Lords of Chaos

Every business owner must be adept at dealing with chaos.

Entrepreneurship demands the ability to choose a course of action when everyone else is staring into the headlights. It requires a willingness to make a decision with inadequate information, and to make new decisions if the first one isn’t solving the problem.

Being a business owner means rolling with the punches. How many times have you driven to your business in the morning with a detailed idea of your day’s objectives, only to have them go out the window as soon as you arrive? A key employee calls in sick. A customer is in crisis. A vendor is unable to deliver as promised. A piece of equipment is broken. There are scores of processes that go right day after day, but if one of them fails, your ability to plan fails with it.

In  small business, problems flow upwards. Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” Business owners know that is part of the job. A good employee comes in and tells you that something has gone wrong. It was his responsibility and he admits that the fault was his. It doesn’t matter. As my friend Larry Linne says, it may be his fault, but it is your consequence. You can’t ignore it, and you can’t wait for someone else to work it out. As the owner, it immediately becomes your job to resolve it, or to direct someone who can.

We build processes to stop problems before they happen. We produce checklists, redundancies, quality measures and reports. When they fail, however, it is our job to fix it and prevent it from happening again. That is our core skill, the one thing that employees seldom want to assume, even though it’s the one thing we’d most like to delegate.

For many owners, that core skill becomes the one thing they have confidence in. They become addicted to the  adrenalin of firefighting. They complain about employees’ inability to see problems before they occur. They rail against the need to jump in and be the fixer, but the truth is they love it. The role of chief problem solver is their irreplaceable skill set. It is the one thing in the company that no one else can do. It’s their job security.

As with any addiction, the “user” claims he can stop any time he wishes. Owners pine for the day when they can just run the company. “I’d like to get to the point where I just think about strategic issues,” they say. “I want to spend more time on planning, more time on new markets, more time on developing people, but I’m stuck fixing day-to-day problems instead.”

Is that true, or are you addicted to being the place where the buck stops? There is a little rush that comes with beating a crisis. There is a sense of self-worth when you say “I was the only one who could have taken care of that.” If you do it often enough, you risk becoming an adrenalin junkie.

For your business to grow, someone other than you has to be able to solve problems. Are you filling that role because you have to, or simply because you can? It’s difficult to look in the mirror and admit that you are the problem. Firefighting is a necessary skill, but if it’s the main thing you bring to the table, you are the biggest enemy of your own success.

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