November 29, 2023

You’re the Boss: It’s Never the Employee

Thinking Entrepreneur

I just sat through a fascinating round-table discussion with several successful entrepreneurs who were discussing their biggest weaknesses, which inevitably led to a discussion of their biggest frustrations.

These were experienced business owners, ranging in age from their late thirties to late fifties. Most of them described themselves in similar terms: impatient, short on focus, easily frustrated, likely to jump in and solve a problem rather than count on the employee to do it.

I asked questions after each one of them had bared their souls.

Do you jump in to solve the problem because you can’t help yourself — or because your employee can’t do the task? Both.

Do any of your key managers occasionally come up with big thoughts or ideas? No.

To those who complained that employees were coming to them with simple problems to be solved, had the employees been given  training on options to solve those kinds of problems? No.

Do you see yourself wired as more of an entrepreneur or more of a manager? They all wanted to be the entrepreneur — and they all acknowledged that their weakness was that they did not want to do the day-to-day management.

I think these entrepreneurs would agree that they had not yet reached that utopian place that small-business owners dream about where they are working on the business instead of in the business (in the words of Michael Gerber). They didn’t seem to disagree when I pointed out that they all had very similar issues. They were all entrepreneurs. And there was general acknowledgment that if they wanted to grow, have less stress, and build a business that would last, they needed to change the way they did things.

From what I could tell, no one got mad at me when I suggested that the problems they were experiencing were the direct result of how they had built their companies. The problem is that the same traits that make people successful entrepreneurs can also make them frustrating and frustrated managers. The same impatience that keeps things moving can also intimidate employees and keep them on edge. The lack of focus generates lots of new ideas but throws people off as they try to execute the latest new idea. And of course, not all of the ideas work.

Being able to think fast on your feet is essential for the entrepreneur, but not everyone can keep up. Things that seem obvious or come as second nature to the owner are not always obvious to everyone else. These owners frequently insist, “It’s just common sense!” But it usually isn’t. They are better doers than teachers, which leads to a frustrated teacher and frustrated students. And the frustrated teacher is rarely aware of the negative and unproductive consequences of a frustrated look, a raised voice, the lack of support.

I know about these things, I might add, because I have been guilty of all of them. But after way too many years of doing it wrong, I finally figured out the basics of good management. The bottom line? It’s never the employees who are the problem. It is the training they didn’t get. It’s the oversight that wasn’t given. It’s the lack of structure. It’s the boss who can’t let go. It’s that the wrong employee was left in the job too long. It is the boss’s responsibility. In a privately held business, it is always the boss’s fault. The boss has control.

So what is the solution for owners who want to work on the business instead of in the business? It starts with realizing that if you can’t get out of the business, you are doing something wrong. Maybe you don’t have enough business to hire the right people. Maybe you don’t charge enough in order to pay enough to hire the right people. Maybe you don’t train your people well. Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of what your people are supposed to do.

Maybe you can’t stop yourself from jumping in and just doing the job. Maybe, just maybe, you complain about not being able to get out of the business, but the truth is you just can’t let go. You want to deal with customers, you want to deal with vendors, but it may not be in the best interest of the company for you to be doing so. The joke is, many people say they want to work on the business, but they never really stop to consider what that means. What does it mean?

In my next post, I’ll lay out my 10-step plan for getting out — or not. Some people are better off in.

Jay Goltz owns five small businesses in Chicago.

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