For entrepreneurs, building a company is an addiction -- they thrive on being needed, working like mad, and being in control of the whole darn show. Here's how one learned to let go
To see me now, you'd never guess that I was once a rabid workaholic. I wear sweatpants and flannel shirts, and my big decision of the morning is whether to do the dishes before or after I feed the horses. I'm in recovery, and though the workaholic in me lurks just under the surface, I have learned to say no as well as yes, and I have learned to protect my family from my problem. Though my sense of worth has been built on being "needed" -- perhaps as yours is -- I stopped using my job as my main way of feeling good about myself, no matter what the cost. This is how:
Once, I was like the rest of you. Up at 5 a.m. for a little uplifting reading before the day began, in the office at 6 or 6:30 to run the company, Racing Strollers (now called the Baby Jogger Co.). My husband, Phil, and I were trying to juggle the dual demands of growing the company and raising a family, and we reasoned that if we staggered our shifts, our kids would have minimal time in day care. So I would be home by 3 or 4, take a few phone calls, work after dinner, and make a to-do list before going to bed, at 9.
See, if you're an entrepreneur, you are certainly a workaholic, and if you're a workaholic, you're operating out of some weird neurotic need. The curse of the workaholic is that you live for being needed. You're so important. You have to be at all the meetings because people might make a bad decision without your presence to show them the error of their ways. What if there's a crisis? Nobody's as good as you are in a crisis, right? With your wily, ratlike cunning, only you know just what to say to that customer, banker, or vendor.
And working long, hard hours is so delicious. Somewhere in the depths of your mind there's a buzzer saying that your family needs you too, but when a phone call comes in at 5:15, you just can't hang up. I was the worst of hog-all-the-fun managers. I must have made 50 decisions a day. What our marketing plans were. What kind of pencils to buy. When I finally realized that I needed to delegate, I still made that initial decision: "OK, I'm not going to give this manager the answer. I'm going to ask for the solution." But in deciding that, I still did a preemptive strike.
I thrived on the constant decisions. I was good at decisions, so I became like a computer program that anyone in the company could gain access to. "Computer, this part is breaking, what should we do?" "Computer, we need goals, what should we do?" "Computer, we need a price increase, what should we charge?" Wouldn't you love to have a software program that could answer all your questions? Wouldn't you use it constantly? And that's what we did, only Mary's Tiny Brain was the software site. And that's how all my entrepreneurial friends are: they love problems, they get juiced by solving them, and by God, if they don't have the answer, they have the hustle to find someone who does.
When folks asked how I did it, I thought to myself, "Well, everyone else's lives are so slow. I thrive on a little stress, and besides, this is how we self-actualized, high-achiever types get so much done, unlike the poor slobs who are schlepping along." Sigh. What a jerk I was. A caring, sympathetic jerk, but still an egomaniac. Is this the entrepreneur's lament? Is the only way to get our businesses up and running to go crazy for a few years? Business is what we're good at, and it's fun to know the answers. But if we are good at this, how do we ever learn to shut up and let other people surge ahead? How do we get some rest without getting rid of the thing we love, our business?
Eventually, things caught up with me. My marriage fell apart, and though I blamed Phil for not being interested in me or the marriage, I realized later that as I sped along the fast track I had made an unconscious choice of the company over our marriage. I picked up another clue when our business hit the black hole of Calcutta, financially speaking. It happened because when I felt I was approaching utter burnout, I finally started to delegate. Unfortunately, I delegated some of the wrong things, like reading the financials line by line. So our business got into the pits, and we spent two years dragging ourselves out. By the time we were safe, I was totally sick of making decisions. I wanted to sleep for a million years.
I knew something had to change, but what? Now, I didn't wake up one glorious day and leap out of bed, saying, "Praise the Lord! I'm cured, and now I'm going to put my family first." First I had several years of saying I wanted to work less -- maybe a 40-hour week. Notice I said that I wanted to change. I didn't actually change for quite a while.
Finally, two years ago, I took a month off. I had become so tired. My professional advisers all told me I shouldn't take the time, that things would fall apart without me, that we weren't strong enough yet. But I went anyway. It was February. I stayed home, slept late, and watched the snow come down. My kids loved my cooking, something none of us realized I had any talent for. Someone had once taught me how to do vacations right, and during that month I followed all the rules: I took no phone calls and no faxes, and if there was an emergency, it had to be routed through a senior manager who would protect me from trivia. Basically, I said, "Don't call me unless someone dies." It was the most peaceful month.
By the end of the month I had unwound, and I decided to look at Racing Strollers in a new way. I was tired of pushing, tired of always comparing our company with some other company and falling short in my own estimate. I had always thought, "Yeah, we did OK, but look how much more we could do if we only worked harder!" But finally, I learned to say, "Screw it, I don't care if we ever grow again. We can be just a nice little company, like a fine Swiss watch company." We could stand still and keep on making a good living. I wanted time. Free time started to seem more precious than money. I looked around and saw friends in high-powered jobs who were working on Sundays. They had lots of money but no possibility of enjoying it.
I quietly started to train my successor, Colette, without really telling her why. Eventually, I told her that I hoped she would be president one day, and we started to make the transition. It was so hard to tell my managers. Finally, one day our friend and adviser Spike said to me, "What are you waiting for? Colette's ready, you're ready." I promptly burst into tears -- not about wanting my job, but because of my intense relief at being able to let it go, into safe hands.
I can't say it's been easy. The first few weeks were horrible. All of my social life and all my friendships were at the office. It was pretty boring at home. Gradually, I made new friends and started finding life outside work. I was a little bit jealous for a while. Colette is kind and funny, with a mind like a steel trap. Everyone thinks she is tough, and everyone loves her. What if you train your successor, and he or she is better in your job than you were? I decided to thank my lucky stars, and Colette kindly reassures me that she still needs my advice.
Is it good? It's great! I have a conscientious president -- I have only to mention a concern, and she's off and running to fix it. Colette makes decisions the same way I would, so there's no worry there. The whole company is fixated on goals, and since we're an open-book organization, Colette has tons of help. I go in and see my friends, and I have authority without very much responsibility. Colette and our other managers handle all operations-related problems, so if people ask me to decide something, I tell them to go see a real manager. We talk a lot about customers, my favorite subject; we're making more money, which can only be good. And me? My idea of heaven is being out in the winter sunshine, in mud up to my shins, feeding my horses.* * *
Mary Baechler is CEO of the Baby Jogger Co., a manufacturer in Yakima, Wash.