Work On--Not In--Your Business

Delegating tasks and learning to let go could be the key to business growth.

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By Ray Silverstein • Feb 2, 2011 Originally published Mar 3, 2010

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There is a bridge every entrepreneur must cross in order to grow a business beyond a certain point, a point where they must transition from "doing" to "leading." It means stepping back from day-to-day operations and slipping into the role of overseer.

It also means learning to delegate more significant responsibilities to your employees. But for many entrepreneurs who view their business as their baby, this is more easily said than done.

Let's go back in time to when you first formed your company, when you were involved in every aspect of running the business. As your firm grew, you needed help to get things done, so you began hiring.

You started by delegating specific tasks and duties to your new employees. Hopefully, as they proved themselves to you, you started giving them larger projects and eventually turning over actual responsibilities.

Learning to delegate is an ongoing journey. Half the battle is hiring people who you feel comfortable delegating to. The other half is creating infallible work processes.

Some of this simply comes down to good communication. In many small businesses, employees wear many hats. As a result, they are not always sure what their top priority should be. It's your responsibility as the boss to tell them:

  • What their tasks and responsibilities are, and which of them take priority over others.
  • What doing a good job looks like. Don't expect workers to instinctively know; it's up to you to define and describe it. Provide good direction; be specific and give examples.
  • The limits of their authority, which might include budgets, time frames, and resources at their disposal.
  • Reporting criteria. How often do you want to get an update? What should it include? Do you want it in writing, or is a verbal report acceptable?
  • Where workers stand in terms of their job performance. You can't expect people to make improvements if you don't provide feedback.

Even if you haven't created formal job descriptions and performance reviews--which many small businesses don't--you can still communicate this information to employees.

But what if you don't have the right people in place and aren't comfortable delegating certain tasks?

You can provide training designed to get employees' skills up to par or shuffle employee positions around. Some employees don't want the responsibility of thinking; they want to work on autopilot. Perhaps there's a place for worker bees in your organization?

If there isn't, and nothing is working, you may have to take that difficult step of replacing them with people who will accept responsibility eagerly. That's leadership at its toughest.

Once you put the right people, programs, and processes into place, your business should practically run itself. It is at that point that you can safely disengage long enough to provide the vision essential to your company's long-term growth.

That being said, delegation is never abdication. Rather, it's learning to work on the business instead of in the business. Good leaders know when to get out of their own way.

Ray Silverstein

Ray Silverstein is the president of PRO: President's Resource Organization , a network of peer advisory boards for small business owners. He is author of two books: The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses and the new Small Business Survival Guide: How to Survive (and Thrive) in Tough Times . He can be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or ray@propres.com .

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