The day I realized my employees could do their jobs better than I could, I finally began to figure out my real role

In Roman times each conquering general parading his captives and loot through the city was provided with his own government-issue slave. As the hero basked in the crowd's cheers, the slave stood behind him and incessantly whispered into his ear, "Sic transit gloria mundi" -- meaning, roughly, "How fleeting is our glory." I am reminded of that warning each day as I ascend the stairs to my corner office, confronted by one almightily sobering thought: "It is fortunate I am protected by the august title of president in this company, because I am demonstrably unqualified to be anything else."

About 29 (wretchedly long) years ago, I was a shiny new college graduate bound for medical school, where I failed to show up, preferring art school instead. A European tour followed -- for the purpose of inventing American painting -- before hunger drove me back to science. I took a job at the Harvard Biophysics Research Laboratory for a few years, happily ferreting out atoms of zinc in an enzyme of liver alcohol dehydrogenase. Soon, however, academia once again gave way to wanderlust -- first, transatlantic in a small sailboat; then as a Caribbean charter skipper; finally aboard a variety of neat yachts as a sail maker with Ted Hood.

The day Ted's business yielded to conglomeratization, I decided it was time for a career change -- or, more precisely, for a career. Unburdened by either money or commercial experience, I considered my skill set. I could write; I had once drawn pictures; I owned a dictionary; I was adventuresome. What was there to do but start an advertising agency?

Today the Mullen agency, in Wenham, Mass., bills about $85 million annually in advertising, public relations, direct marketing, and research. Our work is much awarded for its creative bravery, and the agency is poised on the cresting wave of emerging hot national shops. Did all this happen because I'm a communications genius? Does Mother Teresa date?

If I did it all 20 years ago, that was only because there wasn't anyone else in the room. Ten years ago I was still the agency's top copywriter, until a brilliant colleague named Paul Silverman took home half a dozen first places and "Best of Show" in the New England awards competition, all for categories in which my own ads placed a distant second. I got the point -- Paul has been our creative director ever since.

Then there were people like Vivian Christiano, who -- applying for a job as production manager -- asked, "Do you like the way laser scanners use the Scitex to handle cloning?" "Oh, love it!" I parried lamely. Viv now heads our production department, of course, crumbling one more corner of my self-esteem.

Each passing year saw the talent pool grow and my substantive contributions erode. In short order, everything I ever did even passably well was being done better by someone smarter, more skilled, and damnably younger. Sure, I felt proud, but I also felt anxious. Yet when I analyzed my inner soul, I was astonished to learn that, mostly, I felt . . . GREAT!

Truth dawned. All these carefully shepherded operational functions weren't really my fundamental job, after all, and hadn't been for quite some time. Not that I didn't have a job to do. As inexpert as I was at making and managing advertising, I still had the unique opportunity to influence the quality of every piece of work that came out of our company, as well as the quality of every client relationship we formed. While my business card describes me as Mullen's president, in fact it lies. What it really should say is "Director of Environment and Standards."

Once I started to look at my role from that perspective, business revelations came fast and furious. For one thing, I realized that managers aren't in the managing business at all -- they're really in the teaching business. Every philosophy, attitude, and business practice used by a company in dealing with its employees will be recycled by the employees with that company's customers.

Moreover, I began to appreciate that there are no unimportant jobs in a productive organization. All clients are served by teams, and for any individual to do his or her best, all the other team members must be allowed to do theirs. I also identified and built defenses against the ingredients most corrosive to the machinery of productivity -- politics and greed, both corporate and personal. Get rid of those two rascals and world, watch out.

Revelations continued to come on a daily basis. I learned that a business environment organized to help individuals succeed creates a wave of collective competence so powerful that it can affect an entire industry. I learned that high standards -- not of efficiency and productivity, but of ethics, justice, and opportunity -- provide a company with an employee manual that never needs reprinting. And I learned that I wasn't obsolete after all. It turned out my real job was just beginning.

Of course, the director of environment and standards doesn't just walk into the office and say, "Hmm, yesterday I created some environment, so today I think I'll raise a few standards." Rather, the environment is created and the standards set by the leader's actions, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Everything we do -- every memo, every hallway conversation, every salary review, every management decision down to the quality of the office furniture -- will be interpreted for its meaning and dissected for its intent. Like Jacob Marley, we drag the weight of our cumulative decisions behind us for all of our business lives. It makes sense, therefore, to make good decisions.

And damned few of them. When you come to terms with the fact that your employees know more than you do, it's one short step to accepting that, in their areas of expertise, they're quite likely to make better decisions than you will. The secret is to let them get on with their jobs. Management's number-one function, therefore, is to find the most talented, motivated, caring people available, then get the hell out of their way. The absolute safest thing that we managers can do is to push decisions outward. It is vital, however, to keep in mind Mr. Aristotle's immutable Law of Ethics: for every right there's a responsibility, and for every responsibility there's a right. You can't ask employees to do a job unless they can make the decisions associated with its success. By the same token, when the employees have the rights necessary to do the job, there is no one else on whom they can lay off the responsibility of doing it well.

Presumptuously, I will add one corollary to Aristotle's guiding principle: mash not circular pegs into rectangular holes. Management should get used to organizing each employee's responsibilities around his or her skills and not try to mold individuals into rigidly predefined jobs. I mean, if your employees' mothers couldn't affect their behavior before age five, what chance do you have of making changes during adulthood?

Here's a moral to my story. Over the years, I've come to two fundamental conclusions about people and business. First, all great businesses are run by remarkably ordinary people. Second, it is extraordinary how much ordinary people can accomplish if they are motivated to exercise their full capabilities.

Those organizational benefits of delegation are so obvious to me now, I suppose I should have figured them out a decade and a half ago. That was when I first bumped into a fabulous North Carolinian named Jeanne Ridgway who became my secretary, as well as the only other person in our one-room office. Among Jeanne's original jobs was maintenance of the checkbook, a function that, as our treasurer, she and her platoon of computers still guard. Skeptical of my attention to detail early on, Jeanne laid down the one inviolate rule of our relationship. "Mullen, you can mess with this checkbook only after you prove to me you can add and subtract."

You know, I never did. And you know, I never regretted it.

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Jim Mullen is president and founder of Mullen, an $85-million advertising and public-relations agency in Wenham, Mass.