Jon Greenwood is the CEO and Co-Founder of GBK Collective, a leading marketing strategy, consumer behavior and analytics consultancy.
I realize upon first glance at the title, you may be thinking: “What on earth is this guy talking about? As an entrepreneur, you need to have control of your business.”
Well, you’re right, to an extent. But as your business expands, giving up control is actually one of the best things you can do for a company.
This was one of the biggest lessons of my journey as a first-time co-founder and CEO. As leaders, we have to wear many different hats, but ultimately, success isn’t defined by the sheer magnitude of what you’re able to accomplish in a day. It comes down to how well you can balance priorities, stay nimble and empower the people around you to do great work.
When I co-founded GBK Collective, a leading marketing and analytics consultancy, I was eager and hungry to do anything and everything to drive the firm’s success. In the early days, I served in multiple executive roles. I was the de facto CEO, CFO, chief marketing officer, director of operations and janitor.
If you’re a founder, you may be thinking that it’s impossible to let go of control. I completely understand. It’s hard to think anyone else can do what you do.
But here’s the rub: If you don’t let go of control, trusting others to fill in where you once thrived, you will hold your company back from further growth. Perhaps you’ll even lose the growth you’ve already gained.
I want to share a few observations I made while moving from the do-it-all founder to the effective CEO of a growing business. My hope is that my observations can help other founders let go of total responsibility and flourish as mature executives.
Winning as a founder starts when you know your own strengths and weaknesses, then empower others to pick up where you left off.
Founders tend to be smart, tenacious and motivated. They don’t usually pause to assess themselves, but I’d argue that self-assessment is absolutely necessary. Each founder must recognize their true value to the firm.
It may be helpful to think in terms of the Pareto principle: What’s the 20% of the work you do that will bring 80% of the results to your company?
Amid GBK’s growth, I slowed down to think about what long-term role I wanted to play for the firm. Yes, I’m the CEO, but would I be the primary decision-maker in marketing? Was I going to be in charge of how our website looked? Should I continue to run our finances? I couldn’t do all of these things myself, so I wanted to figure out how my strengths could best serve the company.
My advice to founders looking to take the next step: Know your unique value to the company. Never let your ego — your willingness, drive and ability to do it all — hold the firm back from growth.
Timing Is Everything
Taking on as many tasks as possible is what’s best for the company … until it isn’t.
One day, every successful founder will have to invest in new talent. Only the founder will know when the time is right; it’s their responsibility to acknowledge the need and act quickly.
Investing in new talent is like watching the water rise against the wall of a dam. You have to invest in talent when the proverbial water — your responsibilities with clients and opportunity — is climbing close to the top of the wall rather than after the dam has already burst.
Knowing when it’s time to let go and acting on that instinct are two different things. Founders must have the emotional discipline to know when they must let go of control, then quickly act by hiring new talent. Timing is everything. Don’t let the dam burst.
Hire Talent With Overlapping Skill Sets
Everyone talks about complementary skill sets, but I argue that it’s more critical to hire people with overlapping skill sets. For example, say you’re an expert in marketing or product strategy. There is always a key hire your company can make that extends your expertise even further in that area.
Hiring overlapping talent also means that you can use your strengths to contribute to the success of your business in other ways. Rather than looking to become the most senior subject matter expert, your goal as a CEO is to constantly adapt to focus on critical priority areas for the business. I never shied away from bolstering the firm’s talent in areas where I already had strong capabilities because I knew that it would be better for the company.
Build Partnerships With Well-Defined Responsibilities
My partners and I have formed a relationship that works because each of us knows our core responsibilities. We have a data analytics leader, a marketing strategy leader and a business leader. We each consult across our firm’s core competencies, but we own our primary area of responsibility. This allows us to be both thorough and efficient.
Every founder should ensure that their partnerships are well-defined and each partner’s role is clearly stated. Honest conversations are at the center of the best working relationships.
To any founder who is struggling with giving up control amid growth, I feel your pain. I’ve been where you are. Reinventing your role and responsibilities is actually when you learn the most. In addition to knowing your own value, have the conviction to hire great talent and seek out new partnerships. You may feel the pain of letting go of control, but you’ll be glad you did as you watch your company grow.
One last thing: Now is not the time to be penny wise and pound foolish. In many ways, the pandemic reinforced the importance of prioritizing the right areas. Rather than investing in a fancy office space, invest in your team and its development. Hire stand-out employees and invite them to help co-create the future of your business, because ultimately, it’s not about you.