Bosses who become their own jailers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 1995, 12:00am

Owners of small businesses must learn to delegate - or risk being tied to the firm every minute of the day.

IT'S so familiar to me that I call it 'The Owner's Lament'. I'm talking about the plaintive cry of small business owners who tell me: 'I have no one I can trust to handle the business while I'm away. My customers want to deal with me, not my subordinates.

It's so bad I haven't had a decent vacation in years.' I shake my head at the cruel irony of all this. Here are smart people who take tremendous risks.

They go out on their own because they want to be masters of their fate. And then they wind up enslaved by their company, their employees, and their customers.

I can see how owners, faced with the pressure of staying in business, fall into this trap.

Their 'can do' mentality leads them to shoulder more and more responsibilities. But I don't understand why they continue torturing themselves when they surely know the cure.

The obvious answer, of course, is to learn to delegate.

But this is like handing the car keys and saying 'Drive' to a teenager who's never had a driving lesson. The mechanics of steering and shifting gears need to be learned.

There are certain mechanics to delegating that people probably know, but can't put into use until they actually get behind the wheel. Here are three basic steps.

In a service business, the problem with always saying 'I', is that everybody wants to deal with 'You'. That can be exhausting and stifling in terms of the growth of your business.

It also doesn't reflect too well on your subordinates. What, a client may logically wonder, are your people doing all day while you're bagging all the trophies? If you own the company, never refer to it as 'my company'.

If you must use a possessive pronoun, 'our' has a more attractive ring.

The biggest reason owners do not have adequate backup is that they never take the time to create it.

It doesn't take much brains to realise that delegating frees you for greater things. But it seems to require an extraordinary ego leap for some managers to accept this.

Make the time to teach your people - even if it means spending a few hours with a protege on something that you could probably handle with one phone call.

I know the owner of a thriving printing business in New York. A big reason for his success is his close relationship with one company that accounts for half his US$20 million in annual sales.

He's very proud of how he's built this relationship over the years - and very possessive. No one can go near the account, not even his two sons who are in the business.

A year ago his big account moved to Texas, and with it half his revenues. To his credit, he's kept the business by personally opening a satellite plant in Texas.

But I believe that someone else in the company - not this 60-year-old founder - should be making those twice-weekly trips to Dallas.

Of course, if you ask him about it, he'd say that the client doesn't want to deal with anyone else. True enough, but a good manager will find a way to turn the client around.

Extracting yourself from these binding relationships and letting someone else take over is a delicate task. It doesn't happen overnight or at your convenience.

The critical step is finding an area of expertise where your successor can do a better job than you.

This happens a lot in our business with our superstar athletes. At a certain point, as an executive grows in our organisation and the business affairs of the superstar he represents grow in complexity, it becomes apparent that the superstar needs someone else to handle the day-to-day details.

Some superstars resist this change. Their egos are bruised.

They worry about their status in the company. They are suspicious of the new face who will be handling their affairs.

It's our job to convince them that other people in our company are just as bright if not brighter about certain things and that they have more time to do a more thorough job.

It is a gradual process. We don't force-feed a new executive to a client in one sitting. We let him handle one small aspect of the athlete's affairs where we know he will excel.

When that works out, the athlete will frequently ask the new executive to take care of other matters. The relationship then takes off.

But that initial beachhead of expertise is the key element. Without it you're forcing a situation, not helping it evolve.

And that, as anyone who has ever lost a client because of 'personal differences' will tell you, can be ruinous.