What I Learned When My Employee Fired Me
My first column for Inc., more than a year ago, was titled Fire Yourself! I discussed my belief in and application of Michael Gerber's e-myth philosophy. E-myth teaches that in order to move your business to the next level, you have to build it in such a way that anyone can pick up any job. You, as the entrepreneur, need to spend time working on your business, not in it.
But before I had the e-myth epiphany, something else brought that idea to fruition: A very brave, very smart employee fired me from a job that I thought only I could do.
One of the most important roles at my burgeoning company was the role of project manager. It was the most important customer-facing role and kept our research projects moving along. The project manager was vitally important to the success of our signature service, a "lab day."
A lab day is a complicated, 12-hour day where we work with our customers to put their product in front of the intended consumers. We use the data we learn from the consumers and apply a process that helps our customer determine what's important in order to move the product forward. There are many moving parts, and our customer typically has a dozen or so employees participating in the process. So there is a lot riding on making sure the lab day is successful.
I was the only person in our start-up who knew how to perform the role of project manager. But our company was growing, so I hired Brook to be the first person to replace me in that role.
After working for me for three months, Brook did something incredibly brave.
It was the day before we were running two consecutive lab days for The Southern Company, a local utility company. Brook had shadowed me on numerous projects, but I hadn't let her run a lab day on her own.
Brook came to me and said "If you come to the lab tomorrow, I quit."
I was taken aback, but her point was important. She was saying that if I didn't let her take the reins, I didn't need her.
She went on to say, "Sit near your phone, and if I have a question or something comes up that I can't figure out, I promise that I'll call you."
The first day went off without a hitch. That night, we had a freak snowstorm that closed the city down the next morning for a few hours and because we were working with a utility company, the employees of our customer were on call to help with the bad weather. This also meant that the respondents testing the product were going to be late to the sessions.
My phone rang plenty that day, but she made it through and so did I. In the process, she learned more than she would have if everything had gone smoothly.
Brook's plan worked because she took the right approach. First, she was confident--confident enough to make me give her a chance. By asking for the responsibility instead of waiting to get it, she showed me that she felt like she had it under control.
She also knew how to use humor to make her point. Maybe she really wouldn't have quit that day. But the comment was enough to make me sit up and take notice.
Brook also gave me a safety net. I knew that I could still help out if she needed me. But by removing my physical presence from the situation, she was in control. If you are a natural leader it's hard to turn that off and let someone else take the lead.
So consider this: If you or someone in your company is struggling with letting another person take over a job they think only they can do, I would ask--Are they truly afraid to let someone else take over that job? Or are they afraid to step into the job they should really be doing?
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 three years in a row. Holtzclaw advises clients on the whys of business--why customers buy, why teams work, and the all-important "entrepreneurial" why. He is the author of Laddering, and his weekly radio show, The "Better You" Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. To learn more about Holtzclaw, visit ladderingworks.com or e-mail email@example.com.
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