In any business, a competent employee is a treasure. Smaller enterprises may not have the layers of responsibility and management to offer a well-defined career path, but they often make up for it with the opportunity for an ambitious person to rise quickly through the ranks.
Owners get a thrill from the discovery of an employee who knows how to think. There is a too-rare excitement when we find a problem that has been fixed before we knew it was a problem. We get a charge from being presented with a choice between solutions, instead of merely “What do you want us to do?” questions.
Our reaction to such talent is usually to give that person more responsibility. As entrepreneurs, we frequently built a business around our ability to make decisions and solve problems. Finding similar talent in an employee is like discovering much needed cash in an old pair of pants, and we want to put it to good use as quickly as possible.
The key to utilizing such talent is delegation, a skill that many owners haven’t had much chance to develop. Instead, they abdicate. It’s easy to take someone at their word, especially if he or she has established a track record of success. “Don’t worry, I’ve got that handled” is a thrilling statement to hear in a world where everything else winds up on your desk.
It can be hard to monitor employees who are justifiably proud of their responsibilities . They have carved out an area that belongs to them, even though the whole company belongs to you. You don’t want to discourage their initiative, and a large part of their psychological reward is the recognition that comes with trusting their judgment. Rather than demand details, we begin to accept “I’ve got it” as a guarantee that the situation is being handled.
What if it isn’t? Ronald Reagan’s oft-quoted “Trust…but verify” applies here. No one has infinitely expandable skill sets. The same ambition that makes an employee a valuable asset almost always causes them to eventually overreach. Left entirely alone, it isn’t a question of if they will get in over their heads, it’s only a matter of when. The initiative that began as a pleasant surprise when applied to smaller issues can be disastrous when decoupled from the experience needed to solve larger problems.
Abdicating any area to a competent employee without checks and balances is a recipe for eventual disaster. Keeping excellent financial records doesn’t necessarily include the skill set for tax planning. Maintaining a high inventory fill rate doesn’t necessarily include the ability to analyze slowing or obsolete items. Selling at an acceptable gross margin is great, but may be missing large potential customers who need special pricing.
I’ve seen each of these small issues grow unnoticed until they were big problems. In every case, the owner considered that area of the business well-run, and left it in the hands of an able employee whose intentions were good, but whose skill set was lacking a bigger perspective.
We tend to spend most of our time with the employees who need direction and management. Those who can accomplish things without us need just as much of our time. It’s an investment that is easy to ignore until it’s too late.