In the early days of being a CEO of a small company, especially a startup, it’s not unusual to find yourself being all things for your company. I’ve been there. Sometimes I still feel there. HR, marketing, sales, order fulfillment, PR, consultant, secretary, bookkeeper, scheduler, etc, etc. Out of necessity, you find yourself being the main contact for all things for your business. But as your business grows, it becomes increasingly impossible to wear all hats and be all things, and still grow a successful, scalable enterprise. Yet, many people try to do it all anyway and end up failing miserably.
When growing a successful enterprise, as the CEO, you have to grow along with the company. That often means learning how and when to delegate tasks and relinquish some authority to other more capable hands. Many CEOs are type A personalities and have a hard time letting go because they feel like the control is slipping from their hands. Because they’ve been the face behind the company brand, they feel if they aren’t directly involved with every aspect, customers won’t be satisfied and the work won’t get done as it should. But that’s not the case. As you grow a business, you must think long term and bigger than yourself. It’s not all about you. I’m guessing you started a company to see it grow and succeed, not to be enslaved in the day to day minutia.
As my company started to grow, I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t do it all. I had to learn how to hire people to offset my weaknesses and negligible tasks so that I could focus on generating revenue tasks for my business. I had to program myself to let other people do what they were good at so that I could focus on growing the business and doing what I’m good at, so together we could grow the brand. CEOs who have been used to doing it alone for so long find it hard to do this. It was hard for me, but I had to focus on the long term goals for my company. If I wanted the company to grow to scale and be a success, I had to learn to let go and put certain tasks into capable hands. There is nothing wrong with this…provided you don’t get bigger than the brand and find yourself detached from the customers you once served and cared about.
WARNING: As a CEO you have to be careful not to cross the line from successful delegation to blatant detachment.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have CEOs who become detached from the day to day. Now this might seem contradictory given what I said above. But there are certain pitfalls a CEO must be mindful of, or they risk alienating not just their team but their once loyal customers.
The bigger a company gets the harder it is to be involved in all aspects of the business. While as a CEO you should not have your hands in everything, you still need to be able to maintain a bird’s eye view of what’s going on so that you can anticipate problems, manage your team successfully so that they give optimal performance, and focus on delivering value to your customers. Very few major CEOs have been able to successful lead, manage and delegate while getting results and letting the professionals they’ve hired do what they do to keep a business running.
I have to use a few contrasting examples to illustrate my point, so why not use a few people I admire and try to model (no pun intended) my business practices after.
Tyra Banks has done a great job of building not just a solid brand, but a real scalable business enterprise. She is an example of getting it right. From my vantage point, she has surrounded herself with talented people to compliment her ideas and work style, but she has also taken the initiative to learn the business side of her enterprise. I’m not here to debate the legitimacy of the Harvard Executive Education Program that so many people want to criticize her for attending. It was a brilliant move. She has made enough money to sit back and let other people do the heavy lifting. But Tyra decided to go and get further educated to that she could bring that knowledge to her already successful business. In interviews she has said that attending allowed her to not just understand the business practices, but also allows her to push her team and stretch their thinking. She also is very aware of fan feedback which helps her in deciding what the people want, not what she wants them to have. See the difference? She stays involved and active. It’s a team dynamic, but she doesn’t leave final decisions to other people. The buck stops with her.
In a business, I wouldn’t always say the customer is always right. But if you’re in a market where your customers/end users/audience wants something, it’s up to you to deliver. You can infuse your ideas and what you think they’d appreciate, but you must use their wants and needs as a foundation when creating services or products for them. It would be arrogant to just assume or give them what you think they need (hello Facebook, I’m talking to you).
On the flip side, I have to bring in my role model Oprah Winfrey. I have tremendous respect for her and hope to some day work with her. But after what I’m about to say, I have a feeling that won’t happen! Oprah is perhaps the best known brand in the world. Her spirit, philanthropy and passion are infused throughout her brand. She has taken what started as a career at a small local station, gained national exposure with her own show, then grew a behemoth power brand that is unrivaled…well maybe by Apple, but that’s apples and oranges at this point (and yes, pun intended). She has made all the right moves for herself and a few wrong ones, but she’s grown into a respected businesswoman with a vast empire. However, here’s where it gets sticky.
When Oprah started OWN, she readily admitted she was functioning in the capacity of a startup. For all intents and purposes, OWN is a startup so let’s put aside the fact that she’s already a powerful brand and has billions of dollars. Oprah comes from ABC where even though she eventually owned her show rights, she wasn’t responsible for the entire network. Other people did that and all she and her team had to do was show up and create. Now it’s a whole other ball game. She owns the whole ball of wax. All successes and failures start and end with her. As CEO of her own network, she is not supposed to be involved in the day to day. But I think she’s let that disrupt her path. She is what I refer to as a detached CEO.
I read the comments, and I’ve learned that you cannot please all people all the time. If you try, you’re guaranteed failure. But it seems that Oprah isn’t hearing anyone, most of all her core audience. As she should, she has people to handle everything from advertising to creative, but those people are acting on behalf of Oprah….and she’s letting them. I don’t know her personally nor do I know how often she really monitors people’s feedback (other than either the very negative to which she’s responded- check her Twitter- or the very positive, dare I say kiss-her-ass overly fawning we-love-you comments). But the people who have real, valid comments, opinions and ideas are ignored. If she’s listening, her people certainly aren’t because they aren’t making decision that are in the audience’s best interest and damn sure not Oprah’s. Now, I’m not a billion dollar brand nor do I have a global audience (yet), but in my humble opinion, Oprah needs to take a lesson from Tyra and other CEOs who don’t allow themselves to get so far detached from their core audience.
It pains me to see people turning on her and abandoning her. I want her network to succeed. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about CEOs who need to find that fine balance of running a company effectively while delegating to capable people while still keeping in touch with their core customers.
Learn to listen, lead and delegate so you can grow with the business. And certainly make sure you don’t allow yourself to be put in an ivory tower. Get rid of anyone who tells you what people want rather than trying to understand what they want and finding a compromise. Not all industry experts and executives get it right all the time. They may know more than you, but it’s your company and you know your service/product/audience better than any suit. If it doesn’t feel right in your spirit, don’t let others push you into decisions.
Til next time,
The Accessible CEO
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Adrienne Graham is the Founder & CEO of Empower Me! Corporation (www.empowerme.org). She is a strategist that helps people grow their career, business or network in any economy. She is the voice behind Views from the Top Radio Show, and the creative visionary behind Empower Me! Institute and Empower Me! Magazine. Her writing and shows focus on Career Management, Networking Strategies, Entrepreneurial Success and Small Business Management. You can also find her causing a ruckus on Forbes.com.