As an entrepreneur with a growing business, you’re probably clamoring to maintain control as things change — I know I was with my own young company. Unfortunately, in my quest for control, I was actually doing my business and team a disservice. One of our core values at my company is to elevate everyone around you. Yet even as a co-founder I was stuck in the weeds and getting in the way of the talented people we hired to get the job done.
As I struggled with this problem, I was given a few pointers from a golf coach on my backswing (I used to tense up, grip the club too tightly, and slice the ball off course). He instructed me to loosen my grip and not tense up in that critical moment — leading to a better and more consistent shot. It’s counterintuitive, but this advice has given me both a better golf swing and a more effective way of working with my team.
So here are the five rules I’ve set for myself as I set out to really put this into practice in my business.
Don’t try to fix everything at once
As a founder or executive of a growing company, you’re likely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of problems you see — I certainly was. Personally, I pointed out problems left and right, distracting my team from focusing on what really mattered. I was trying to fix everything at once, instead of fixing one issue at a time.
Focus on the urgent and important
When I get overwhelmed, I use the Eisenhower Box to ask myself: What is both urgent and important? I focus on that one thing and rally the team around it. This provides clarity and eliminates the cost of confusing priorities and context switching.
Eisenhower categorized his work in degrees of urgency and importance. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to focus on what’s directly in front of you. The urgent demands your attention right then. For me, completing the urgent task gives me a mental high and feeling of accomplishment. In contrast, the important items might not always be in front of you, but those tasks contribute to longer-term goals and aspirations. If you always focus on the urgent, you won’t have time to address the important. Eisenhower proposes that you first work on tasks that are both urgent and important, delegate the urgent but unimportant ones, and schedule time to work on the important but not urgent tasks.
For example, we were working on student engagement challenges in the design of our online program. We wanted students to have the same sense of connectedness that benefits our on-campus students. This problem was challenging and requires concentration. Working on this is important because a successful online product drives our mission to teach as many people as possible how to code. However, was easy for me to get distracted by more urgent tasks like prospective student inquiries and customer service issues. I could easily fix the latter, so it made me feel confident to knock out what feels urgent even though it could easily be delegated to a team member. I had to consciously choose to categorize and work accordingly.
Don’t fix everything yourself
This is the hardest rule for me. Take the time to explain why something must be fixed and empower someone else to fix it. You shouldn’t do it yourself because you’ve hired talented people to solve these challenges specifically so you can focus on other things. Additionally, the team becomes better and more capable when you’re not the only one solving problems. Most importantly, you can damage relationships with your team when you solve problems for them. It sends a message that you don’t trust them to get the job done.
Focus on results, not methodology
Now that you’ve empowered someone to get it done, don’t micromanage how they do it. Focus on the results, not the methodology. People with different backgrounds and perspectives approach problems differently, and that’s what makes working with others great. Clearly communicate what you want and get out of the way. A team member may solve the problem in a new way and you could learn something — their approach may even be more effective.
For example, early on, my team learned that holding events helped us build relationships with prospective students. I personally felt obligated to coordinate these. But after staff planning with our marketing director, it became clear that having a dedicated events coordinator would free up people on the team to focus on what they do well. Focusing on the outcome of more events instead of how we were going to achieve them cleared the logjam, and it helped our makerting director feel more empowered around his own responsibilities within the organization. Now there’s less on my own plate and I can focus on what I do best — I just have to show up to the events and share my enthusiasm.
Be compassionate to yourself and your team
I’m a software engineer by trade, and the mechanics and immediate gratification of writing code is satisfying. You give the computer an instruction and it does what you want or throws an error. The immediate feedback allows you to change your approach. So it was an adjustment when I started to lead people. Feedback will not be immediate, and screwing up is a certainty.
Be patient with yourself. It’s a slow process, and things won’t always be clear. As well, be compassionate with your team. I always try to share that I’m learning and that I’m also making mistakes. This helps open up a dialog on how we can communicate better in the future and do better moving forward.
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