There are good teachers who never write on a blackboard. There are talented engineers who never use CAD software. And, there are smart scientists who never look through a microscope. They’re writing plans, attending meetings, or studying regulatory controls and budget sheets. They’ve climbed the organisational ladder and reached a level in their field where they don’t do what got them into that field in the first place.
As a business leader, this is going to happen to you. When you started your business, you probably spent 90% of your time on whatever the shop floor is for your business, where you were fixing, tweaking and juggling shoulder-to-shoulder with your team. But success is going to squeeze you out of your specialist work and if you resist, your company’s growth will be compromised.
You should be spending more than half your time managing the organisation itself. Working ON the business, not IN it.
That’s not a new idea. You’ve probably heard it before. You may be aware that you need to do it. But actually making that shift can seem challenging.
Working on your organisation involves developing new skills and training yourself to look at your business and your staff in a different way:
- How motivated are your people?
- Do they gossip or finger-point?
- Are there practices or behaviour that make you uncomfortable?
- Is it difficult to get others to buy into your values and standards?
- Are you spending most of your time micro-managing others?
- Does it feel like you’ve lost sight of where you are going?
- Are you mostly running to keep up and rarely (if ever) on the front foot?
- Do you worry about who will lead the business if you leave it?
As a leader, your sense of ownership will be huge. But doing things in your business is no longer your job. Your job is to focus on your vision for the business and to learn to talk to people in a way that motivates them to buy into it.
You may assume at this point that people will just naturally copy how you do things, but adult human beings don’t work like that. They need to understand and buy into the reasons for doing things in a certain way – and you need to learn how to help them do it. Tell them what you are trying to achieve, not how you would do it.
Let’s take the example of standards of behaviour, service and quality in your business. As a leader, you need to spell these out in a way that allows others to apply them in their work. Designing a checklist and training everyone to follow it is a lot of work for you and incredibly demotivating and boring for others. If you are not going to have to watch them like a hawk, you need people not to follow slavishly each step you would take, but to understand the essence of what it is you are trying to achieve so they can find their own way of getting there.
You should be spending more than half your time managing the organisation itself.
Take the example of customer service. Certain organisations seem to teach their staff to call total strangers, address them by their first name and as the opening gambit for a conversation ask: “And how are you today?” Do you use this as your opening question when you’ve called a person you’ve never spoken to before? Maybe you do and you can make it sound natural because it’s your way of doing things. Others might prefer to introduce themselves very briefly and say why they’ve called. But somebody wrote the script, and now hundreds of call centre staff follow it slavishly and sound like robots.
Ask the team. They may have even better, and certainly more personal, ideas for engaging someone’s interest and connecting with them – that’s why there’s no point trying to train them in your or anyone else’s way of doing it. Instead, tell them what you are trying to achieve, and start a conversation with them about this outcome, how they see it, and how they personally would take steps to achieve it.
In the conversation, you’ll hear if any of them have ideas that don’t fit your values or standards and you’ll be able to explain and clarify these again. If you are willing to listen, together you will come up with a variety of ways of achieving the original outcome that are even better than the method you came up with by yourself.
More importantly, you’ll have transferred your original vision to your team, and they will all now be bought into achieving the same standard of service. They will feel empowered to express this aspect of the organisation’s values in their own way - and you won’t need to watch them like a hawk.