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ACHIEVING SCALE

A Great Leader Often Does Very Little

Think you have to work all the time to lead a great company? You're wrong.
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You’ve secured your funding, you’ve started making your idea a reality, and suddenly, the work starts piling up faster than you could have imagined.

What happens when your company starts to take off and you’re buried under tasks? How do you keep on top of the mountain of work that is assaulting you? If you're struggling to figure this out, you're in good company: Some of the best CEOs and founders struggle to define their role in a quickly growing organization.

The good news: You shouldn't be working as hard as you think. Here's how to make sure you're focusing on the right tasks.

#1. Understand that you can’t do everything.

I often see start-up founders trying to take on every task, from product development to human resources manager, to finance guru and team cheerleader. This compulsion is understandable: When you’re all-in, the business can feel like your baby. But wearing so many different hats at once is going to hurt more than it will help. I’ve found that one of the keys to being an effective leader is knowing when you’ve reached your limit.

As important as it is for you to devote yourself to your business, it is equally important for you to have a life outside the bubble of your company. Your 5-to-9 with family, friends or even a good book is just as important to your business as your 9-to-5. Really. The last thing that a growing company needs is a tired, burned-out, dispassionate leader. You only have so much time in the day; I make sure that I’m still devoting enough of it to myself and to my family.

#2. Acknowledge that you SHOULDN’T do everything.

Here’s another way of looking at managing your leadership--if you’re doing everything, you have a hole in your staff. Being a leader doesn’t mean doing a bunch of different things decently well, it means being great at one thing: strategy or inspiration or vision. As I wrote about last week, the best leaders hire trustworthy people and allow them to lead in their areas of expertise.

A great leader is often someone who does very little. You can, and should, always be looking to hand problems to smart people around you. If you can inspire those people, their devotion, expertise, and time spent on the task will equal or outpace your own. If you want your business to thrive, you need to depend on the people around you to get things done. Your role becomes one of strategy, not execution. Growing a successful organization takes trust in those around you.

#3. Focus on being a big picture expert.

It may be hard, but try to recognize that not everything needs to get done immediately. It's your role to be able to identify the top priorities. If you don’t know what those are, you’re already in way over your head--without even beginning the execution. You can make list upon list of things that need to get done, spend your time being the most organized CEO that ever existed, but ultimately, you need to hone your instincts and know what requires your immediate attention.

If things are so complicated that you need planners, productivity software, timers or widgets, then there is a part of the bigger picture that you’re missing. Sometimes long lists can be paralyzing; they often stop you from making meaningful progress on any one task.

Instead, try to keep the big, strategic tasks in your head, and rely on your staff to take on the rest.

IMAGE: benhusmann/Flickr
Last updated: Feb 28, 2013

MEHDI MAGHSOODNIA | Columnist | CEO, Rafter

Mehdi Maghsoodnia is the CEO of Rafter, which provides a cloud-based platform designed to help colleges make educational content more affordable and effective. He was previously SVP at CafePress and Intellisync.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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