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Community is better than control

A small business is the sum of its people, not the sum of its parts. ~ Jill Salzman

Small business ownership can make the best of us act a little weird. Put any normal person into a situation where there are lots of terrible things that can happen (many of which can get you sued, or worse), and where most of those “things” are in areas where you have no real knowledge or training (and neither does anyone who works for you) and see how they respond. Yeah, it can make you a little paranoid; a little controlling even.

But owning a business also puts you into a bind. Either you keep your business small (and likely drive yourself crazy working a lot of hours) or you hire people and grow. And aye, there’s the rub: when you hire people you lose control.

At first its not too bad. One person joins and you give them a little responsibility. Your trust grows and you give them a little more. Pretty soon you’re too busy to check in on them, and that’s when you get hit by a whopper. They drop the ball, they miss a deadline, they say something that a client doesn’t like and it strikes fear in your heart! “What else am I missing? Where else are they making mistakes?” So you are back to vigilance. You check their work, maybe spot check their emails; but the more you check the more you find that makes you uncomfortable…

You don’t want to be a control freak but you also don’t want one bad mistake to ruin the reputation and business you’ve worked so hard to build. You know how tenuous this enterprise is, how fragile. But if the business success is based on your vigilance, then we’re back to driving ourselves crazy and working impossible hours!

Here’s some ideas that have helped me to find some balance.

Use values and mission to help build community

“So what’s the answer? How can I grow my business without working crazy hours and losing my mind?” What if you approached your new team not as a group of minions hired to perform tasks, but instead looked on them as a community that could take your business to new heights?

If you were building a community like THAT it would be important to create a clear understanding of what we were trying to accomplish together, and how we would (and would not) go about it. The “what” we’re here to accomplish is your mission. The “how we go about it” is your values. By starting off with mission and values you are establishing a culture: bright lines that we won’t cross, and a shining star that’s leading us on. Done right, these can be powerful tools to herd the cats. Now it’s not just about your vigilance; the whole team is charged with keeping the processes on track. Your mission and values align everyone’s efforts and thinking in the right direction.

Talk about outcomes instead of prescribing procedures.

You’ve spent a long time finding the best way to do things. So when you hire someone, you don’t want them messing it up. So the temptation is to just teach them exactly the way you do it and hope that they will act like a robot and keep performing that same procedure. That would feel great to you.

Unfortunately, you didn’t hire a robot. You (likely) hired a fully-functioning human who has ideas and creativity of their own. They are most likely going to change what you do. That’s actually a good thing; because your process isn’t designed for every contingency, and things are going to come up that you haven’t anticipated. You need your team members to think and make decisions for themselves.

Instead of prescribing a procedure, we need to focus on outcomes. What are you trying to achieve? Communicate that!

For example, if you are asking someone to send out invoices for you you might start with:

“We want timely and accurate invoices. Invoices that are delivered on time, and with no mistakes are more likely to get paid on time. Getting paid on time means I have the money to run the business and pay your salary! Here’s the system that I’ve used to do that, but the most important thing is that invoices go out, on-time, and that there are no mistakes on them.”

You can then show them the system you use, noting that any changes they might make need to be focused on timeliness and accuracy! If later there’s a problem with timeliness and accuracy you can then go back to your procedure: “Here’s how I did it, how are you doing it differently…?” to try to understand what’s going wrong. But you are free to allow for the fact that compliance to your way is not the only way.

Learn to tolerate imperfection

Yes, you can probably do it better than they can (regardless of what “it” is). But you can’t do everything. That’s why you hired them! So some things are going to get done differently that you would do them. Sometimes the reports are going to look different; they might use different words to explain things; their emails might sound different.

That’s OK.

Really. Difference is OK. Sometimes you might find that clients like their way better (or at least don’t mind it as much as you do). When that’s not the case you can give them feedback so that they can choose a different way of doing it. Over time, if you’ve hired well, you’ll find that your team finds even better ways to do things than you have.

Until that time you need to learn to tolerate things not being exactly the way you want them to be. This is a healthy thing to learn to do anyway! Just think of ALL the ways the world doesn’t conform to your expectations. Other drivers on the freeway; idiots! Ticket agents at the airport: incompetent! (You get the idea…) If, instead, we could chuckle over, or even appreciate the difference in other people’s style or process, our overall stress level would come way down. (Doesn’t that feel better?)

Building a functioning community is a leader’s #1 job. Nothing will do more to build a solid platform for your business growth than that. And you just might be surprised—it’s not so bad to lose control.

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to go far, walk together with others” ~ Rev Dr Sam Kobia

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