I have owned and operated my business for over sixteen years and I now find myself at that pivotal juncture where it’s time to step back – way back – and fully immerse myself in working ON the business as opposed to IN it.
You hear a lot these days about the “art of letting go,” but if you’re anything like me, it’s more of a daily struggle than an art.
As with most new business ventures, mine began modestly in the living room of my home. All I had was a dream for the future, a wealth of experience gained during my 22 years in the corporate world, a modest amount of startup cash, and a few ideas about the kind of business I wanted to create. Above all, I wanted it to be one I would want to come to every day. I did not want to replicate the environment I was stepping out of.
So, I set about creating a culture aligned with that intention, and I’ve held on tight to it all these years. I have taken great pains to ensure its survival through all stages of growth, and it has paid off. The culture of my company is not just important to me because of my own values and sense of identity. It is also fundamental to the health of my business and to the happiness of my staff.
Being a business owner is a constant exercise in letting go and delegating. For certain aspects of my business, this has been easy. It was easy, for instance, to get a bookkeeper to do my books, or to hire a part-time CFO to provide the financial information to help me make the best decisions, or a marketing firm to get the word out about my business. Perhaps the easiest was hiring a janitorial service to clean the bathrooms! Even sales, which was one of the final things I let go of, was relatively easy.
But then, there are some things that are really hard to let go of. After all, your business is kind of like your baby. Delegating some of those bigger things is equivalent to asking someone else to help raise your impressionable children. You worry that they will mess it all up and get it all wrong.
The last and final thing I let go of was operations. It was the hardest one of all because it’s where my company’s culture lives (the thing I’ve been holding onto so tightly over the years to ensure its survival).
It took a long time – and a lot of coaxing from my business coach – before I was remotely comfortable with giving up the reigns on ops and culture. But, at some point, you find yourself standing on a ledge and there is nothing to do but jump. If you don’t, your company dead ends where it is.
The Process of Letting Go
I’m not going to sugar coat it for you. It’s a painful process. I still struggle, even with the help of a coach. And, it’s strange to be on the outside. For sixteen years, I was in the trenches with everyone else. My energy and personality, especially as a leader, had a big impact on the living, breathing, daily life of my business. Now that I’m on the outside, all that is changing.
Here’s the thing. No one is YOU, so once you take the leap outside of it, you’ll find that your company morphs into something a little different, which is disconcerting at times. I hear that eventually I’ll be grateful for this because it brings in fresh perspectives that can grow my business in ways I’ve never even imagined, but it hasn’t been long enough to see the fruits of that yet. All I can do now is breathe through this stage of uncomfortable change and hope for the best.
To put the cherry on top of the whole process, I find myself at a rather wide learning curve again. It’s a different beast to manage and grow a business once you’ve stepped outside of it. I have had to learn and strengthen a whole new set of skills, which my business coach is helping me with. (Did I mention you should probably hire a business coach for this leap??)
Also, I still find myself fighting the urge to ‘butt in’ and micro-manage on a daily basis. And, then, there is the emotional stuff to deal with. The truth is that while I am elated at the success of my business and over the moon to find myself in this position of growth, it is bittersweet nonetheless. I’ve had to close one chapter in order to start another and it feels like saying goodbye sometimes.
Now It’s Your Turn
In the future, I hope to be able to offer you great words of wisdom, but since I’m still in the thick of it myself, all I can offer is this:
Take your time, but don’t take forever. Make sure things are as aligned as possible without asking for perfection. Understand it’s going to be rough, and you’re going to have to fight every instinct to hold on. This leap is emotional and crazy and weird and exhilarating all rolled into one. Letting go is hard. So, be patient with yourself and find someone to help you through it all.
The leap outside your business is a leap of faith – faith in the ability of your staff, faith in all the work you’ve put into your business up to this point, and faith in yourself to step into this new leadership role. There are no guarantees it will work. In that respect, it’s akin to that very first leap you took when you started the business. Equally thrilling, equally scary, and equally full of potential.
About the Author
Valerie Schlitt holds an MBA from The Wharton School and started her business career at American Express and also worked at Travelers, CIGNA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and KPMG Consulting. After a successful corporate career in marketing and consulting, she created VSA in 2001, a high-end B2B lead generation and appointment setting firm with more than 100 employees. VSA is thrilled to have been named as one of the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work 2018.”