I used to think that discovering “who we are” was limited to adolescence. But it seems that the Presidents, CEOs and owners of small and medium sized organizations are also struggling with their identities. In my work with a number of privately owned, small to medium sized organizations, I have noticed that as they grow, even slightly, the CEOs’ begin to wonder what exactly their role has become or will become. Whether the CEO was focused on selling or doing a bit of everything when the company was small, growth necessitates defining the CEO/President role before it becomes a problem.
Starting a small business is an onerous task, especially at the beginning. I often think of it as starting a path in the woods: At the beginning you have to hold down all the grass yourself. Until you get the chance to have others use the path, you have to trample it yourself, over and over. Eventually, you will be so busy with walking the back end of the path, that you’ll need some help trampling the front end. So…your hire someone to help, and then someone else, etc. Soon, with all the help, the path no longer needs a “path starter” and your initial role is no longer required. But you still want to be part of the path, right? You are still the boss of the path, right? This path was “your vision”, right? Now what?
In one organization I work with, the President/CEO had actually been recruited from outside of this medium sized, family run business to grow it. He had taken a very “hands on” role due to the family culture, and played a role in hiring, vision, strategy, finance and especially sales. After one year, he had brought on (either through replacement or hiring) several specialized staff to take on specific responsibilities including HR, Finance and Sales. He wanted senior staff that could “hit the ground running” and could take on responsibility for decisions he just not have the time to do. The company had grown from 50 to 80 in one year and he had to pass on some tasks to these new players. Now, while he has done a great job, he had inadvertently made his original role less valuable.
With some help, he was eventually able to redefine his role as being focused on sales and strategy and has been able to re-frame his role as President /VP Sales. This way, he prevented his role from becoming totally redundant, which would have altered his level of credibility in the organization and made any vision or strategy decisions difficult to move ahead. He was also able to ensure that his role focused on what he is best at, rather than abandoning it in the interest of being the “boss”. He was able to focus on what he needed to “do” as opposed to what he thought he should “be”. A wise choice.
In another case, the CEO of a medium sized creative organization had been less lucky. This company had also grown, and where the CEO had once been focused on all areas of the business, his staff had been gradually taking over specific responsibilities. As well, this CEO truly wanted to empower his staff, so over time, he gave them even more autonomy and decision making authority. Eventually, he had given so much autonomy to his senior staff that they began to leave him out of basic processes – processes he had once taken joy in. In the early days, he would love to look at creative work before it went out the door. Now, his input was not required. And when he tried to insist on looking at the work, he was seen as micromanaging and going back on his promise to empower employees. He could no longer exercise his passion in business, in this business he helped to build.
With some assistance, this CEO was able to figure out what was happening and to make some changes. CEO’s and Presidents in this same situation need to be able to see why they are less involved and not blame others for their ill-defined role. Then, they need to express that they feel left out, without feeling shameful for doing so. Organizations need to focus strategic planning during times of growth on articulating the role of the CEO or President, before it disappears. Presidents, CEO’s and other small/medium business owners need to discover what tasks and duties they need to keep and which ones they can let go during growth. For example, aspects of the organization’s strategic direction, vision and values ought to involve the President. But others may be best “let go” by the big boss, including some hiring and compensation decisions as well as deciding the paper stock for business cards, or the clolor of paint for the boardroom. Most importantly, CEO’s, Presidents and owners need to be sure to focus on what the business needs them to do, as opposed to what they or others think they should be.