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The Quickest Route to Success? Recognize the Potential in Others

Realizing he couldn't do it alone was this entrepreneur's most profound discovery. See how he delegates with panache.
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Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that looks at the top 10 traits exemplified by Inc. 500 entrepreneurs.

Gallup says delegators readily delegate authority and responsibility, proactively collaborate, and recognize and draw on other people’s abilities.

John Roa recalls the lessons he learned as founder of a video game company back in 2002. "I was a gamer and a technologist, and I understood it better than anybody," he says. "Nobody was as good as me." So Roa did what came naturally: He micromanaged. All decisions passed through him. For every issue, he got down in the weeds. "And yes, we grew the company, and yes, we sold it," says Roa. "But it was a very difficult business, and it was not well run. We had a lot of attrition. And there was no one focusing on the higher-level responsibilities."

When Roa founded Chicago-based AKTA, he had no choice but to delegate. AKTA is a design firm, and Roa is not a designer. He knew from experience that he was also not a great project manager or accounts manager or highly competent at other critical roles. "So immediately I put experts in place," says Roa. "Then I backed up and let them do what they thought was best." AKTA's five vice presidents run the entire company.

To prove that he was hands off in earnest, Roa early on relinquished all responsibility for hiring. "Entrepreneurs love to say, 'I am very good at interviewing and hiring, because I know the company so well,'" says Roa. "I can talk to someone and know if they are a decent human being. That's not a horribly unique skill. What is unique is knowing somebody's acumen for very high-level design or ethnography or other functional areas. It doesn't matter if people gel with me. If their managers like them and their teammates like them and believe they can do the job, that's what matters."

Although Roa initially sat in on new-project kickoff meetings and reviews, he now avoids most client engagements. "I did it at first because I thought it was expected of me," says Roa. "But after a while, I realized it was hurting more than helping." The CEO's largely uninformed opinion held too much sway. "Whenever I said something, they would do it," says Roa. "But my opinion should matter the least. I'm not a designer." Roa has not given direct feedback on one of the company's deliverables for years.

Instead, Roa works on AKTA's strategy and future, mulling merger and acquisition possibilities and global expansion, and pursuing high-level partnerships. He also travels. A lot. Last year, Roa was away 190 days, prospecting clients and partnerships but also scuba diving in Iceland and working on his nonprofit in Southeast Asia. "The people here are very qualified," says Roa. "We're successful because I run it on their shoulders."

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Aug 20, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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