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The subtle art of letting go: How to loosen your leadership grip

on Friday, 01 May 2020. Posted in People

In the early years of a company, the business leader is everything to everyone. Few successful enterprises lack a strong, visionary leader at their epicentre

The subtle art of letting go: How to loosen your leadership grip

In the early years of a company, the business leader is everything to everyone. Few successful enterprises lack a strong, visionary leader at their epicentre; setting the compass, charting the course, making sure everyone is onboard and guiding important decisions.

In late 2019, Vistage carried out a survey to better understand business leaders’ priorities across the UK. Members were asked to rate five topic areas in all (talent management, finance, customer engagement, business operations and leadership). Leadership was narrowly ranked as the fifth overall priority. With business leaders deprioritising leadership it's no surprise that inconsistent or unconsidered management style is the cause of a fair share of problems.

This is particularly evident as businesses start to scale. As organisations begin to grow, the practice of running everything through the boss becomes problematic. It’s an approach that simply doesn’t scale, and eventually, the business leader becomes a bottleneck.

Relinquishing control is a logical move, but it can also be emotional to let go of ‘the baby’. Below, we present seven tried-and tested tips on how business leaders can loosen their grip and divert their energy to the big picture.

Get the sales team/process sorted

In the early years, a business’s chief usually held a role where they were critical to driving new business and sales. They have a relationship with the business that no-one else can match, and their enthusiasm and belief is fundamental to their appeal to prospects. For that reason, letting go of sales is often the trickiest challenge for business leaders.

Tricky but also crucial.

The first and easiest mistake often made is business leaders go out and hire a really expensive sales director who they think can take over. Unless that hire comes from a background where they’ve taken a business through a scaling-up process, they won’t have the experience or the knowhow to succeed.

What they’re most likely to do is spend a lot of money building a pipeline - in theory - that doesn’t convert to leads and sales, and you’ll be out of cash before that pipeline converts.

The second mistake people make is to instead hire a “sales team”, which can come in many different sizes or shapes. If you don’t have the strategy, the infrastructure, the processes, the leadership and the foundations in place to create and scale the business, this is another situation where the most likely result is underperformance.

A business’ leader should always be on hand to grease the wheels when a key account or big new business decision emerges, but while sales might be set up by the leaders, they must be developed by the sales teams. 

Hire experts

Effective leaders look for the best people to drive their business forward. That means leaving the ego at the front door, finding people and then listening to them. Part of this comes from setting up a great recruitment process, some of it comes from building the right culture, and a lot of it comes from realising when you’re doing too much. 

Whilst there are undoubtedly benefits to being involved in all aspects of your business; there are likely also some areas where someone else could outperform you.

It can be incredibly liberating to introduce an expert to the business; ultimately providing you the time to work “on the business” rather than “in the business”.

As a business evolves from start-up to scale-up, it soon becomes unrealistic to be shouldering the responsibility alone. Abandoning the jack-of-all trades role is the route to mastering the areas where you can have the biggest impact. 

Create leaders

Hiring experts is one thing, but to really let go, you need to be confident that everyone in the business can act with autonomy. That means moving away from a command and control model and focusing on sculpting leaders.

If you have a team of leaders across all sectors and levels of the business, all working towards the same goal, business success and personal peace of mind is not far behind.  Sometimes this starts with a shift in understanding of leadership - for example ‘Intent-Based Leadership’ is rooted in rejecting the idea that leadership is for the select few at the top.

A highly effective and successful organisation has leaders at every level. Getting this model of leadership in place is based on empowerment over ego, and process over the personality of the leader. Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.

Delegate

The art of delegation is something that business leaders have been wrestling with for generations but determining what you’re best at and what you need to delegate is vital to ensuring your business thrives.

The first rule of delegation is knowing what’s important to yourself - separate the work you can do that adds value from the things that are not important. In the end, the choice is between multiple minds with different levels of expertise working on an organisation - or one brain divided across multiple jobs. 

A leader often needs to step out of their own way to recognise where their skills are and, more importantly, where they’re lacking. The business may well move faster if they let capable people do it.

Make staff accountable

People can’t grow without being allowed room to make their own mistakes.  If you’re always there to soften the blow, they will be less likely to succeed without you. Accountability is the key to driving a high-performance culture.

Accountability is not a punishment but can be established as a support system for achievers. Be clear with what you want out of your employees, as clarity gives people confidence. When organisations struggle with accountability it’s usually because of a lack of clarity about expectation.

Tracking with a scoreboard or other means to celebrate success empowers those that are doing well and give those that aren’t something to reach for.

It’s all about the culture

Company culture evolves as the company scales, so the culture in year one is probably going to look very different from the culture in year ten.

A report by HR-tech company BreathHR recently revealed a third of Brits who quit their job, did so because of company culture. With a third of your workforce at possible risk, company culture should be an important consideration. 

Developing a culture is all about two things: defining the purpose of your business and creating a positive workplace offering fair incentives. If leaders can establish a company culture that enables growth then it should find it easier not only to attract and retain the best talent, but also see that its people are able to make the ‘right’ decisions without leadership intervention. The key to establishing a growth-focused culture is amplifying a rhythm and an energy to the business that everyone can share.  

This means fast and flexible customer responses and making sure that people are following you (at every level of the business) because they want to, not because they have to. If your staff know the business well enough (the overall business objectives and priorities) and understand their roles within it, you have already won half the battle.

Remember, people come to work every day with discretionary effort, but if they’re happy with the culture they are more likely to follow you proudly into the fray instead of indifferently limping along behind you. If you can curate that kind of culture, then you should have no qualms about stepping back and letting that culture fulfil its potential. 

Crossroads

The final lesson is not so much about learning how to let go, but when. All business leaders at scaling companies eventually arrive at a crossroads - when business gets more complicated, has more employees, is looking at new markets, and (most likely) is coping with the fact that all three of these milestones are arriving at once. That’s the point where loosening absolute control should have already occurred.  

Being ready to relinquish a tight grip is valuable well before reaching that step. It requires putting a little more faith in your team than you may be used to, but it’s a faith that should be returned tenfold as long as you put it in the right people and the right places. 

This article is courtesy of Vistage UK.

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