Many leaders know that they are on a different lane, but still want to put themselves in their employees’ shoes. Somehow, the notion of teamwork and brotherhood (or sisterhood) led them to having all the wrong ideas on what a leader should be doing. In the end, many of these leaders end up being very involved in day-to-day operations, which they should be hiring someone else to do.
You see, the common measure of productivity, while very useful for the common employee, is not very helpful for someone running a business. Why? The success and failure of the business is typically attributed to the leader directly.
Investors do not care if you worked hard.
They want to see results. Your business does not automatically succeed by the very nature of you working harder or taking on every single function in the company. Across all the businesses we have consulted, we summarized our learning into 3 important points that leaders should pursue – for the ultimate productivity:
1) Less fire-fighting, more solutions
It is not unusual to be embroiled in helping to sort out a customer problem, delivering missing packages to a customer, especially when your startup is still at its nascent stage.
While it may feel productive and exciting (because you are solving some ‘real’ problems) at first, the truth is that is does not bring your business to where it needs to go. Startup founders need come up with solutions, as it is usually the hardest part.If you are a startup founder, your job is to grow the business by continuously solving problems. Problems that are put out today could happen again tomorrow. The only fix is a long-term fix, which requires careful thinking. And careful thinking is IMPOSSIBLE if you spend 150% of your time fire-fighting.
An important caveat though, we are not encouraging you to be a mere strategist, sitting in an armchair and thinking about problems all the time. You need to be familiar with all areas of your business – and nothing gains you familiarity than doing it yourself. Nonetheless, what we are arguing here is, do it once to get your familiar with the function and the problem, but if you keep doing it more than a few times, you are probably wasting your time (and increasing your opportunity cost).
2) Don’t feel guilty for not working hard
Most of us (in Asia) grew up with the aggrandizing of the hard worker. The harder one worked, the more highly we thought of this person. In fact, your teacher probably gave you tonnes of homework and when you finished it, you felt a sense of pride. Yes, we think the pride should be associated with the results, rather than the journey.
In case you have any doubt, did your investors fund you to work hard, or to grow the business? The point is, many startup founders can usually solve most issues by hiring, or outsourcing, instead of drowning themselves. There are people who are better at solving specific problems than you are. The founder of a global internet group once told me personally, “Whenever I can hire someone to solve my issues so I can focus on driving the business, I will. Only if I can’t find someone, I do it myself.” When you are able to free up more time for your mind to think, you achieve more success.
Masayoshi Son, (founder of Softbank) famously used 5 minutes to think each day, and he made millions while studying in university, by selling his inventions to Japanese conglomerates
3) Challenge your own ideas, never fall in love
What makes a startup succeed? In most cases, we found that they put a lot of thought into their business, always looking to challenge their business models in any way possible. For example, when Android first started out (before it was acquired by Google), it wanted to make an operating system (OS) for cameras, connecting those photo-taking devices to PCs (and maybe cloud servers). However, the downward trajectory of the digital camera (as a standalone device) business encouraged them to push towards mobile, and they did. The rest is history.
History is riddled with startups that failed to pivot, or started out as a different business and eventually succeeding in something else. The only way anyone (or startup) can be an expert in their field is to always challenge the very idea they started their business on. Or as the biggest startup chicken soup guru Jack Ma puts it: “embrace change”. That is now a motto embedded across the Alibaba Group’s culture. In that way, you either escape from a doomed path before it is too late, or make your existing value proposition stronger.
Let go, take pride in it
To conclude, leaders should always take pride in the fact that the company does not need them to make every single decision. Building up your company’s ability to operate without you does not happen overnight, and it is typically a long process. That said, it starts with you trusting yourself, and your team.