If you are a business owner, here is a little test: If you had a personal disaster or otherwise had to become "hands off," could your business survive? To find out, send the following note to your most trusted second-in-command without further explanation: You are in charge of things until I return. I have to deal with some personal stuff and will be unavailable for any further communications. See you in six to 12 months."
No worries, right? The business will be in great shape when you return, correct? The team will have:
- Moved the strategy forward
- Grown the business and its revenues according to, or ahead, of plan
- Stayed highly profitable
- Acquired new clients and served existing clients well
- Hired new talent that fit the company culture and thrived
- Handled any small disasters
- Seamlessly taken over the role of the owner
Okay, maybe not.
The Real World Is Calling
In my experience over the last 15 years as a business owner and consultant, I can attest to how most small and even many mid-sized businesses would fail this test miserably. We get focused on the business and growing it and never really consider the impact of a key loss. Add to that the fact that the failure rate in business is very high; up to 80 percent of businesses are shut down in the first five years, according to some sources.
What's more, once small businesses get past their start-up mode and are relatively successful, a surprising number of business crises and failures are actually caused by the impact from personal problems of key people.
In one case I know of, two partners were running a successful technology company. Then one divorced and the ex-wife moved to another city with the kids.The divorced husband/partner subsequently left himself and moved to be with the kids. And the business? It slowly deteriorated, then failed.
In another case, one partner developed cancer, and the other is struggling to keep things going for both.
And those are just the cases I know of where the business partners trust each other. Going solo has an even smaller margin of safety.
So the lesson here is, once you get out of start-up mode and start generating some real revenue, profits and equity in the business, you need to start thinking about things that could derail your investment. Here are the five things you should be working on, even in good times and especially if things are heading south.
1. Devise a system for working on the business.
Understand what working on the business means, and put a system in place to actually do it. Building the business should be considered your primary role, as the owner. Identify the key areas that need to be worked on and decide who will be working on it. Schedule up to an hour per week per key component and get together with the team to solve it. Eventually, the team will be able to keep most of it going.
It's amazing what you can accomplish by relentlessly focusing on an issue for a small amount of time per week.
2. Develop your leaders.
If building your business is your top role, selecting and developing your leaders is the most important part of that role. Make sure the people you choose are aligned with your company culture and core values. Then train, mentor and progressively delegate business outcomes or results to them.
The biggest challenge you face here is actually you. You have to develop your leadership skills to be able to create a high-performing team. But you don’t have to do it all. That is what a great team will allow: the ability to step back.
3. Work on the business.
Now that you have a system for working on the business, and you are developing your leaders, you can focus on understanding and improving your business processes and systems. How much is required will depend on the stage of your business, its complexity and the type of industry you are in. The key is implementing just enough process without stifling innovation or responsiveness.
4. Identify key dependencies.
Your key people are those who are the only ones who can perform a critical role, or they are so good at what they do that no one else can perform to their level. The owner is usually one such person, but often there are others, including top salespeople, a talented engineer, etc.
5. Create a risk-management plan.
Now that you understand where your business is at risk, you can put contingency plans in place. These plans might include cross-training and mentoring others to perform those roles or lining up temporary replacements you can draw on in short notice. It would also include documenting and discussing the contingency plans with your leadership team.
Most of us know we should be doing this stuff, but for many reasons don’t. So, be the exception. While someday you may be really happy you did this work while you could -- now -- the extra added bonus is that it makes your business better today.