Entrepreneurship 101: Building an Empowered Team
It's a great test of one's character on how s/he handles mistakes and learns from them
The first few years of being an entrepreneur, typically, are very frantic and hectic. It is the most hands-on phase and the team thrives on the sheer energy and pace of everything around. And before you know, you are running a large team and are scaling up at a rapid pace. While it’s the adrenalin rush that keeps the entrepreneur going, it also means, irrespective of the business domain and the product offering, that the amount of work to handle is fast approaching the tipping point for the entrepreneur. The point where it will be too much to manage alone and in the same way it was managed before, by being hands-on.
The Teething Troubles and the High Highs!
If the entrepreneur reaches this tipping point unprepared and unaware, it is already a big challenge because the business doesn’t slow down to allow a breathing and thinking time, and it will not be long before the number of balls in the air is more than what you can juggle. And that is a scary scenario!
The T(r)ipping Point
So, how does an entrepreneur prepare for this tipping point?
This is not the only tipping point but there are many such points in future which are purely linked to the business growth which result in both - work and the number of people that need to be managed.
Before we talk about the ‘how’, to emphasize that the one thing one should NOT DO is have a false understanding of one’s skills to manage this tipping point just because of the notion that ‘I am an entrepreneur and I can manage whatever comes my way’. In fact, that is one common reason that, at some point, leads the entrepreneur to start hitting the axe on his/her own leg.
The logical solution is to bring in help, which means hiring one or more people who can help you run things better. But there is a catch here - for most entrepreneurs, the very skill that made them take the leap of faith - the ability to take on anything and move towards a goal unfailingly, becomes their biggest roadblock to have other people run things they were used to so far. And not in all aspects, but most entrepreneurs suffer from Amaxophobia (the prospect of allowing someone else to take control of the trip) in a business context. And it is not about the trust they put in the people (hiring someone at that position implies a lot of trust in the first place) but it is simply their own anxiety in letting someone else run and manage the key business components.
Now, this is where entrepreneurs take on one of the two clear paths, and in doing so also define the way the business will build up in future, and implicitly, but very strongly, define the organization’s culture moving forward.
One path which many entrepreneurs choose is to let their Amaxophobia (in the business context, again) get better of them and they end up become proxy managers. So on the outside s/, he believes that there is a team of skilled people to manage the business but in reality, the entrepreneur is actually proxy-managing the entire business simply because s/he has not been able to let go of the control completely. This leads to a scenario where you have a team which either has a responsibility (and accountability) without authority or authority without responsibility. In either case, sooner or later, you will begin to feel why you even hired the team in the first place if you still had to do all the work. And without really looking inwards and realizing the Amaxophobic approach, you start to believe that you hired the wrong people. And then a change of people will happen but since the real problem is not solved, the cycle will continue every few years. But every time this happens it leaves a permanent scar on everyone in the organization and, in addition to the chaos this brings in, people start losing trust in the business they joined for a bigger promise.
The Road Ahead
This leaves us with the second path and one that needs to be chosen - hire people at key positions and do not proxy manage. Of course, this is much easier said than done. And let me now correct myself and say that not most entrepreneurs but virtually every entrepreneur suffers from Amaxophobia. And that is what makes the second path more difficult to choose. But doing the right thing is seldom easy. It needs all the courage and self-restraint to hire good people and not make them better, instead provide the environment and the opportunities for them to become better. A parallel can be drawn from the world of parenting where you help your children learn difficult things, like cycling with training wheels, for a while but at some point you have to let it all go and hold back all your concerns and fears when they roll out into the real world (without those wheels).
It is about empowering your team and it is about making them realize their true potential (the one you saw when you hired them for, in the first place) which is the only way to ensure that the business and your journey not only sustains the many tipping points of now and future but also grows and flourishes without looking back.
Building an Empowered Team: The Golden Rules
Let’s talk about the thumb rules (after all, most entrepreneurs love thumb rules and have their own for everything they face and solve). The following are mine, for building a team that is stronger than the entrepreneur and is a true leadership team which leads the organization to greater heights of success.
Plan Before You Need. Anticipate the team’s growth and identify the person who can take up the leadership role when the time comes. Someone coming up from the ranks and having spent a lot of time hands-on in that skill/part of the business is a good bet.
Dabble with Delegation. This will be the training wheels for both you and the team. Start with important but not mission-critical activities. Gives a chance to assess self’s reaction to letting go (even if small and gradual) and also to expose the chinks in the armour (sort of) of the team. These are both great learnings for a solid future.
Allow and Encourage Failures and Learning From Them. It is one thing to forgive mistakes once they happen but sometimes you need to allow the team to make mistakes even when you know the mistake is about to happen (of course, it’s a judgment call and cannot be a business threatening mistake). In addition to allowing the team to learn from their mistakes, it also, sometimes, in a way, separates the chaff from the grain. It’s a great test of one’s character on how s/he handles mistakes and learns from them.
Give Them Room to Apply Their Methods to Their Work. As an entrepreneur used to solve problems on a daily basis, we, most of the times, believe that ours is the only way to solve a problem and we view everything using that filter. This, in turn, stifles the team’s creativity and problem-solving skills, making them more dependent on you for their tasks too; defeating the purpose altogether! this is not easy to do, at all. The anxiety and the apprehension are very high when you let people use their own methods to solve a problem (which you have already solved a million times almost as muscle memory). But this is one of the most important pieces. The team has to be able to believe that their skills and thought process is valued, and be given room to learn.
Provide Smart Mentoring, in Required Doses. The above thumb rules do not mean you give a free hand to the team and they make mistakes and apply their methods, grow as better leaders in the process. Quite the contrary. You have to be with them all the way, sharing your experiences and mentoring them all throughout. They will need all your experience, insight, gut feel and much more to learn right and learn fast.
Looking back and what worked in the business domain and context to hold ground in most scenarios, however, each entrepreneur has his/her own intuition about things and that can never be replaced by a set of rules. After all, the starting point of becoming an entrepreneur is breaking many rules and setting self on a new unchartered path.
So, go ahead, step a little back, put your best people forward and give them all the backing and support they need to take over the reins.
A techie at heart, Amit has played a key role in bringing an innovative approach to the traditional learning management system (LMS) and has been instrumental in putting UpsideLMS on the global map. He leads UpsideLMS’ technology solutions team, orchestrates the sales and marketing operations, and consults businesses in making their learn-tech initiatives a success.