Creating belief in a business – Learn the skills of empowerment

If you want your business to move up to the next level then chances are you're going to need to be less involved in everyday concerns and take the bold step to pass certain responsibilities on to other people.

The problem here is it requires an entrepreneur to embrace the dreaded ‘d’ word. That’s right: delegation. If you are serious about wanting to build a sizeable business and to develop it quickly without the wheels coming off, then you need to learn the skills of empowerment and the first step to succeeding at this is delegating

Unsurprisingly, business leaders struggle with this as they are used to doing everything themselves and, even worse, keeping everything to them-selves. This means that, rather than delegating, which involves careful briefing and coaching, jobs are ‘dumped down’ on more junior people who are then left on their own.

For empowerment to be effective, you need to understand and embrace delegation: you need to give your staff total responsibility for a discrete area, knowingly giving them room to fail.

An intrinsic part of this process is to be surrounded by smart, quick and self-motivated people, ideally with complementary skills. Entrepreneurs who are frightened of hiring people this good are not going to make it.

Right kind of challenges

Besides, it’s not a high risk strategy at all – with such a team, if you keep them on the move and stretched with exciting challenges, they won’t have time to play politics.

Of course, they will make mistakes and no, initially, they possibly won’t do things as well as you, but that’s the price of progress.

Empowerment doesn’t mean abdicating all responsibility. This is your business and you have to protect it while giving others responsibility. You need to dip in and out of things. Check on how things are going. Ask if there are problems you can help with. It’s good to pose unexpected questions at unexpected times – you don’t want to be too predictable. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you should be sneaky or deliberately disruptive.

Sometimes you may be uneasy with the answer – you don’t know it’s wrong, but you have a sense of unease. In that case, don’t drop the subject. Keep drilling down until you’ve found what you need to know. Your team must be allowed to handle things differently, but you will, for example, have very clear ideas on how staff and clients should be treated and you certainly won’t want that to change.

It should be noted that if you’re hiring good people you might find they are better than you at some things. This is, of course, a great result because in ‘momentum management’ you will need to spend a disproportionate time in developing the business.

Nevertheless, I’m aware that in the real world, this can cause a pang of regret. I remember about 15 years after starting Chris Ingram Associates (CIA), a director came out of a client meeting, put his head round the door with a big grin and said, ‘My client has just asked me if there is still a Chris Ingram!’ For a second, my big ego took a knock, then I thought: Cracked it! The name over the door is now a brand with a set of values, but is no longer reliant on me.

Not only is it essential for fast growth to arrive at this stage as quickly as possible, it is also money in the bank for you.

Speed of growth

When you are building a company very quickly, you are never completely sure how quickly your team will grow with you. There is a temptation to bring in more experienced managers to ‘professionalise’ your fast-growing business. This can be hugely demoralising to the team who has played such a key part in helping to get the business where it is now. And as I know from past experience, it can also create a rebellious environment.

That said, in these situations it is possible to engineer an environment of ‘controlled chaos’. What I have done on occasions is to leave positions for staff to rise to the challenge and fill – not by accident, but deliberately. You can then see if anyone raises his/her game to fill that gap or if people complain about a lack of direction. If they do, you probably don’t have a leader – or at least, no-one who is ready yet.

Creating a bit of chaos may seem a very unscientific approach, but remember that you will be so stretched that it will be very easy to let one or two things slip a bit.

So you’ve not got all these smart, ambitious, empowered people. How do you handle them? Well, there are books written about measurement of performance. Senior executives talk about KPIs – Key Performance Indicators. It’s business jargon, but there is some sense to it.

Unless your business has diversified hugely, you should have a very good idea of what a good performance looks like. So, ask your team leaders: What would be a fair target to set you? How do you think you performed?

Interestingly, self-motivated people set themselves high goals, often higher than you yourself would set them. They see this as a further demonstration of empowerment since you have let them set their own targets.

If you get it right, you will have released an immense amount of energy and will have a team working their backsides off for you, leaving you time to plan ahead and drive the company on.

You must take pleasure in their success – and demonstrate it. Grab every opportunity to celebrate: salute your winners. After all, if you can successfully empower your team then you are well on the way to self-perpetuating high growth.

Marc Barber

Raven Connelly

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.