If Bill Nye ever went into business hardcore, he'd probably look and act a lot like Dr. Greggory Haggquist. A photo-physical chemist and inventor, Haggquist now is the Chief Technology Officer responsible for all research, development and product certification for Cocona, Inc. An example of his work? 37.5 technology, which is used in clothes and other textiles to keep you cool or warm.
It's undeniably a pretty good, rewarding gig. But once upon a time, Haggquist wasn't CTO. Not only did he co-found Cocona, Inc., he was CEO, too. Eventually, he gave that title up. The decision had nothing to do with personal poor performance or fit and everything to do with Haggquist's genuine desire for the company to grow.
"Sometimes, to move forward, you need to step back," Haggquist explains. "I am stepping back to help move our technology forward in exciting new directions. There are several novel and unique projects that require clarity of thought to take them over the hump. To bring these new products to market innovation and ideation is required. The scaffolding has been laid and now the details need to be filled in, which requires uninterrupted thought coupled with diversity of thought. Taking time from work will allow me to hear other leaders' opinions while combining them with my own thoughts. Challenging ideas with a diverse audience allows the truth and reality to be realized. In a room of consensus rarely do you generate scientific truth, only through being challenged and questioned can you find out if your ideas are meaningful."
Haggquist emphasizes that the shift isn't really him "leaving". It's just changing his surroundings and routine. If you do that, he says, you'll get the new, fresh perspective that's so vital to progress.
Making the transition for yourself
Other companies likely could benefit from their co-founders and CEOs stepping back. Yours might be one of them. Your biggest key for a smooth transition in this case is hiring people right from the beginning who you believe in and trust. With these players in place, you can pass off critical work and know they'll do a good job without needing to worry or micromanage. If you know you've got a decent team capable of stepping up, then it's time to ask yourself questions like
"Is your team built to a point that your presence is not needed?" Sometimes perfectly capable people just need a little training or development before taking the helm, or you need to tweak your processes so they're not as dependent solely on you.
"Does your product or service need a jolt or upgrade?" Remember, this doesn't mean you don't have good ideas. It simply means that somebody else might have different ideas that could rejuvenate or build on what you've already built. If you've stagnated, maybe it's time to take a little break and see what someone else can do for you.
"Are there ideas in your head that are just sitting there and not moving forward?" If others can hold down the fort for your original concept, there's zero reason to sacrifice new dreams so you can stay hyperfocused on your first project. That's especially true given that people expect successful companies to be adaptive, for them to learn, pivot and keep generating what's off the beaten path.
Even if the answers to all these questions suggest it's time for you to hit the road, don't just wing it.
"You have to have a clearcut action plan and action items that you want to accomplish," Haggquist insists. "You have to have ideas that you know you want to bring to life and a group of people lined up willing to visit with you. [And] remember that, even though you are taking time off, not everyone else that you want to talk to has the same amount of free time. If you are planning to visit people to bounce ideas off of, make sure it works with their schedule. My ski buddy always told me to look before I jump off a cliff and know [my] landing. If you hesitate or [something] doesn't feel right, then something is wrong. Visualize the outcome before you start."
Knowing you've made it
Haggquist jokes that he'll let us all know in five months if his stepping back went smoothly. But his story holds a powerful truth any entrepreneur should internalize: In the end, the real mark of success isn't the ability to personally dot every I and cross every T. None of us have that kind of time or cross-discipline expertise, to be frank.
The real mark of success is the ability to look back and, in full confidence, know that your contribution to the business isn't dependent on title or where you sit in the C-suite. It's getting to the point where the business can continue to serve others even if you aren't there anymore, where you can let go so as not to hold the company back. After all, as Steve Jobs or dozens of other entrepreneurs who already have passed on might tell you, there will come a point where you can't go on, where your real test of leadership is ensuring that ideas will continue to flow within your organization regardless of how many hours you're putting in at the office. Go where you're needed, not where you necessarily feel the safest or in control. If that's constantly your priority, it's only a matter of time before incredibly awesome things start to follow.