Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director
I recently met up for lunch with a colleague of mine who owns a home performance company. He told me that his five-year plan is to either sell his company or start a franchise. I was happy to hear that he has a long-term plan, but when I started asking questions about his business I saw that there was a classic flaw in his plan.
The nature of this flaw became apparent when he was interrupted 5 or 6 times by phone calls and texts from staff and clients during our one hour lunch. I asked him if his phone was always that busy. He said that he was responding to issues and putting out fires non-stop throughout his day. “It’s probably the worst part of my job” he lamented.
I gently informed him that I doubted he could work this hard all day and still have time to build the foundation and systems it would take to attract a buyer or franchisees. “I just don’t have the time” he responded, “I keep hoping I can find someone to take over what I do so that I can focus on the important things.” Ah, the classic dilemma of the small business owner.
It’s Hard, But Let Go
If you are a business owner, you’re probably familiar with the feeling: no one else is going to care about your business as much as you do. I actually think that is true. There is always the hope that you can bring in a high-level manager who will take away all your problems.
I have had many committed managers working under me but no one was able to make large structural changes the way I could. Unfortunately, like my colleague, I often found myself dealing with what felt like a constant flood of issues, employee complaints, difficult customers, etc.
The opportunity cost for working on those issues was time that I could not dedicate to working on improving my company. In my case, our company grew rapidly to 45 employees (yay!), but as we grew, the lack of foundational systems became more apparent and our profitability sank (boo!).
Empower Your Employees
So I decided to make some changes. I began working on extricating myself from my day-to-day business to free up more time for higher-level strategic work. I started with writing down where I spent my time and where I felt the biggest drain. From that example, I discovered that I felt drained trying to coach and lead my staff.
I had four managers who reported directly to me and we would meet every week. These were very smart and competent people, but at our meeting, they would come to me with problems they hadn’t solved and goals they hadn’t achieved. At the meeting, I would help them solve these problems and come up with ideas for how to achieve their goals. They walked out the door feeling supported and I felt like things were improving.
But each week they returned with new issues and the same goals that came up short. Finally, I put my foot down and I told them that they were welcome to discuss issues at our weekly meeting, but they had to come to the meeting with a solution—one that would not require my involvement.
Sure enough, they started coming to our meetings with I solutions to the problem. 9 out of 10 times I would agree with their suggestions and we would dive right into refining their strategy and figuring out how to prevent future issues. Ultimately my managers felt more empowered and trusted their own decisions when issues came up. This also freed up my time so that I wasn’t so busy doing their jobs.
Think Long Term
The other thing I discovered from my list is that I spent very little time each week working ON my business rather than IN my business. I’m one of those people who likes to be very busy. Every morning I write a to-do list for the day. It’s a rare day that I don’t have at least one full page of tasks that I would like to get done. And I’m extremely efficient and productive; more often than not by the end of the day, I find I’ve checked off most of my list, which gives me a sense of accomplishment.
However, running through tasks like this can also be a big distraction. A lot of times feels much more gratifying to finish a task immediately instead of than working on a project that could take months or a year to complete.
To overcome this problem I committed to spending no less than one hour every day to contemplating my business and its direction. To do this I had to get out of the office, so I would go on a daily walk where I would intentionally consider the possibilities and direction of the company.
Look for Outside Help
If you’re thinking that sounds like a good idea but it’s easier said than done, then perhaps you need to find someone who can hold you accountable. This could be a work coach, a family member, your business partner or someone else from your staff. But whoever it is, that person needs to be someone who has the strength to challenge you and help you with the discipline of keeping yourself focused. It’s a very difficult thing to do on your own. As the owner and leader of your company, most likely you don’t have anyone hold you accountable. Not even yourself! So find that person and bring him or her into your inner circle.
Make the Choice to Do It
Back to my colleague with that home performance business — after some discussion, he asked the natural question: “Okay where should I start?” We began talking about the specifics of his business and within half an hour we had three pages of ways for him to improve this the foundation of his company. He was completely overwhelmed. I told him that it was completely in his power to make these changes but that he had a choice to make.
Would he stay stuck answering his phone all day, or would he slowly work towards his goal of selling or franchising the company? You can’t have both, I told him. I’ll be curious to see whether he’s truly committed to his business and if he can learn to remove himself from the daily operations. In my opinion it is critical to the success or failure of his company.
About the Author
I graduated with an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. But, my passion has always been in social and environmental justice.
Right out of college I cofounded a nonprofit called Rising Sun Energy Center which trained and employed high school and college students to do energy efficiency weatherization in their communities. It started in my small apartment and eventually grew to a staff of hundreds during the summer throughout the Bay Area.
In 2006, I partnered with my cousin Dvir Brakha to start Advanced Home Energy in Berkeley, CA. I was in charge of the business backend and he was in charge of operations and running crews. Originally it was just us, two other guys, and an insulation truck.
Sometime around 2007 we took a California Building Performance Contractors Association (CBPCA), now Efficiency First California, 10-day course with home performance guru Rick Chitwood. It was an eye-opening experience. Because of it, we decided it was time to shift our services. We slowly built up our company offerings beyond insulation to include full-service home performance.
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