University of Arkansas

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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Confessions of an Entrepreneur: Starting as a Control Freak but Eventually Loosening the Reins

Control Freak

October 16, 2019 | By Mark Zweig

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Many entrepreneurs start their new ventures because they aren’t happy with the offerings of current providers and think they can do something better than “the other guy (or girl).” This need to do something better can lead them to become control freaks.

This obsessive attention to detail can often result in early success. Clients and customers can always recognize when a business is led by someone who really cares, even if they cannot put their finger on exactly why it seems better. It just is.

The facilities are cleaner. Problems or complaints are listened to and quickly acted on. The employees look better and seem happier. The product may be packaged more attractively. Questions or inquiries are responded to immediately. The graphic image and branding are more attractive and authentic. The website is well laid out and easier to navigate. The business has a positive energy. To outsiders and insiders, both, it seems to be running smoothly on all eight cylinders.

But inevitably, if everything goes well because of all this hard work and attention to detail, at some point the whole thing grows beyond the founder’s available time and ability to be personally involved in everything—precisely what led to their success in the first place. Then a shift has to occur.

This shift is not easy to make. How can you give up what made you successful? There’s only one answer. You have to impart these same values and sense of caring in every single employee. Then you have to back off so they learn if they don’t do something that needs to be done, you as the founder won’t step back in to do it yourself. Here are some ideas on how to do these things:

  1. Talk a lot to your people so they understand WHY certain things are important. You need to spend time with your most important people explaining what your thinking is and how you’ve gotten to where you are.
  2. Share the victories and problems with your people. Whether it is through company-wide meetings or conference calls, or firm-wide emails to all, you must build up the people who are doing the right things and doing things right. Make them the “heroes of the day.” But be sure to share the stories of where things went wrong and get employee input on what should have happened and how to avoid those things in the future.
  3. Promote and reward the people who are doing what you want. One simple definition of corporate culture is that it’s all about “what behaviors are rewarded and what behaviors are punished.” You have to be sure the real performers are the ones who are getting ahead. And these are not necessarily the people you like best!
  4. Share performance metrics. Cash and accrual profits and losses, web hits, client inquiry data, sales information, client satisfaction scores—this information and potentially much more should be shared with all employees so there is no doubt if you are doing well or poorly. Everyone needs to feel good or feel the pain, whichever is appropriate based on the metrics coming in.
  5. Share the rewards of your success. I am a huge fan of paying out profits to all employees on either a monthly or quarterly basis. Annually is not frequent enough for many reasons. If someone is there and contributing, they should benefit from the firm’s success. If they are there and not contributing, they need to either be quickly reformed or let go.
  6. Direct your attention to hiring and getting people in the right positions. This is one of your top responsibilities—getting more good people to throw in with you and join your team. You cannot delegate this function until you are a significant enterprise, and even then, shouldn’t give it up entirely. It’s just too important.
  7. Move out the people who don’t embrace your values and the organization’s culture. They can’t be reformed. Why let them be on the team and be a cancer? Best for them and you to clear the seat for someone else who does buy in to what you are trying to do.
  8. Spend more time on “what’s next” for the business to keep it competitive and growing. Looking ahead—if you aren’t doing it, who will be? So many founders get so caught up in the day-to-day that they pay little or no attention to coming up with new stuff. New products, new services, new processes—all based on an intimate knowledge of what the company’s clients and customers want and need and how everything works inside the business.

Let’s face it. What got you there yesterday may not be what it takes to be successful today. You have to find a way to multiply yourself if you want to keep growing. And you have to keep growing if you want to provide continuing opportunities for your people. And you must also develop a strong second tier if you ever want to get out and harvest the rewards for all this hard work—one of the core tenants of entrepreneurship.

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Mark ZweigMark Zweig – a leading expert in management and business for the architecture, engineering, planning, and environmental industry – is president of Mark Zweig, Inc., which has been named to the Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest-growing privately-held companies; chairman and founder of Zweig Group – named to the Inc. list three times – and entrepreneur-in-residence teaching entrepreneurship at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas.