We all know small-business owners who work seven days a week-maybe you're even one of them. Others of you may not believe such workaholics actually exist. Let us assure you, they do. They're in every neighborhood of every city; some of your own friends may be closet workaholics. Well, we're here to tell you there's hope for this most unfortunate affliction. And affliction it is, because it's one of the single greatest impediments to business growth. So let's talk about your friends and ours.
We usually meet two types of workaholics. Some work regular hours and take tons of work home with them, working late into the night. These are the closet workaholics-their neighbors see them come and go at regular hours, and have no idea that when everyone else is watching Leno or Lettermen, these people are busy with the business problems they've taken home. The second type of workaholic isn't ashamed of the long hours he or she works and doesn't hide anything from neighbors, friends or family. This type of business owner works every day of the week, breaking only when the family threatens to disown them.
As different as these two types may seem to most observers, the same forces cause their behavior. Some find their businesses marginally profitable and declare an inability to hire the required assistants. Others lack confidence in their own ability to train others who could actually relieve their work burden. Some have had a revolving door of assistants and have grown weary of training new people. And, of course, we've all met the perfectionist-only he or she can do the work well enough.
Fortunately there's a very practical solution to the current problem, one we learned while in the U.S. Marine Corps. It's all about baby steps. Let us explain. During a new Marines' initial training at boot camp, he or she is given greater and more challenging opportunities to learn and practice leadership skills. The first leadership learning opportunity may merely involve leading one other Marine in raking sand. The next, more challenging opportunity may be leading three other Marines in marching drills. At the end of boot camp, with progressively more difficult leadership challenges met, a more confident person has emerged. While it's probably impractical to get the workaholic to work less, cold turkey, this same building-block principle can be applied to overcoming unhealthy work habits.
Let's tackle the marginally profitable business first. The business may be small and still employ several people, but the owner just can't see his or her way clear to hire someone to relieve his or her own work burden. The solution is to look at the small picture instead of the big picture. Perhaps you can't hire a full-time office manager, but you can afford to hire someone to work a very limited schedule to open the mail, sort the bills and run the inevitable errands that arise. The key is to start this person off with only a few specific duties and be flexible with this employee's schedule. As the financial health of your business increases, you can begin to think about a larger staff or more hours for this part-time person.
For the workaholics with nonfinancial excuses for extreme work schedules, you, too, must take it one step at a time. Understand that for your business to grow beyond what you alone can handle, you must be able to delegate many tasks you now handle yourself. You must overcome your fears and bring new people in to share your work burden. And, as the new employees are taking away some of the load, you must begin to work less yourself. But again, you don't have to do it all at once. Just getting in the habit of taking a few extra hours off will help you gain confidence in your staff and eventually make it easier to work less yourself.
And, of course, you must not use the lighter workload to find more work for yourself. You must take the new free time to have a little fun and enjoy the lifestyle you've worked so hard to create.
Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way .