Most entrepreneurs struggle with Founder Syndrome. In the early days, start-ups tend to work as informal networks. The founding team makes most — if not all — decisions. Often late at night. Sometimes over pizza.
But as companies move beyond product-market fit, this model quickly becomes stifling. The team grows, but the structure and culture doesn’t keep up. Decision-making bottlenecks start to hold back growth. Skill gaps and blind spots open up.
As entrepreneurs, we know we can’t do it all. But we like to think of ourselves as hustlers, rainmakers, world-changers. ‘Manager’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The word conjures up images of bad suits, pen-pushing, boring meetings, text-heavy powerpoints and awkward team-bonding exercises. Hardly the stuff of transformation!
But management matters. Particularly if you want to grow your business into something bigger than yourself. And management doesn’t have to be mundane.
We started the African Management Initiative (AMI) because we believe good management can change the world — and that management can be exciting. For early-stage companies, this transition often starts by simply understanding that your role as the entrepreneur has changed. As soon as you employ just one other person, you are no longer simply an entrepreneur. You are a leader and manager.
So how can entrepreneurs make this transition effectively? In this blog, I’ll talk about why you can’t do it all, and share some suggestions for how to make sure you don’t. And then I’ll share a framework we’ve found useful both internally and with our clients. I’ll try to throw in some practical examples along the way.
The first thing to note is that good leaders don’t do it all themselves. It’s an obvious point, but one that still confounds many talented entrepreneurs and leaders. We absolutely must learn the difficult lesson that our success depends on the successful work of other people. So other people are our job, rather than being distractions from our job.
For hustlers, this is tough. We are naturally drawn to problem solving. But eventually, we need to learn NOT to immediately jump in and try to solve a problem. When we work with organizations, many of our learning programmes feature the ‘Who’s Got The Monkey’ game, a fun and memorable exercise inspired by one of the most popular articles ever published in the Harvard Business Review and designed to help managers equip and empower their direct reports, instead of disempowering them by simply fixing all their problems. A senior manager at a social enterprise in Nairobi recently told us how this game, which she participated in during one of our Leadership Development Programmes, triggered a lightbulb moment that has transformed her management style. Instead of being the go-to ‘fix-it’ person for her team, she now gently throws back the problem, while ensuring she’s there to offer support and guidance. All it took was a few simple questions:
‘What do YOU think we should do?’
‘When you brainstormed solutions, what did you come up with?’
‘Shall we start by brainstorming some solutions together? You start’
‘What can I do to help you solve this?’
Try it. It’s a simple shift, but it makes a huge difference. You will feel more in control of your time, while your team will feel empowered, they’ll feel like you trust them, and they’ll take pride in their work. Eventually, you’ll notice they start solving problems before you even hear about them.
The second point: hire the right people to do what you can’t. Nelson Mandela got it right. When Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he knew he needed to focus his own energies and efforts on describing a vision for the country that all South Africans could enthusiastically support. But he rarely chaired a cabinet meeting, leaving that management role to his two deputy presidents. ! He had the maturity to draw on their strengths in managing the country, while freeing himself up to exercise his own gifts for leading. Effective leaders — and that includes entrepreneurs — need to ensure that all roles are fulfilled and the job gets done. That doesn’t necessarily mean doing the job ourselves.
I personally made this mistake early on in AMI’s journey. We had limited resources, so I focused our hiring budget almost exclusively on technical expertise, and found some fantastically talented colleagues. But I tried to handle too much of the commercial side of the business myself. It’s only recently I’ve realised how badly we need a director of marketing (shameless plug — we’re hiring!). Often as founders, we under-hire in areas where we feel most comfortable. But then we don’t have the time to properly deliver.
Finally, at AMI, we use a simple model called ‘Head, Hands and Heart’ to guide our own culture of leadership and management and to help our clients think about theirs. It’s a useful checklist of questions for entrepreneurs who want to lead, and manage, well, provided by the three elements of head, heart and hands.
So, management matters, and it doesn’t have to be dull. Get it right, and it can be transformational, for your business, and your team. It can also be fun.
Get in touch if you’d like to talk more about managing your organisation, or developing your own managers, leaders or staff. For more thoughts on management, leadership, entrepreneurship, talent and workplace learning, follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter and check out the website.
Rebecca Harrison is co-founder and CEO of AMI, which empowers African organisations and individuals through practical and affordable workplace learning.