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The pandemic has presented small businesses with harrowing new challenges over the past 18 months. One survey shows that about nine million small businesses in the U.S. fear they won’t be able to overcome those obstacles. But when small business leaders and entrepreneurs find their businesses in such unfavorable and unforeseen circumstances, their initial instincts could actually do more harm than good.
Many leaders’ natural first reaction to hardship is to get overly involved and try to control every aspect of the business to right the ship. They don’t do it because they don’t trust their teams. They do it because as entrepreneurs and founders, we feel a lot of responsibility for protecting our businesses and people. However, it’s important now that we realize intense granular involvement can put more pressure on employees than they need. And this pressure can inhibit them from helping the business reach its full potential. Considering that employees’ daily stress is already reaching record highs, stressing them out more is certainly not the answer.
I was fortunate enough to learn this lesson in much less extreme circumstances. In 2015, I took a step back from a business that I shared with multiple partners to go on a six-week RV trip. I was worried about leaving for so long, but I really felt the need to disconnect for a while. I wrote down some strategic guidance, left it with the partners, and set out on my trip.
When I returned, I had a major realization: I’d been putting way too much pressure on my team. When I left, however, I gave them the time and space they needed to bring new ideas and strategies to life. Instead of constantly responding to me pushing them along to the next thing, they had the breathing room they needed to establish concrete systems and figure out how they worked best.
Putting too much pressure on employees can not only wear them down fast, but it can also lead them to depend too much on you as a leader. Resilient employees think for themselves and operate autonomously. When you step away, you give them the space to figure out how to do that.
If it’s time to give your employees some space and test how resilient they really are, you need to take a temporary step back. Disconnect for a month or two to see how well you’ve set your business up to succeed without you. And consider these strategies before you leave for the best possible outcome:
1. Instill a “come hell or high water” mindset
In chapter five of Jim Collins’ Great by Choice, he talks about productive paranoia, or how great leaders consider all the possibilities that could undermine their efforts. Many companies bolster balance sheets or make other financial preparations to weather an impending storm, but that’s just one part of resilience. You won’t always see those storms on the horizon, so you need to think through what could happen in your absence and prepare employees for such scenarios. Documenting possibilities and how employees should respond to them can give them the guidance and confidence they need to succeed without you.
To ensure they’ll have the capacity for the strategic, high-value work they’ll need to perform in the face of the unexpected, think through how you can strengthen core processes through tools such as automation. When you harden your systems so you can produce a tremendous output with as little human input as possible, you free up your personnel to focus on more important things.
For example, Amazon has been automating administrative office tasks for the past decade with a program it calls Hands Off the Wheel. The company hasn’t automated to get rid of jobs, rather free up peoples’ time for more valuable work. Dilip Kumar, for example, used to serve as CEO Jeff Bezos’ technical advisor, but the company realized it could automate much of his work. So Kumar expanded his horizons and took a new position leading the Amazon Go project. Kumar created an entirely new line of business with the checkout-free convenience store when Amazon automated his administrative tasks.
2. Train your team to think independently
In my time leading organizations through various struggles, I’ve seen that rising to the occasion in the face of disaster is not an instinct for most people. Instead, the natural response seems to be sinking to the lowest levels of training preparation, and familiarity. That reality doesn’t make it easy for a leader to take a sabbatical. To prepare your people to be more resilient, responsive and resourceful, you must train them to think independently — and stop being the hero.
I used to be constantly available for my teams and had an answer for every question or problem. After some time, however, I realized that offering up solutions so freely was training them to be intellectually lazy and fundamentally weakening the business. It was also a bit of a self-serving method of leadership, because I admittedly appreciated being the hero and solving everyone’s problems. But that also meant my extended absence could be a real challenge for the business. So I shifted my mindset and realized that by encouraging employees to find their own solutions, I was helping them out more in the long term. When someone came to me with a question or problem, instead of giving answers and directives, I started responding with, “What do you think?” or “Let’s think through this together.”
3. Provide your organization with a clear vision and action plan
One report from Indeed shows how clarity in a business can lead to more confidence among workers, which helps most workers perform at their full potential. A clear vision and purpose can serve as a lighthouse that guides workers on every aspect of their roles if the business leader becomes absent or unavailable.
You can begin establishing clarity around purpose and vision with two key steps. The first is to outline your company’s vision and a rough plan for achieving it in a short document. This is an overview from the top, so don’t get too detailed — two pages should be more than enough. The next ingredient is a chart listing the key functions within the organization and who owns those functions. This document should be more detailed, covering the responsibilities of each position to ensure no essential tasks fall through the cracks. When your people have clear reference points and no ambiguity about what needs to happen and why, they can make decisions on their own more confidently in your absence.
Leaders had to push their employees hard over the past 18 months to make it through the pandemic. But constant pushing is a good way to break people, lose clarity and run out of money. It’s time for leaders to take a step back, take the pressure off their employees and see how well the business can operate without them.