Transitioning from a Team of Helpers to a Team of Leaders

November 24, 2020

By Lisë Stewart

download button.jpg

Debbie had a thriving business. She started her small-parts distributorship almost five years ago on a shoestring budget, and now she had 35 employees and was looking to hire more. However, Debbie was working really long hours and on call 24/7. Her phone rang at all hours of the day, with team members asking her to solve problems or looking for advice. Key customers had her home phone number and would call to both pay compliments and share complaints. 

When we asked why she thought she was indispensable to the day-to-day operations, Debbie just sighed and said that it didn’t seem like others felt comfortable making decisions. She hadn’t had a real vacation in years and while the business was still relatively young, Debbie felt that she was aging at warp speed! She was tired and looking for options.

Debbie has found herself in a classic entrepreneurial situation. When her business was growing and she needed help, she tended to hire people who respected her, understood what she was trying to do and wanted to help. They looked to her for guidance. They were loyal, hard-working and dedicated to the business’ success. They were traditional ‘helpers’ who relied upon the leader to have the vision, set the goals, make the decision and constantly remain at the helm. This can become exhausting for a business owner. 

Debbie’s business had grown to the point where she needed to surround herself with fellow leaders rather than helpers. Fellow leaders believe in the vision and direction of a company, but they also have a clear set of goals and objectives for their own areas of the business. They are self-motivated and keen to be empowered to make their own decisions. This can be a tough transition for a business leader who always calls the shots.  However, there comes a time when the business will by stymied by the bottleneck that one single decision-maker can create. 

How does a business transition from a team of helpers to a team of self-directed initiators? Begin by developing a clear strategic roadmap so that your entire leadership team is clear about the company’s future, vision, goals and objectives. Next, identify the skills gaps in your business: what knowledge and ability will you need to make this strategic vision a reality? Then, consider the following:

  1. As a leader, determine which tasks you can comfortably delegate, and then don’t interfere. If you don’t have the talent on your team to delegate to, begin the search for someone to fill this key position. Operations, finance and sales may be areas worth examining.
  2. Develop your own boundaries and stick to them. These are the tasks and roles that I am responsible for, and these are the areas not within my purview. Be clear with your team about what constitutes good performance in those areas that you are delegating. Also, create boundaries for your personal time, such as no calls on a Sunday or after 7pm.
  3. Encourage ingenuity and problem solving. Don’t just compliment others when the decision was right or the project went well. Recognize their willingness to take a chance, even if things may not have gone as well as hoped. Everyone learns by making mistakes. As long as you are stepping in and making sure that no mistakes happen, others are not learning and they will continue to depend on you.
  4. Take the time with your team to review recent decisions made, without judgement or criticism, to understand what worked, what didn’t work and what could be done differently next time.
  5. Be flexible. Once you surround yourself with fellow leaders instead of helpers, they will push back, offer alternative perspectives, and want to make decisions and meet goals that you might not always agree with or clearly understand. Before saying ‘no’ or stopping the conversation, check your own reaction. What are the risks? Is it worth the learning to let it ride? What do you need to see, understand or learn to make you feel more comfortable? Remember, top performers don’t want to be micromanaged, they want to lead in their own areas.

Finally, analyze the results. Start by looking at how much vacation time you can take without needing to call into the office or solve problems. Look at how many key decisions were made and how many outcomes were acceptable. Check your personal stress levels. And remember, the value of the company increases when the dependency on the owner or leader diminishes. If you can do this, you are well on your way to the durability phase of business growth—a much more sustainable, stable and valuable place to be.


OUR CURRENT ISSUE OF RISE (Real Ideas to Stimulate Engagement)

About Lisë Stewart

Lisë Stewart is Partner-in-Charge of the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence Group, as well as a leader of the firm’s Environmental, Social and Governance Services (“ESG”) practice. Lisë has experience in organizational development, strategic planning and training, and human performance management.