Our economy and our daily lives run on utilities. They’re so critical, in fact, that government plays a major role in ensuring their reliability and pervasive availability. But they also suffer from invisibility.

When something is reliable and universal, we don’t spend much time thinking about it. Until something interrupts it, of course, such as a flood or major storm or a human-caused event.

This happens a lot in business, too.

If you have your financial transactions under control so that things work smoothly 99 percent of the time, congratulations! This is a fundamental part of running any successful business.

But don’t get lulled into complacency by the fact that it’s working so well. Don’t let your folks think that it’s unimportant because you don’t talk about it much. Your house will fall apart without regular attention and maintenance, and your financial house can degrade when you are distracted.

We tend to get pulled into solving issues. That’s understandable. If something is working well, why change it? Spend your attention on the things that do need to change because they’re broken.

When I work with clients, I try to have a balance. We need to focus attention on what’s important, which may or may not be what’s urgent. It may or may not be “broken.”

Perhaps you’re concerned because there’s been an uptick in customer complaints recently. You might be tempted to call up each customer in an attempt to smooth things over.

But that’s just putting out today’s fire. It does little to help lay a solid foundation for the future. Instead, as a leader, your role is to ensure your team understands the impact of this problem, give them the tools they need to address it, monitor progress and keep attention on the issue, and help out when it will really make a difference.

This can be tough for business owners who are quite capable and intelligent, who seem to worry more about the long term-health of the business than anyone else.

But your role isn’t fighting fires. You worked hard to hire people to do that. Your job is to train them, and to prevent fires. In our world, that usually means creating and managing an organization that attends to the details, not doing it yourself.

But sometimes you could do it much faster yourself! Working through others who are less capable is so … messy! That’s a dangerous trap.

I’ve been working with a number of owners looking to retire from their own companies. This is when it becomes painfully apparent just how reliant a business can become on a single person — especially a person who has the power and inclination to take over the reins whenever they want.

Here’s a useful exercise to work on. Imagine that in four months you’re going to take that wonderful holiday you’ve always dreamed of. Let’s make it an African safari, so it’s difficult for you to stay connected with your company on a daily basis.

And, really, would you want to? It would destroy the whole experience! This is a vacation, after all. Now, what would fall apart if you were gone for that long? Would employees become disengaged?  Would you lose customers? Would an important process (such as ensuring that invoices get paid) come to a halt?

Start creating an organization that pays attention to these things. They might be invisible to everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.

Develop job roles with enough redundancy that things won’t break if someone is out of commission for a period of time. Someone could leave. There might be an extended medical leave.

Or you might actually get to go on that wonderful vacation you’ve never been able to have.

And maybe, just maybe, you might be able to retire from your business and have it be successful without you — with a buyout valuation that you’re happy with.


This article was first published in BizWest in March 2016.

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