Chief Exec

Get a Life! If you're still chained to your desk, here are six steps to revamp your management style

Cathey Cotten works like a maniac. From 9 a.m. until midnight, Cotten toils away at MetaSearch Inc., her two-year-old, $360,000 technical -recruiting company. At midnight an alarm in Cotten's San Anselmo, Calif., office goes off--her way of reminding herself to quit working. But more often than not, she ignores the clock and keeps going. She typically heads home sometime between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Sound familiar? Although Cotten is extreme, she's hardly unusual. Entrepreneurs like her--in the midst of launching a start-up business--know that working around the clock is often a necessary evil. The problem is that many entrepreneurs never get past that 12-hour-workday stage. Look at the CEOs on the Inc. 500, our list of the fastest-growing privately held U.S. companies. In a recent Inc. survey, 41% said they work at least 60 hours a week.

Why do entrepreneurs work so much? "Some do it because their businesses demand it," observes consultant Lanny Goodman, owner of Management Technologies Inc., in Albuquerque. "Some need the rush. Some people work hard because they don't want to go home and spend time with their spouses." And, of course, still others put in long hours because they love what they do. Nevertheless, if you're regularly working more than 60 hours a week, be careful. "You can't run machines at 100% capacity indefinitely. It's the same with humans," warns Goodman.

The irony is that company founders often view their new enterprises as tickets to greater independence and flexibility. But all too often, those same entrepreneurs get so consumed by the business that their expected freedom never comes. However, there are successful entrepreneurs who work 40 or fewer hours a week while managing thriving companies. What's their secret? We've discovered six steps to getting a life--while building a business.

STEP ONE: Learn to Say No
One day Ron Huston's wife said to him, "You're the boss. Why don't you take Friday off?" He agreed. Another Friday rolled around, and something came up at home, so Huston took that one off, too. And the one after that. Pretty soon Huston realized that his absence apparently didn't affect profits, employee morale, or growth projections at his company, Denver-based Advanced Circuits Inc. For the past two years, Huston has taken Fridays off to be with his family. At the same time, revenues at his $6.2-million circuit-board manufacturer have grown more than 30% annually.

How has Huston done it? By learning to say no to nonessential tasks. When a salesperson calls to pitch a product, Huston says, "Sorry, I can't help you," and forwards the call to someone who can. His staff knows he doesn't help with day-to-day decisions, such as materials-and-supplies purchases. Huston believes his reduced workweek helps him focus only on important business issues. "If I worked 12 hours a day, I'd get caught up in the day-to-day details," he says.

STEP TWO: Focus on Key Tasks
Saying no isn't enough, however. Huston has also identified the issues that have a high impact on his business, and he devotes his limited time to those. He knows he needs to meet with important outsiders like bankers. He stays close to the company financials and reviews critical numbers each day he's at work. He meets with key managers and salespeople four mornings a week.

Like Huston, Robin Bradford, owner of Bradford Staff, in San Francisco, has thought about what duties really matter to her company. Recently, she and the top managers at her $12-million staffing business wrote down both the essence of their jobs and all their responsibilities. The results were surprising. Bradford discovered she was wasting time writing marketing literature and making sales calls--tasks that other employees could do. Delegating those duties freed her up to focus on the big-picture planning that is essential to her job. She also can devote one day a week to her outside interests, painting and art.

STEP THREE: Delegate, Delegate
Here's the tough part. If you want more free time, you'll have to delegate. What typically traps entrepreneurs is an inability to let go of the details. It hasn't been easy for Susan Davies, principal of Davies & Monahan PC, a six-person accounting firm in Boston, to give up control. However, Davies was determined to devote two days of her workweek to nonprofit work with homeless women. "Just grit your teeth," advises Davies, who now puts in only three days at the office, except during tax season. "You have to let someone else do it--maybe the way you wouldn't do it."

There are, of course, key tasks Davies can't delegate. She keeps lists of those and does the most urgent work first.

STEP FOUR: Redefine Yourself
Sound difficult? A strong motivation--such as Davies's passion for nonprofit work--helps. For Rick Pratt, owner of CC&A Construction Co., in Denver, an instant family provided the incentive to change. When his wife's children from a previous marriage moved in, the remodeling contractor saw that he "needed to create a better balance" between his personal life and his business life.

For Pratt, achieving balance meant shrinking the business. He went from working more than 60 hours a week to putting in fewer than 40. Then he trimmed his staff by two-thirds and cut revenues by a third. Working less didn't come easily---especially since Pratt discovered that his ego stood in the way. He realized that taking on big projects had made him feel like a big shot. "I've found that the real reason people work a lot isn't because they have so much to do, but because they find refuge and status in being busy," Pratt says. "I wanted to be a broader person." (He claims that because he's now more selective about the jobs he takes, his business's net income, ironically, is bigger than ever.)

STEP FIVE: Make Personal Commitments Concrete
Like work obligations, personal commitments are easier to keep if you put them in writing. Pratt started putting family activities on his "to do" list. "Most of us don't put into our schedule what time we're going to have dinner with our family," he says. "It ends up taking place only if everything else gets done, but an entrepreneur's job is never done." At first, Pratt admits, he felt sheepish telling potential clients he couldn't meet with them at night to estimate jobs, something most of his competitors do regularly. But, he found, "nobody will argue with you if you want to put your family first."

STEP SIX: Develop Systems
If you can't cut back now, you can still plan for the future. When John Sobeck started his company, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1983, he worked 80 hours a week. But Sobeck had a vision: by age 55, he'd be his own man. Today, at 54, he works about 20 hours weekly at his $2-million fire - and water -damage restoration business, First General Services of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

For Sobeck, the years of preparation paid off. Early on, he wrote up policies and procedures so that new workers can learn their jobs quickly. He customized a computer program that holds all employees accountable, by keeping tabs on their activity. "The business could pretty much run by itself," boasts Sobeck, who annually invests from $20,000 to $30,000 in computer software and equipment that track the business's pulse.

The business is still growing: he and some partners opened a new field office last year. Meanwhile, he continues to spend his summers fishing in North Carolina. And when he's in town? He hits the links by 2 p.m.

Stephanie Gruner is a staff writer at Inc.

How to Kick Back
So you've decided you want to work less--but you don't know how to start. Consider these tips from consultant Lanny Goodman, owner of Management Technologies, in Albuquerque.

1. Plan for your freedom. Get away for a three-day weekend with your partner and envision what you'd like your lives to be like. Talk about what you'd do with your free time. If you've been putting in 70-hour weeks for years, it will take time to develop other interests and get used to spending more time with family and friends.

2. Make a public commitment. Announce to key employees that by such and such a date you're going to reduce your hours. Be specific about both your new schedule and the target date. Then work together to figure out how to make the plan fly.

3. Do an activity assessment. An old time-management trick is to list everything you do during the day. You'll probably find that much of your workload is driven by your expectation that you ought to be working hard, rather than by any real logic. Go through your list and ask of each item, "Is this the best use of my time, creativity, talent, knowledge, and experience?" If the answer is no, look for another way to handle the task.

Rick Pratt swears by Stephen Covey's audiotapes (the unabridged Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership). Covey's Seven Habits Organizer, (which can be ordered by calling 800-654-1776) has also helped Pratt reconcile his personal goals with his daily schedule.

Jay Conrad Levinson's new book, The Way of the Guerrilla: Achieving Success and Balance as an Entrepreneur in the 21st Century (Houghton Mifflin, 800-225-3362, $19.95), discusses everything from delegating to sustaining a balanced life.