Liam Martin can laugh now. A few years ago, he was overwhelmed by the work he faced as founder of VTA Method, a tutoring company. So he asked an assistant to handle refunds. Not a good move, as it turned out.
For example: A customer asked for $1,500 back; her child didn't need the extra sessions. Easy enough request, right? But the assistant, instead, refunded the entire semester's payment of $10,000. Says Martin: "I almost had a breakdown."
Now, he is the owner of Staff.com, an Ottawa, Ontario, temp-employee firm. You might think he maintains a tight grip on everything, given the refund debacle. In fact, he has gone the other way. "When you delegate tasks to others, the orders shouldn't be easy to understand--they should be impossible to misunderstand," he says. At Staff.com, Martin came up with a novel solution: He created a wiki that describes how to handle some 500 operational issues. "How can I lead a large company if I'm still doing credit card refunds?" he says.
Of course, tales of micromanaging entrepreneurs' messing up and finding redemption seem to date back to the Jurassic period. But as the economy improves and the pace of business picks up, it doesn't hurt to take a look again at how you're spending your time--and how to manage it more efficiently. In other words: Relearn what you already know. As Harvard professor Linda Hill points out, understanding something intellectually and actually acting on it are two different things. Some entrepreneurs just can't let go.
"Many company leaders won't delegate until they're so exhausted and burned out that they have to," says Hill, who deals with the topic in two of her books (the most recent being 2011's Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader).
Inc. talked with business owners who found religion and came up with ways to become better delegators--even if their first instinct was to do every last thing themselves. Their advice:
"As you get a clearer sense of how your employees work, you get more peace of mind around the idea of shifting more duties to them," says Alfredo Atanacio, CEO of Uassist.me, a Miami company that provides online personal assistants. For instance, Atanacio teaches a course on entrepreneurship. At the beginning, he delegated research to an assistant. But the assistant delivered such a huge pile of potentially relevant material that it took Atanacio longer to go through it all than it would have taken him to seek out the best sources himself.
"But I liked her work ethic and her thoroughness," he says, "and over time, I showed her how to find exactly the kinds of things I wanted and how to effectively summarize them for me. Now, this delegation saves me a ton of time."
Follow the 80 percent rule.
Trevor Sumner, founder of LocalVox, a New York City marketing firm, takes a close look at every one of his employees and assesses his or her skill level. "If you have a direct report who can do a task 80 percent as well as you can, you need to let them do it," says Sumner.
Take a hike.
That may be the hardest thing for you or any chief executive to do, but it's a great way to find out who on your staff really has the chops. "Train your employees, then go on vacation," says Vanessa Van Edwards, founder of Science of People, a Portland, Oregon-based consulting firm. "Sometimes, we need to get away to prove that people can do it on their own."
If you don't have it, buy it.
Says Chuck Cohn, founder of Varsity Tutors in St. Louis: "If you realize you aren't doing a great job managing your team, bring in a professional manager." Adds Clay Hebert, co-founder of WorkHacks, a personal-productivity company in New York City: "Great leaders hire amazing people and then get out of the way."