Shirley owned and operated two large Montessori preschools in California. These schools were very successful, serving 400 children each day.
But there was a catch - the business was consuming Shirley.
She was exceptionally good at what she did. She dealt with parents, generally the largest source of fires and challenges for a preschool, gracefully yet firmly. She understood how to smoothly deal with staff challenges, the second largest source of difficulty in her world.
Yet the better Shirley got at dealing with these situations, the more her business came to rely on her to handle them.
"I was working more than 14 hours per day, 7 days a week, and was literally overwhelmed by the business," Shirley reported. "Much of the work I did, such as greeting the kids and parents and working with a great team of teachers, was satisfying and rewarding. I was, however, the only person able to deal with any escalation that would arise, and with 50 staff members and nearly 400 children enrolled at the two schools, there were many issues to deal with every day. Dealing with all the issues left me exhausted and with little time for working on the business, and it was only after the school closed for the day that I could work on the billing, bookkeeping, hiring, HR issues, purchasing, and all the rest."
Shirley had unwittingly fallen into the "Competency Trap". She was so good at what she did that she had built her business to become dependent on her presence and direct participation to solve these same challenges, day after day, month after month.
How about you? Are you so good at what you do that your company, or team, or department have come to rely on you and only you to be there to handle these challenges each time they come up?
If so, here are seven simple steps to help you escape the Competency Trap and build an organization that is stronger and more scalable.
1. Define what you do that currently you and only you can do.
Don't trust your first pass. Create your draft list and then leave it sit for a few days and come back to it. Go back through each item on your list and play the devil's advocate. What are the final items that you and only you can truly handle? Notice I didn't say, "What are the items that you handle better than everyone else?" That is immaterial here.
What matters is whether or not someone other than you, with a little training, and armed with some simple tools, could handle that task or responsibility or not.
2. Review your "final" list of tasks and responsibilities that you feel only you can handle in your company with a trusted outside party.
When we take on a new business coaching client we ask them to do this exercise. Invariable there are 20-70 percent of the items that our client initially lists as things only they can handle that are fairly straightforward to delegate to someone else on their team with a little thought, training, and systematization.
The shorter your list, the easier it will be to help you escape the Competency Trap.
3. Prioritize your list of "only you" tasks and responsibilities through two filters:
Filter One: The "Value" of the task or responsibility to your company.
All things being equal, you'll want to move to transition out of the items that create the least value for your company first. Why? They may seem counterintuitive, but the logic is straight forward. The lower the value the item creates, the lower the risk or consequence of someone you hand the responsibility to messing up. Remember, it took you some time to learn to be so good at what you do, your team will need some time to develop into each of these responsibilities too.
Filter Two: The amount of your time the item takes on average per week.
All things being equal, transition out of those items that take the most of your time each week.
Factoring in both filters, create a "top 3 items" transition list. These are the three items that you want to transition out of first, ideally over the next 90 days.
4. Determine who on your team can handle, or could be developed to handle, the top 3 items on your prioritized transition list.
Once you have the name identified, ask yourself what training, tools, or systems would this person need to own this responsibility successfully.
5. Meet with the person(s) you've chosen to transition each responsibility over to and get their buy in.
Remember, only volunteers allowed, no forced recruits! If you are clear in how you frame this with this person so they understand that you see their ability and value, and that you'll work with them to train them and develop the tools and systems they need to be successful in this role, chances are high that they'll feel affirmed and excited to take on the new challenge.
If they're not, this likely means that they don't feel they can be successful, or they aren't really motivated to grow. This should prompt a real candid adult conversation with them.
What are they seeing that you are missing? Are they afraid that you won't give them the support you are promising? Are they concerned that they will need time to work into this role and that you'll expect too much too soon from them? Or are they just comfortable in their current role and afraid of the workload if they take on this new responsibility?
Once you've got the necessary buy in from this person (or someone else if you determine that they aren't the right person after all) move on to step six.
6. Together with your chosen person, develop a written transition plan.
What are the steps you'll take to successfully transition this responsibility to this new person? What does success look like for him or her? How will you protect the business along the way? What tools does he or she need to be successful in this new role? What training will you need to provide? What ongoing support and coaching will this person need?
7. Follow your transition plan, checking in on progress at least bi-weekly.
Now this may seem like a lot of work to get out of certain tasks or responsibilities. After all, you say, it would be much easier to just do this item yourself, you've gotten so good at it. But that is bait that captured you in the Competency Trap to begin with. Sure it's easier for you to just do the function yourself than to systematically hand it off to someone else. But, is it really the right thing for your company to have you and only you able to do that function.
Also, remember, you're not talking about a one-time task. This is a recurring function that likely eats up significant chunks of your time each month and year. And, by growing your team, systems, and controls to be able to handle more of these functions without your direct over site or participation, you're strengthening your team and making your company more scalable.
Finally, you're also freeing yourself up to do other, higher value projects and tasks for your company. This will help you accelerate growth.
So how did this process work out for Shirley?
Listen to her share the impact of this methodology and direct coaching on her business and life:
"If you had asked me before I started the business coaching program if I could have ever let go of the feeling that I needed to personally perform or control every aspect of my business I would have told you no. What I realize now is that, while I am a great contributor to the business, if I build it all around me, I am its greatest limitation. To grow and serve more children and families, I need to be willing to let my team shine. Of course we need the structured systems and a sound culture to guide the team, but the business needs to be able to be successful without me. Letting go hasn't been easy for me, but it has been so worthwhile. Because of the changes I have made to my beliefs and to the systems and controls we have put in place, I have more time for my family and have greatly reduced the stress in my life."
So get to work taking that first step to escaping the Competency Trap - creating your draft list of items that you and only you can handle.
If you want to learn more ways to effectively grow your business and get your life back, I encourage you to download a free copy of my newest book, Build a Business, Not a Job. Click here for full details and to get your complimentary copy.