A Self-driving Business

modified April 12, 2018 - in

Over the course of my career, family has always, without any doubt, been my primary focus; and never has a career taken precedence. So it pains me to see anyone claiming they are sacrificing time with their family in order to advance a career. Careers are important, but only in terms of how it relates to your overall goals in life, which include family and they should be a part of any decision.

What’s this got to do with a self-driving business? I’m getting there…

Too often, we hear top level executives preaching how people need to sacrifice and commit; meaning give up precious hours meant for personal time. I often heard executives say, “I probably 80 hours a week or more focused on the job” and “I’m on call 24/7, because that’s what it takes.” In reality, if an executive is spending that much time managing their business, there are only two reasons; the first, they are just not qualified or capable of leading an efficient and effective business. Second, they’re just trying to justify their position, making it sound like they are critical to the company’s survival.

Running a successful business is more about quality than quantity; the latter usually meaning someone is lacking the necessary skills and just trying to keep up. Running a business requires an ability to define and clarify the processes needed for efficient operations; and then, the leadership skills necessary in identifying and hiring the people needed to make it work. A good leader, or executive, not only hires and trains the right people; he/she must empower these people if they want to really create a sustainable and self-driving business. If the people below the executive are not empowered to execute on their responsibilities, and/or the executive feels the need to micro-manage, then either the people doing their jobs are unqualified, or the executive is unable to manage and develop a self sufficient team.

It a perfect world, assuming the executive has done their job in creating a sound foundation and operational structure, and helped select and train the key people in the same manner; then the executive only needs visibility into the daily activities and no additional time in the day to manage. In fact, if they do their job really well, they should feel as though they are just sitting on the sideline watching the game like a coach; occasionally making suggestions and minor adjustments, but allowing the rest of the team do their jobs. There focus needs to be on looking forward, anticipating and planning for the future.

I learned this a long time ago as a means of survival. As a young executive (only in my mid 30's), I was provided an opportunity to take on an emerging retail operation; one with a team in place, a few stores in operation, and plans for aggressive growth. It was my first really large opportunity and I went into it thinking I had to do everything myself. It didn’t take long for me to realize, even if I were capable of doing every job, it wasn’t possible or practical; so, I stepped back and focused more on the operational structure, finding the right people, and then making sure they had clear objectives and the authority to manage. Part of this was stimulated by the people already surrounding me; one in particular, who was fresh out of college and managing our IT and systems needs (back office and POS). He was incredible and helped me understand the power of developing and guiding people over directing and managing. I quickly learned the power of what I call, “expanded intelligence”; meaning, not only are there a lot of smart people out there in the world, if I can aggregate their efforts in an organized fashion, the collective output is potentially incredible…way beyond any one person on their own.

I adapted the same leadership style with each of the operational areas, creating a business operation that was not solely dependent on any one person. I created SOP’s (standard operating procedures), enabling people to focus on what they do, more than how they do it; and created a responsive and adaptable environment. Over the course of three years, this approach allowed us to grow the division of the company from just a few stores, to 37 over 15 states doing in excess of $40 million annually. And it didn’t require people invest excessive amounts of time to achieve our collective goals. I had two small kids during this time, and I firmly believed time with the family was essential to both the individual and their families. And even if people were single, selfish time doing things you want to do is also essential to a creating a balanced work life relationship. So I made sure people took time off, and we had the right people focused on specific roles; so others weren’t duplicating efforts or wasting time on unproductive work. Quality over quantity.

There came a point when I knew it was time to leave, for two reasons; first, the parent company was not going to make it, meaning my division would be dragged down with it. Second, I was literally spending more time merely observing, needing less than 40 hours a week to provide guidance. I knew if I walked away at any point, everything would keep running smoothly; so, submitted my resignation. The parent company was struggling and my immediate boss asked me to stay, stating I was needed to maintain the business. As flattering as that was, I told him, the business was now in self-driving mode; and no one would really know I was gone for at least six months, and that was only because of one area I had not delegated out or created a back up for managing…lease management. So as leases came up for renewal, there was no one else currently trained to manage it, and that is when they would need help. But I also pointed out, there was ample time to prepare.

It was both humbling and satisfying to watch a business run seamlessly, and without interruption after I left. In fact, as the parent company faltered, my division continued to grow and provide positive returns (just not enough to save the overall business). I built a sustainable business structure, not dependent on any one person; rather, providing a platform for many to excel in collaboration based on their efforts. It was a self-driving business. And as an executive, I discovered the more I let others do, and the less I did, the better off the entire business was in the long term.

So when you hear an executive claiming they demand everything from their workers, sacrificing time and family in order to succeed professionally; what they’re really saying is they don’t know what they’re doing, and compensating by making others and themselves, give up time meant for personal growth over professional.

Work smart, build a sound operational structure; and most importantly, empower people within their roles. If you’re really any good at managing or being an executive at any level, you should be very good and observing and guiding, not directing and doing. You don’t aways need to be behind the wheel of the car, especially if it’s self-driving.


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