a valuable business and it’s a critical component to scaling most businesses.

But what does letting go really look like? What does it take to delegate to your team?

Using a tree to help you delegate

One thing that might help you wrap your head around how to delegate effectively is to think about your business as a healthy growing tree. This analogy comes from author Susan Scott in her book Fierce Conversations.

She suggests looking at the decisions that need to be made in your business on a weekly basis and assign them a criticality based on a tree analogy:

Leaf Decisions:  Make the decision, act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions:  Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took daily, weekly or monthly.

Trunk Decisions:  Make a recommendation and jointly make the decision.  Report your decision before you take action.

Root Decision:  Escalate the decision, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

The goal over time is to move more and more decisions out to the leaf level for trusted employees.

Ask employees to review regular decisions and actions that are within their responsibilities and categorize where on the tree those decisions or actions currently fall.  In a lot of environments, many things will probably be at the root level – jointly find some things that can be moved out to at least the branch level.  Over time revisit the definitions and keep pushing things out as trust and capabilities build.

Trunk level decisions give you the opportunity to challenge your employees to make decisions – they’re responsible for the decision, subject to your approval.  Over time, good judgment is recognized and rewarded by moving more decisions out on the tree.  Don’t give in by making decisions for them – challenge them to make the decision, discuss it after their decision and make sure you live by what you’ve agreed to.

Ultimately you want to move from Deciding to Delegating – where deciding is assigning someone a task, but delegating is assigning them the ownership of an outcome.

That’s how a great business scales. You know you’re onto something when someone on your team surprises you with a great new idea (that they implement) that you would have never thought of. When good things start happening without you, you’re well on your way to creating a valuable business.

What do you think? Are you letting go enough with your team? Does your team primarily operate at the Root level of decisions? Or do they have a lot of branch and leaf decisions they make every week?

We’d love to hear your thoughts – leave a comment below.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach