When most of us start businesses, we have conflicting ambitions. First-time entrepreneurs don't know that they conflict. Put together they seem perfectly reasonable. Alas, you cannot realize these ambitions simultaneously, at least as far as my knowledge and experience goes.
New entrepreneurs want to grow successful businesses. That should go without saying. It would, if it weren't for the conflicting ambition. New entrepreneurs also want control. Freed from the constraints of having a boss, they want to exert their new found authority.
This isn't some power play. Aspiring to control a business is perfectly natural. The first-time entrepreneur typically possess a technical skill. She has used that skill in serving another business, but feels she's better off using that skill for her own direct gain. The entire idea behind starting a business is to gain control over the use of a technical skill.
Yet this desire for control conflicts with our desire for growth. A business simply cannot grow when all decisions flow back to a single person. Michael Gerber outlined this idea in my favorite business book, The E-Myth Revisited. The greater our aspiration for control, the more difficult growth becomes.
If we want to realize that first aspiration, the more important aspiration for the long-term health of our companies, we need to let go. A successful one-person business is a rarity. We need to focus our control and leave the rest to others.
Learning what to delegate
Learning to delegate involves more than looking at your to-do list and assigning the tasks to others. Instead, delegation requires a process. There has to be some kind of automatic filter in place, so you immediately know what you're going to delegate and what you're going to do yourself.
I developed my system based off of Steve McClatchy's bestselling book Decide. He breaks down our activities into two categories: Prevent Pain and Gain. Prevent Pain tasks are things we do so that we don't experience negative consequences in the future. He uses taking out the trash as an example.
In my contracting business, this might be following up on an unpaid invoice or ordering supplies. Those tasks don't move my business forward. They don't help it grow. They simply prevent the pain of not receiving payment for a completed job, or not having the necessary supplies to start a new job.
Gain tasks, on the other hand, are essentially voluntary. If we don't perform them, we won't experience any pain. We simply won't grow. Since we can't see or feel the absence of growth, we tend to pay less attention. In my business, a Gain task might be obtaining a new certification, or attending a local networking event.
To say we should delegate Prevent Pain tasks and focus on Gain tasks is correct, but also a bit simplistic. There are tasks that fall somewhere in between the two. For instance, calling potential leads prevents the pain of having no customers. Yet it also leads to new clients, which in my book is Gain. The same goes for the very act of performing the jobs themselves. I'm preventing the pain of losing the business, but this is also how I Gain in business.
Each business will have different Gain and Prevent Pain tasks, and a different array of tasks that fall in the middle. Only you can determine what to delegate and what to do. But once you understand that someone else can do most of your Prevent Pain tasks, leaving you more open for Gain and growth, it's much easier to let go of control.
To whom should you delegate?
Perhaps the most difficult situation for any entrepreneur is hiring. We can trust ourselves. Can we trust the people who walk in the door for an interview? I have many business-owning friends who have had borderline mental breakdowns over the hiring process. They have a hard enough time letting go of control. How do they know that they're letting it go to the right person?
There is some backlash to the "hire slow, fire fast" mantra, but the principle remains sound. While you probably can't afford to wait six months before you hire an employee, you should take your time and make sure you are hiring the right person. The chances that you'll find someone looking for work, in your area, who happens to see your ad, and who fits your perfect mold, are slim. But you can still take your time to hire the best person available.
Many of my friends have also found success using virtual assistants. They're not hiring people off of oDesk, though. They might as well hire a part-time employee at that point. Instead they're looking to business-grade virtual assistants who are vetted by an agency. With the agency backing comes a level of accountability, which helps ease the fear of conceding control.
Whether you find someone in your local area or you employ a virtual assistant, you must develop rapport and trust in order to fully delegate. The answer to the question above -- to whom should you delegate? -- is not "whoever you hire." Instead, the answer more involves finding someone you can trust and then slowly delegating those tasks.
Delegating using commander's intent
A final lesson in delegation is one I've learned many times over. Delegation isn't all about assigning task after task to someone else. Surely, that comprises much of the delegation process. I'm better off with someone else paying the bills, entering client invoices, answering the phones, and other Prevent Pain tasks. Yet just putting those tasks on a to-do list isn't always effective. What if I have a lot of field work one week and haven't put those task's on my employee's to-do list?
A few years ago there was a big movement centered on commander's intent, a military concept that many mangers have since adopted. Essentially, it means communicating what I want done in high-concept terms, as in a movie synopsis. If I were to describe the movie Fargo to you, I wouldn't talk about specific plot points. I'd say something like, "The follies of a man and the two thugs he hires to kidnap his wife." It gives you a succinct overview without giving away details.
In the same way, we can use this commanders's intent/synopsis concept to manage delegation. My employee knows what to work on next, even if she has an empty to-do list, because she knows what will help the business grow. She knows that her job is to perform administrative tasks and help generate leads. Once she's done with the former, she moves onto the latter.
If I were to hire a marketing employee, I would create a similarly high-concept job description. I would tell him that his job is to drive targeted traffic to my website. He might have a to-do list, but when he's checked every box he still knows what he needs to do next. He needs to use his skills and know-how to drive targeted traffic to my website.
For many entrepreneurs, especially first timers, delegation can be a painful experience. We got into business for ourselves because we wanted control. Yet right at the outset we have to relinquish much of that control. Yet it's only superficial control. We still command the ship. We still control the business's direction and growth. With that in mind, does it really matter that we don't control the billing system?