The Biggest Mistake Entrepreneurs Make? Believing That They're 'Irreplaceable.'
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A well-known phrase beloved by entrepreneurs everywhere says that, “Investors invest in people, not companies.” And any entrepreneur with a a long list of ideas will almost certainly appreciate that notion because it indicates that an investor will be awarding him (or her) considerable flexibility to pursue an idea that seems potentially profitable.
Other entrepreneurs,meanwhile, may be excited by the idea that they can empower a team to chase success in ways that reduce their -- the entrepreneurs' -- risk.
Unfortunately, entrepreneurs enamored with the idea that they are “investable” are the same ones who believe that their businesses will live and die on their efforts alone. But that's a flawed idea, because while feeling irreplaceable may be confidence-building, it's also ultimately fear-inducing.
The reason is that, like everyone else, "irreplaceable" leaders have just 24 hours in a day -- so how can they possibly do everything needed to keep a business running, themselves? Once their companies have outgrown their personal capacity, those companies will be done. Society simply hasn't yet perfected the option of human cloning.
How "irreplaceable" thinking hurts businesses
I recommend Living a Rich Life by James Lenhoff, because he writes about how entrepreneurs tend to be optimistic and energetic when it comes to talking about the future, but they also tend to overcommit. They launch their companies with hopes of achieving freedom, Lenhoff write, but they end up crumbling under the juggernaut of managing budgeting, HR responsibilities and more.
“Some business owners get to a point where they’re dragging themselves along, and they’ve lost the optimism that got them going in the first place,” the author says. “All these other pieces that come with entrepreneurship start to bury us.”
Many of the entrepreneurs he's spoken to, Lenhoff says, tend to believe they can’t replace themselves. “One of the most important things we need to do is continually find ways to clone our abilities so we can keep that freedom that motivated us to start our company in the first place,” Lenhoff explains. “Many become trapped because they want to control everything; and [they] don’t replace themselves.”
This means that as businesses grow bigger -- and the tasks needed to keep them moving loom larger -- entrepreneurs themselves become the bottlenecks. The only way their businesses can grow in that scenario is if they take on more. But when they hit their own limit, those entrepreneurs can't take on any more on, and, as a result, their businesses grow stagnant.
What to do if you consider yourself "irreplaceable"
While it may be easy for entrepreneurs to recognize that their overstretched schedules and to-do lists can hamper their businesses’ growth -- especially when they’re in the thick of success -- it might be harder for them to pinpoint how to get out of their own way. Does this "irreplaceable" description sound familiar? For entrepreneurs for whom it does, here are the areas they should consider working on -- immediately.
1. Let others help you develop processes. “[Entrepreneurs] don’t develop systems and processes, so the business relies too much on them,” Andrew Patricio, a partner in BizLaunch, told The Star Business Journal. Most entrepreneurs are great at developing ideas, Patricio said, but they struggle to develop the processes to execute on those ideas repeatedly.
By bringing someone more task-focused into the fold, entrepreneurs can empower that person to identify obstacles, consider the tools needed and think through how each role in a process will impact another.
2. Set the right expectations from the start. Lenhoff said that many entrepreneurs he knows who are trying to attract clients go above and beyond, promising them the moon and the stars to get them in the door. The thinking is if they can impress them, they’ll keep them. But what those entrepreneurs really do is set expectations that can’t be met as their businesses grow. The result is that client retention becomes a problem.
Lenhoff also believes that entrepreneurs and their teams can should have lives outside work. Here, he recommends saying “no” early on to the things entrepreneurs believe they’ll eventually need to turn down as they scale. Otherwise, those entrepreneurs will be forced to take something away in the future that those customers have come to expect.
Can you replicate house calls or quarterly surveys once you have 200 -- and then 2,000 -- clients? If not, don’t start down that path now.
3. Think about the type of talent you want to attract.
Irreplaceable leaders lack capacity because they have not made it a priority to train others to fill the roles they are currently filling," Myriad Insight explains. "This limitation becomes a lid on the growth potential of the organization. It stunts revenue growth and limits the ability to keep high performers."
If you want to attract talented people to your mission, think about what will draw them in: an opportunity to wield real influence and make a difference, or a chance to work in your shadow? Build flexibility into roles so you can give these high performers the leeway they demand.
4. Consider the impact on your team.
As entrepreneurs build their companies and expand their teams, they have to prioritize culture. Considering what will make people feel welcomed, valued and open-minded is important to future growth; it’s how any company manages to be innovative.
But think about how an "irreplaceable" mindset impacts the whole: Leaders who "can’t" be replaced alienate others, and they inadvertently place an expectation that others must perform at the same level. That can become a breeding ground for unhealthy competition. Instead, emphasize that each person on the team -- yourself included -- should simply work to be better than he or she was yesterday.
5. Remember what your workaholism costs you.
Workaholic behaviors are often rewarded by modern society, with people competing to see who’s busier. And as entrepreneurs encounter success, they may find it easier to make sacrifices in other areas to keep their business’s momentum going: I’ll skip dinner with the family this week so I can sign on those three clients on the verge of closing.
But one week can easily become eight, so keep in mind your broader goals -- a happy family, a healthy business, That way you won't be giving up one for the other. This is a good reminder to hand off what you can so others, both your family and your employees, feel important.
Being irreplaceable sounds great, but it’s a setup for disappointment. Burning the candle at both ends when you’re first launching your company is doable, but doing it for years isn’t sustainable. Rather than buy into the fallacy that you’re all your company needs, aim to replace yourself. It's that simple. And it’s the only way you and your company will grow.