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From Chief Cook and Bottle Washer to Leader

Frustrated woman cook in an apron and toque wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth in desperation as nothing seems to be going right

Many say parenting is the most challenging role we’ll ever undertake. But, there’s a role that’s even more challenging—being at the helm of a rapidly growing small business.

We small business owners sometimes refer to ourselves as “The Chief Cook and Bottle-Washer,” because we are filling multiple positions in the business, rolling up our sleeves and working right alongside our employees. We pour our blood, sweat and tears into meeting the insatiable demands of our growing businesses. This is why so many of  feel depleted, burned out and hopelessly tethered to our businesses. 

Successfully navigating explosive growth, and coming out on the other side with a thriving business and a high quality of life, requires a different mindset and a different set of strategies than the ones we relied on when we started our business.  

What is explosive growth really like?

One owner confides, “It’s pandemonium. Customer email and phone calls dictate the shape of the day. You run around putting out one fire after another. Even though you’re exhausted, you lay awake at night worrying about cash flow. Revenue grows by leaps and bounds, but so do expenses.  You work 70 to 80 hours a week, filling in any gap you can. Yet, it feels like you’re just plugging a hole in the dike, as the sea of demands and obligations threatens to wipe you out.”

Employees criticize your leadership. You feel guilty for not being a better leader. “I was trying to run everything myself. My employees were not productive. I was impatient. I was stressed to the max, blowing up at the smallest thing. I needed to understand how to reach my employees. I knew I needed help,” says Chuck Parmely, owner of The Overhead Door Company of Riverton-Lander, Wyoming.

The Crucial Transformation

Small businesses can grow very rapidly, doubling or tripling revenue in a year’s time. This places considerable stress on owners, as the business they are running suddenly feels very different from the business they had just nine months ago.

Leading a business through rapid growth is similar to parenting. When we do a good job as parents, our children grow up and take care of themselves. Our mature children no longer need us to feed and dress them. 

Just imagine your teen’s reaction if you tried rocking him to sleep tonight! That would be ludicrous, right? Yet, this is exactly what many of us do with employees in our businesses. To make sure everything gets done “just right,” we teach employees to depend on us for everything.

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Veronica Schreibeis of Vera Iconica Architecture in Jackson, Wyoming started with a very typical small business owner’s attitude. “I believed I could get things done better, faster …” says Veronica.  “Just doing it yourself and getting it done quickly is easier than teaching an employee, or even better, creating a system for employees to follow.”

“It takes courage. There is risk in doing things differently and giving up control,” says Veronica. I wondered, “How much am I going to lose in productivity? Are my customers going to be satisfied?”

“Those were limitations I was creating. If you just assume people are going to function at a lower level, they will. It’s hurting you as much as it’s hurting them.”

Many small business owners ask themselves a version of the question, “How do I get all this work done?” As employees are added, the question evolves to, “How do we get all this work done?” Both questions keep the owner involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.

“I was asking the wrong questions,” says Veronica. “Through coaching, I realized I needed to be asking, “How do I empower my team to do their best?” 

“I needed to assume that employees want to do their best, that they take pride in their work, they want to love their job and they want to have fun coming to work,” says Veronica. That mindset shift is critical in the successful transformation from owner to leader.  

“Taking the risk to change is the hardest thing to do, but it’s a lot better than being stressed out and running your company like a crazy person. It’s a lot more rewarding, too,” says Veronica, following her return from a 3-week vacation to Tahiti. “I felt guilty going on vacation. To have a team taking care of things and being happy for me to go is so ridiculously awesome … that was really empowering…tears of joy…that’s an owner’s dream!”

The Secret to Employee Engagement: How Can I Support You?

There is no better way to inspire employees to be their best than to invest in their success. Courageously asking employees, “What are your dreams?” and “How can I support you?” paves the way for employees to entertain a bigger vision for themselves. They experience your company as integral to achieving their biggest dreams.

“When I invite people to dream, they get uncomfortable. They squirm in their seats,” says Veronica. “Some say, ‘I don’t really like to dream. I’m not used to it.’ I stick with it. Eventually one employee who is nearing retirement confided, ‘I would love to train people. If we’re going to grow the way we want to grow, there needs to be somebody who is teaching all of the production and systems to people. I think that would be really fun!’

“Now, not only do I have somebody who gets my vision, but my vision just became that much more powerful with her energy,” says Veronica. “I don’t have to go find somebody to do what she wants to do, while I watch her grow bored and unhappy. We have a plan for how she can contribute to the vision. We both have goals and we’re happy.”

“As our company helps our employees reach their highest potential, this symbiotic relationship occurs where they’re helping the company reach its highest potential. I might be inspiring people who leave. That’s okay. Ultimately, the support we give our employees will be difficult for another company to compete with,” says Veronica.

Just as parenting offers us the opportunity to grow as our children grow, our businesses offer us opportunities to grow, as well. Our kids grow fast, but businesses can grow much faster, making the challenges facing owners all the more daunting.

Take Aways

The questions we ask ourselves determine the solutions we find. What questions are you asking in your business? What new questions might serve you better?

  Sabrina_blog picDr. Sabrina StarlingThe Business Psychologist™ and author of How to Hire the Best specializes in transforming time-, energy- and cash-sucking small businesses into highly profitable, Great Places to Work! 

Employee problems can be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for any business owner.  With her background in psychology, and years of driving profit in small businesses, Dr. Starling knows what it takes to find, keep and get exceptional performance out of your biggest investment-your employees. Access her comprehensive video training 5 Secrets to Exceptional Employee Performance (her gift to you!) at www.tapthepotential.com

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