Like many others kids, I once dreamed of becoming a fire fighter. Little did I know, I would become one as a small business owner later in life. I became a fire fighter when I was CEO of Entre Prises USA, a leading climbing wall manufacturing business. In my current career as a business consultant I also witness fire-fighting with multiple clients, and I understand the allure to be one. However, this is an extremely risky way to operate, scale and evolve your business towards sustainability.
“Fire-fighting” is a reactive method of operating a business. It happens when leaders allow short term problems take precedence over normal and productive day-to-day functions. These perceived immediate and dire demands distract the entire company and cause diversions that consume an exorbitant amount of energy, emotion and focus. In the heat of the moment, fighting fires in your business can feel like you are adding value, which is inaccurate. For me, each day as I would go into work, I had things I knew that had to be done for the long-term success of my business, but chaos and emergencies always seemed to prevail. After working like this for years, it eventually became my norm. As the CEO, I felt I was essential to solving these emergencies. When I went home every night after work, I felt I had saved the day. I felt like I was a hero!
Looking back, I imagine my employees felt insecure about the long-term prospects of the company since I did not have my eye on the ball, but instead was down in the weeds getting dirty every chance I could. It wasn’t until I suspected they saw me as selfish and ego-driven that I was able to genuinely reflect on my business tactics. I began to realize that I was addicted to the adrenaline and excitement that fire-fighting provided; something I began to understand was unhealthy for me, my employees, and my company. I realized that I needed to let go for the good of the company.
As I began to discover the steps necessary to implement change, it felt scary. Like many control freaks, I had to let go of the old self-talk that went something like this ‘it is easier and faster if I just do the work myself, and it gets done right the first time’. I learned that to successfully scale and grow a business, I had to let go, delegate, and monitor the actions of my staff. My transition into a more enlightened manager allowed my staff to be the ones solving problems. That is why we hire people to join our companies, to be problem solvers for us. By trusting staff to do their jobs, my role transitioned into an actual manager and leader by focusing on developing clear strategy for the company instead of fire-fighting. As staff began to solve problems, I began to see the incredible power and advantage this gave our company. Problems were now being tackled by a multitude of skilled people and the team members who were closest to the challenge. These people were the experts and their solutions were more creative than ones I could have ever come up with.
From my experience as a fire-fighting CEO who evolved into a true manager, I experienced four distinct phases of transition:
- Awareness– Be honest with yourself about why you are fighting fires instead of managing. Is it what the business needs, or what you are comfortable doing? Until you become aware and recognize the reality of the situation, nothing will change. Some tell-tale signs are:
- Being attracted to the high, drama, or adrenaline rush by solving small problems yourself.
- Thinking you are the hero and only person who can come up with valid answers.
- Suspecting or hearing from employees that they do not feel valued or utilized to their fullest potential.
- Letting Go- Notice how difficult it is to relinquish control, and do it anyway. Here are some guidelines:
- Give people a chance-You are not losing control, but rather utilizing the rich talents of your team.
- Encourage open and honest communication by demonstrating your own vulnerability and discomfort to the new way you are managing. This promotes a culture of unrestricted and authentic dialogue which benefits the company by allowing diverse ideas and solutions.
- Beware of trying to take control back from your staff, which only undermines their efforts and commitment to this new way of working together.
- Delegating- Assign people certain tasks that need to be done for the good of the company. This is all about trust and specific agreements. Here is how to delegate effectively:
- Believe that others will attempt to give their best effort every day.
- Be crystal clear what you expect from your staff. Establish SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound- (developed by George T. Doran).
- Make agreements with staff outlining the expectations of what you require from them. If not, be willing to negotiate until expectations are mutually agreeable.
- Don’t hold your staff to unrealistic expectations because they are human and will make mistakes just like you.
- Monitoring- This is where the true manager emerges for the first time. As CEO, you are still responsible for everything that happens within your company, regardless of who is doing what.
- Be a cheerleader and encourage your staff to keep going despite hurdles. Having compassion and being with them during challenging times builds a strong team.
- Regularly check in with key staff to get updates and progress towards their goals.
- Be willing to adjust your goals with key staff as new factors come into play.
- Be prepared to assist employees in the process of developing a strategy to tackle problems without just telling them how to do it. Your new role is mentoring your staff and defining boundaries.
By implementing these phases, you as a CEO will take your business to a new level of development where the strength of the team contributes to solving problems, rather than just you.
I wasn’t really acting like a CEO until I shifted my mindset towards problem solving and away from fire-fighting. This shift sparked a change in my employees who once viewed me as an ego-driven CEO, and now felt part of an emerging culture of continuous improvement. This empowered every person, which enabled them to feel ownership and satisfaction on a daily basis. I had been robbing them of that gratification when I was chief frontline fire-fighter.
Eric Meade is the Owner of Eric Meade-Purposeful Consulting, www.ericmeadeconsulting.com where he specializes in financial/leadership/cultural consulting for small businesses. www.ericmeadeconsulting.com, 541-948-0578.
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