When we first started Pluralsight in 2004, the founders were at the center of everything. We had a goal to build the world's largest tech training platform--and there was a lot to do to get us there. So we all wrote code to build our first website, authored some of our first courses, and took the lead on marketing and sales efforts. It's not an overstatement to say that as founders, we were involved in everything. We had our hands in every pie across the business.
This entrepreneurial startup phase went on for the first 8 years of the company. It was before our Series A financing, which we deliberately waited to introduce until we had confidence in our own ability to generate revenue to support the business. Like many co-founders in love with their new babies, we happily rolled up our sleeves and wore however many hats were required to get the job done until we were fully convinced that staff growth was warranted.
Fast forward to today. Over the last few years, we've ramped up from a skeleton crew to over 200 fulltime employees. Some of these new hires have joined our leadership team--because as much as we loved being at the center of things, the company had reached a point where we had become the obstacle to growth. We knew the business would not continue to expand if we didn't get out of the way.
So we began replacing the founders, in essence, with a team of top-notch leaders who could come in and do a much better job than we were able to do in their areas of expertise. This required a high degree of humility and honesty from the founders. The company's growth continues, and with each new leader who joins our ranks, we've had to release the reins a little bit further. The result? The more we let go, the better the company gets! It's a humbling process, and one that all founders must ultimately experience if they want their organization to achieve greater success.
To encourage you to let go so your company can achieve its maximum growth potential, here are three steps to start taking today:
Abandon the one-man band syndrome. There should be a visible difference between a startup entrepreneur and a later-stage leader. Most entrepreneurs begin their ventures as the know-it-all, perhaps with a touch of narcissism. In order to found a company, you generally bring to the table a strong vision and diverse set of skills to get your business off the ground, including tech, sales, marketing, product, and strategy. That combination is really what makes an entrepreneur an entrepreneur.
But if you try to keep being a one-man band for too long, the company breaks--it fails to scale. The key is to recognize the distinction between what an entrepreneur looks like at the startup stage, and what the best leaders of larger organizations should look like as they evolve over time. As your company continues to grow, evolve, and develop, it needs a leader who knows how to give autonomy to different stakeholders who can lead the company more effectively in each area. In other words, it needs a CEO who can let go of needing to do it all.
Hire people who are better than you. The reason that most leaders have a hard time letting go is because they believe that they can do it better. They feel like they know more than others because of their integral role in the company's formation. It's especially hard for entrepreneurs who came up with the idea for the business--and have been the one at the center of it from inception--to have to bring in other leaders and let go of their view from the frontlines of certain functions.
But even though it's a pain point, the best leaders learn how to do it. In fact, they often learn to love doing it once they start bringing in people who are even better than they are in key areas--people who know more than they do, and from whom they can learn. When that happens, it can push the company forward to a whole new level. This strategy in a sense "unlocks" the entire organization to continue evolving in a much faster and healthier way.
Even if they can't do the job better than you, you'll most likely still be in a better place if you can delegate the responsibility and empower them to learn, grow, and improve over time. I've heard other leaders (who understand this principle well) say that if a new leader can do at least 70 percent as well as his or her predecessor on day one, it's very likely to be a long-term win for the company. So don't set your expectations too high, expecting perfection from your replacement.
Give other leaders full autonomy. As part of the letting-go process, the best CEOs learn to trust the people they're bringing into the company to become the future leaders. This can only happen if you're willing to give the newcomers ample control. Ask yourself: "Do I really trust them to the point that I'll let them make tough decisions? Do I trust them to learn? Do I trust them to grow? Do I trust them to experience their own failures?"
Your answers had better be "yes," because if you build a culture that truly empowers the leaders you bring in, it can be an incredibly powerful force for the company. The culture you want to build is one that gives other leaders full autonomy without micromanagement. And this doesn't just apply to the CEO and his or her leadership team. The same principle can apply between an executive team and the members of their team, or even across teams.
We're often testing ways to let go as leaders at Pluralsight. A recent example was when we needed to find a new office space for our software engineering team that resides in a different city than our headquarters. Our initial thought was that someone on the leadership team would have to make that big decision because of the amount of money at risk. But because of our belief in letting go, we decided to push back against our first instinct, and we delegated the decision to the engineers themselves. Since they were the ones who would be most impacted by the decision, we wanted to empower them with making it after we explained our objectives.
In the end, the engineers were actually more careful than we would have been about resources--to the point where we actually had to encourage them to think bigger. They ended up choosing a more functional office space than we would have chosen, spent less money than we would have spent, and are ultimately happier because they're in a space that fits their needs exactly. It was a better decision, hands down, than our leadership team would have made had we just done it ourselves. That's because when you empower people with that much autonomy and entrust them with making good decisions, they have extra motivation to ensure that they do what's best for the company.
The lesson is pretty clear. When it comes to tough decisions, many leaders cling to the frame of mind that "I need to take care of this myself." But if you trust the people who you hired to do their jobs with full autonomy, you may be surprised by how well it works out. Letting go is nothing more than empowering teams to make their own decisions. As long as everyone has a shared vision and is committed to doing what's best for the company, it can lead to bigger and better things.