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From Expert to Owner: Letting Go of Your Specialist’s Role

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I recently met a friend for lunch to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her corporate event planning business. Reese started her businesses from a home office after five years with a Fortune 500 company. Today, she has nine employees and eight-figure annual revenues. As we discussed the peaks and the dips of her decade in business, she remarked, “I will always remember you telling me ’It may not be the way you would do it, but as long as you get the results you want, let your employees do their work.’ That was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.”

Like many business owners, Reese built her business on her specialized expertise and by doing the work herself. As she hired employees, doing the work herself and thinking like an expert quickly became unsustainable. Reese’s business thrived because she learned from and adapted to the hard truth of being a company owner: If you want to grow, you have to let go of being the expert and transition to being the business owner and leader.

The Challenge of Letting Go

It seems counterintuitive that the expertise that led to your business success and professional identity also limits growth. While letting go isn’t always easy, the following steps can help.

Define the Work //When an owner can’t let go of the expert’s role, it’s often due to a lack of clear, written processes. Document your expectations for each employee’s role, including the sequence and frequency of activities, timelines and outcomes that must be achieved. Ensure that they understand the importance of their work to the company, and the trust you are placing in them. Specify the frequency and format of periodic progress updates in your expectations.

Get Out of the Way //You own your business; your employees own their work. The owner who undoes or redoes the work of employees is undermining that ownership. Ask questions such as, “Where are you in the process?” or “What are your next steps?” to help uncover issues.

Probe for Options // When a project or activity is not progressing as expected, the temptation to take on an expert’s role is high. Two effective questions to ask are:

  • What’s getting in the way?
  • What are additional options?

Review Results // When employees own their work, they also own the results. Celebrate the successes. If a progress update reveals an error or performance issue, review the agreed-upon expectations and ask another question: “What can you do about it?”

Like Reese, you may believe that no one else in your company can produce results the way you do. That may be true. It’s also true that unless you learn to let go, you lose not only potential growth opportunities, but also your personal satisfaction. And isn’t that the reason you started your business in the first place?