By Gerard Burke, Founder and MD, Your Business Your Future

Recent research has found that, on average, small business owners take less than 2 weeks holiday per year - less than half the national average! The vast majority of owner managers don't take time off because they feel they can't - their business can't get by without them.

If your business can't get by without you, then you're probably at one of the classic stages of development of an owner managed business - a stage which can be hugely frustrating and very gratifying both at the same time!

From our work with hundreds of owner managers over many years, we’ve identified four key stages of development in the role of the owner manager in their business. See if you can recognise yourself in any of these descriptions.

Artisan beginnings

Most businesses start because the founding owner manager has a skill or some knowledge which other people are prepared to pay for. He/she is an ‘expert’ in that core skill or knowledge on which the business is based - surveyors who survey, engineers who engineer, solicitors who solicit.

Some businesses can stay at the Artisan stage for a very long time, for example, in the professions and creative industries.

If you're at the Artisan stage, then you are the business. So, it probably genuinely can't get by without you!

Heroic tendencies

Now, because you're really good at the core activity that the business does, you get more and more work which needs to be delivered. So, after a while, you decide to take on some other people to help you deliver that work.

Inevitably, you'll now spend more time on management tasks. Because you're probably still the person who has the most expertise in the core activity of the business, you'll be the person who shows the other staff how to undertake the work and you'll be the person to whom they bring their problems. You'll almost certainly still own the key relationships with customers and they'll want to deal with you because they know you're the boss. You or your reputation probably brings in most of the sales and you're the person who makes the key buying decisions. And, of course, you need to find some time to get the invoices out and, hopefully, collect the cash.

At this point, you've become a Hero.

Of course, being the Hero is great for the ego - everybody wants to talk to you! And you're the person who can solve all the problems and fight all the fires. At the same time, if all decisions and issues can only be dealt with by you, the business still can't get by without you!

Being the Hero also creates an inevitable constraint on the growth of the business. There are only a certain number of hours that anyone can work in a day and, once that limit is reached, that’s as big as the business can get.

Sharing the load – and Meddling

At some point, most Heroes recognise they need to recruit other managers to share the burden. Of course, these new people don’t necessarily do things in the way that you previously did them – which, for many owner managers, means that the new people are doing things wrong!

So, you get increasingly frustrated with the new people and can’t stop yourself interfering and pointing out how you would have done that task. In the worst cases, we've seen owner managers re-doing the work that they're paying other people to do. The owner manager has fallen into the trap of becoming a Meddler.

It’s easy to see what happens next. Either the demoralized managers quit or you conclude that you might as well just do the work yourself and sack the managers on the grounds that "they just didn't work out, they weren't right for us". You then reverts to being a Hero until you decide to have another go at recruiting some help. And, often, this oscillation repeats itself many times.

And, you still feel that the business can't get by without you!

Becoming a Strategist

The trick is to become what we call a Strategist. This means achieving the difficult feat of letting go of some of the day-to-day activities which you may still believe that you do better than anyone else, and truly empowering other people to get on with those activities. This leaves you free to look forwards and outwards, articulating an inspiring vision of the future for the business and making that future happen. To coin a phrase, you're now working on the business for at least some of your time, rather than in the business all of the time.

And, at last, the business can get by without you! Which means that the business can grow, becomes much more valuable since it's no longer reliant on you, and you can feel far more personally fulfilled. And you can take some proper holidays!

Letting go

These different behaviour patterns are easy to describe and, for most owner managers, easy to recognise. And yet, for the vast majority of owner managers, the transition is incredibly difficult to do!

The old behaviours are deeply rooted in strongly felt emotions about the business and how the business’s activities should be performed. After all, it is your business and you've probably experienced major struggles along the way either in getting the business off the ground in the first place or in ensuring that it's survived to this point. To let go of these activities, entrust them to someone else, and to accept that the new person will almost certainly perform these activities differently, is a major challenge for many owner managers.

Some owner managers will be able to travel this journey and make this transition on their own. The vast majority need some help, support and encouragement. Our Better Business Programme, run in partnership with Cass Business School, is designed specifically to help owner managers make this difficult behavioural transition and create the future you want for your business and for you. And we know, from having helped over 600 owner managers in the last 7 years achieve their business and personal ambitions, that it works!

PS. In case it sounds familiar, "Can't Get By Without You" was a huge 1976 hit for one of my all time favourite 70s disco acts, The Real Thing. You can listen to it here.

To find our more about how the Better Business Programme can help your business get by without you and create the future you want for your business and for you, give us a call on 08456 838 818 or come to one of our Better Business Briefing Events.

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