How small business owners learned the art of delegation

In this piece, we talk to businesses about how they took on staff and reduced the pressure on themselves through delegation.

The situation of a single business owner taking on too much work is all too common.

When you start a company, necessity usually dictates that you are in charge of everything, from product development to marketing to managing (and balancing) the books; all too often, your financial position allows you no options for getting help on board.

At this stage, delegation seems not to be an option.

But for those company owners that are able to increase business to the extent that they can afford to take on help, any initial cost of overhead will surely be negated by the improvements to your own health and state of mind – not to mention increased turnover that extra staff can generate.

Jeremy Stern, founder of marketing company PromoVeritas, was one such company owner who took it all on, ‘from selling to clients, to writing the proposals to delivering the work’.

But he says that real growth only occurred when he took the decision to really invest in quality people and a real structure.

He began to recruit, employing a sales team of seven and eight project managers, plus two legal and finance staff, and delegation followed.

He says, ‘I have had to step back from wanting to know everything about every customer (over 200) to just being involved in the scoping of major projects, and the occasional client call just to check in.’

This development of staff was taken a stage further 18 months ago when Stern created two heads of department, for sales and operations. ‘Both are highly capable individuals, with over five years’ experience at PromoVeritas and I now let them take on most of the day-to-day running of the business, only referring to me when there is a problem or situation. It has worked well.’

The heads have had the freedom to organise their own seating plan, to recruit their own new staff (although Stern does have a say) and to work according to their own plans.

However, Stern has not given over total control. ‘Company targets are agreed between the three of us, and I am still responsible for key areas such as finance and service development,’ he adds.

‘This has taken a lot of the pressure off me and has resulted in highly motivated individuals that I trust to do the right thing and to grow the company for our mutual benefit.’

Finding the right person for delegation

Sandra Lewis, founder of virtual assistant company Worldwide 101, has a motto that every small business owner must engage in delegation to grow their business and thrive; but finding the right trustworthy person you can delegate to can be challenging at best.

‘I have found that people who like to ‘implement’ and be the subject of delegation, no matter what their position, whether that is a professional, a contractor, a virtual assistant, are individuals who deeply care about service,’ Lewis says.

‘While of course skills are important, my experience is that people with an innate desire to make a difference in someone’s day will be more committed to making things work and doing the grind work that is so required for any business to move forward.’

When cost savings are the be-all and end-all, business owners delegate only what they can’t manage themselves to save on costs. Saj Devshi at Loopa.co.uk says, ‘When it comes to design, marketing and anything where there needs a specialist input that I don’t have time myself to learn.

This work only ever goes to freelancers currently as I can’t afford to take on a regular staff member just yet.’

The only people Devshi tends to trust for input is close family. ‘At this stage when you’re a small business the last thing you want is someone knowing enough about your business to go and start their own from it,’ he says.

When Laurence J. Ridge of Splitter HQ first started out with his business partner, Ridge instantly took on the accounts and sales while his partner took on marketing.

‘After around two months I devolved a few more things to my business partner such as lead generation and bookkeeping. I guess what made it easy for me was my business partner was my best friend, so I knew strengths and weaknesses and we worked with that,’ he adds.

Since Ridge delegated those jobs, he has been able to focus on sales. ‘We have a nice flowing system. Going into the future we hope to hire a team of sales reps then that will allow myself to generate the leads without it being costly,’ he says.

Getting the right first hire

The first hire will be the source of your delegation and, with such a small team, their aptitude will be critical to your success. Michelle Wright,  founder and CEO of Cause4 feels the essential skill to look for in a first hire is someone that can free you up from the tasks that take you away from growing the business.

‘Our first hire was a combination of talents; a would-be entrepreneur himself with the ability to work hard and turn his hand to anything. He was able to take on a range of tasks and develop his skills quickly. I was lucky. Every hire I’ve made since then hasn’t been as smooth,’ she says.

She advises to recruit for attitude, not skills. ‘This one is perhaps a cliché but as we grew we tried to fit roles to people rather than people to roles. I believe that it’s absolutely true that if you have the right talent you can adapt the role to suit and it will pay off much better than trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.’

Also, aim for a trial period. ‘Small businesses often have strong cultures, so wherever we can and at whatever level, we ask people if they are willing to undertake a paid trial period so that we can assess fit on both sides. A couple of weeks on trial can mitigate much of the risk of taking on the wrong employee for a permanent role.’

Finally, hire those that understand small business. ‘Potential employees who are used to big business culture are most likely to be used to following a set of rules and will often find it hard to adapt to the changing nature of a fast-growing start-up.

‘We’ve found that a great employee can often be the son or daughter of an entrepreneur. Having grown up in an entrepreneurial culture, they have their eyes fully open to the rollercoaster that is start-up life.’

Further reading on employing staff

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