As CEO, are you giving someone else responsibility, but then constantly trying to control how they do the job? Google executive Molly Graham brilliantly describes this with a Lego-inspired metaphor about building businesses: “Everyone’s first instinct is to grab back the Legos that the new kid took — to fight them for that part of the tower or to micromanage the way they’re building the tower.” And some executives may have the opposite problem — delegating and then walking away without ever checking back in on that aspect of the business and how it’s going.
Being “chief cook and bottlewasher” is no joke when you’re first running a startup. As head of the company, you’re likely to be in charge of everything from hiring to bookkeeping. And that’s as it should be in those early days, when there’s so much to do and so few resources to do it with.
But if you want to grow, you have to let go. At a certain point, you just can’t do it all. And more to the point, you shouldn’t — because there are people out there who can do a lot of it much better than you. Bring in their expertise and energy, and you’ve got a great shot at taking your company to the next level. Don’t, and chances are you won’t be taking it anywhere.
Problem is, letting go is hard to do. When you’re the one who’s always been ultimately responsible for everything in your business, “let it go” is a pretty tough ask. Here are three things I suggest to make it easier.
Leave your ego out of it.
Self-confidence is one of a CEO’s greatest assets. Believing in yourself and your abilities is vital to building your company’s credibility and legitimacy. It’s how you win the confidence of investors, customers and other key stakeholders. But that same belief in yourself can backfire when you mistake a blinding ego for self-confidence. If you fervently believe you’re the only one who can do something right or well, you’ll never trust anyone else to do it — even when your business stands to benefit.
So stop thinking about how you’re the one who does it best, and start thinking about who can do it better. Instead of falling prey to what one expert calls self-enhancement bias, seek the true self-confidence to recognize superior talent and ability — and put it to work for your company. There’s no shame inhiring someone better than you; to the contrary, it’s exactly what you want to do to help your startup scale to higher heights.
Okay, so you’re not the best person to do everything in your company. But you’re absolutely the best person to do some things. The key is knowing the difference. That’s what delegating strategically is all about: being aware of where you’re needed most and what you do best, and making your delegation decisions accordingly.
No two CEOs are alike, of course, and that means every strategy for delegating is going to be different. For every leader who shines brightest in getting funding and working with investors, there’s another whose magic is in shaping andleading the company’s culture. I’d say there’s definitely an argument to be made that those are likely to be among the responsibilities many CEOs will want to keep. But again, everyone’s different — for some, recruiting and hiring also rank up there.
Another way to look at what to delegate is from the perspective of your company and its core business. If the company is essentially fundamentally a marketing company, for example, you’ll certainly want to think twice before you entirely off-load responsibility for marketing systems.
Sometimes, despite your best intentions and efforts, you may find yourself sabotaging your efforts to delegate. That’s natural; after all, we’re talking about something you’re likely to resist doing in the first place. That’s why it’s important to watch for signs that maybe you’re not doing such a great job at delegating.
The trick here is that you may not even be aware when you’re getting in your own way. That’s where trusted colleagues come in. Ask your team to hold you accountable to your own promises — to call you on it when you say one thing about delegating, but do another. Whether failing to let go or failing to follow through, unless you know about the problem, you’re not going to be able to solve it.
Delegating responsibility isn’t one of the easiest things a startup CEO has to learn how to do, but it’s definitely one of the most important to scaling the business. I’ve never known a CEO who was interested in limiting the possibilities for his or her company — but that’s exactly what can happen if you don’t learn how to cede control where you need to.
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