I just wrapped up monthly calls over the previous five months with several top-tier Edge members and designers who are 60+ and thinking about how to transition out of their business within the next ten years.
I wish I could say that we went through a checklist, did a few exercises, and now they are all crystal clear on their exit plan. But I can’t. While some good work was done, most are more or less where they were five months ago. And that’s a very telling statement because I can pretty well guarantee it means that most will be pretty much where they are now…five years from now!
Why is it so hard to let go?
The existential question is not so much, “Why is it so hard to let go?” but rather, “Is it possible to let go?”
I introduced the group to a book called Clockwork: Design Your Business to Run Itself by Mike Michalowicz. (Also the author of Profit First and The Pumpkin Plan.) All of Mike’s books are pithy, with some critics saying they are overly simplistic, and other saying they get great take-aways from them.
I’m somewhere in the middle but I always like it when an author writes something radically different, or in a radically different way than I have seen it written a hundred times before, and Michalowicz definitely does that when he pronounces that “productivity is dead.”
His point—and it’s a good one—is that the never-ending goal of becoming more productive, by definition, means that WE are still doing the work. In fact, the more productive we become…the MORE work we get done, which also says we’re doing more work.
The alternative, of course, would be to learn how to delegate that work so that WE are doing less. But here, too, Michalowicz points out an obvious but seldom mentioned dilemma: Delegation by business owners is often done on a task basis. But this ensures that it’s still the owner who has to explain exactly what he or she wants done, which means that if the one now doing the work has questions, they will come right back to the owner for clarification.
What Should I Do Now?
And when the task is complete, they will come back to the owner and say, “So, what do you want me to do now?” And it will be your job to think of and explain in great detail, the next task.
In other words, the very word “delegation” that so many of us have been taught is the road to letting go, is nothing of the sort. If anything, it locks us even tighter into the minute-to-minute with perhaps five or more employees, all working on OUR mission and OUR tasks, and never making decisions on their own.
We can call such delegating giving them authority, but it is clearly not. It is only giving them the “authority” to do exactly as we say. And we can call it taking responsibility, but it is clearly not. How much “responsibility” does it take to meet a deadline for example? If that is the bar we have set for speeding an exit strategy, you can see why it will never happen.
One member of our group bragged about the maturity and overall excellence of her team, the team that would allow her to execute a ten-year exit strategy. I pointed out to her that one of the critical imperatives written about in Clockwork, was to change the question from “How will I get a task done,” to “Who will decide which tasks need to be done?“
Until the answer to the latter question is someone other than you, you’ll never be able to untangle yourself from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment. Until you have employees that are allowed to decide for themselves what to do and how to do it, you’re just delegating. Until you give them the ability to decide for themselves, you’ve got employees who think like administrators, not employees who think like owners.
When would that day come for her excellent and mature team, I asked? “Never!” she immediately replied.
Ready to Turn Over the Reins?
And when I asked the members of this group if they were ready to turn over those reins…to give up managing some entire projects, to turn over the decoration of a project, to meet with new prospective clients… Well, not a single one said yes.
In fact one said that she had concluded based on our work that she was simply going to never retire. I guess she just plans to go out feet-first.