Letting Go to Grow: Why Delegating “Ownership” Matters

I accepted my first and only full-time engineering job at Schick with a few months left in my last semester of college. I had done a nine-month internship at the company. But the main reason that I decided to go back without even interviewing anywhere else had nothing to do with my previous experience there. It was my new boss. The department that he ran didn’t exist when I had interned there. He was young, energetic, and extraordinarily intelligent. We hit it off when I visited for interviews. He seemed like the perfect person to start my career working with, and I was even more right than I could possibly realize at the time.

However, as the months passed and my start date approached, I became increasingly nervous about my decision. We had kept in touch with regular phone calls, and each time I learned a little bit more about my job. The details scared me. I was going to own this process and that process, I was going to have to improve this metric by 10% and that one by 20%. Really? As a 22 year old engineer? Turns out he is a six sigma black belt. He measures everything. This was going to be really hard. What had I gotten myself into?

Once I got settled in, I started to see the method of his madness, and it was brilliant. He was responsible for roughly ten important business processes within the organization. As his first hire, he had delegated three or four of those to me. He talked a lot about “ownership”. Those were my processes. I had metrics to improve. He would train me initially and advise me as time went on, but I could run those systems however I saw fit, so long as I got results.

At the same time, I was reading business books at a rapid pace in an attempt to develop the necessary skill set to one day venture out on my own. One such book was The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber. The overarching theme of the book is that you should “work on your business rather than in it”, meaning that as a business owner you shouldn’t be spending time doing the routine day-to-day tasks that an employee can do, you should be delegating those tasks and instead focusing on everything entailed in growing your business. If you don’t, you won’t grow.

Fast forward a few years to the beginning of Pure Adapt. Everyone had their hands in everything, because they could. We all were involved in design, programming, marketing, customer service, accounting, packing and shipping, and anything and everything else that came our way. When that was no longer possible, as is the case with every growing business, we had some decisions to make. Everyone struggles with letting go and delegating, but I’ve seen several good business owners who just cannot make the transition. They have to have their hands in everything, and eventually that’s what ends up capping their growth more than anything. We didn’t want to be like that.

Armed with ideas from my work experience, books like the E-Myth, and my partners knowledge and experience, we crafted the organizational strategy that allowed us to grow from zero employees to nine employees today, and from not being able to pay ourselves to making the Inc 5000 twice. Maybe most importantly, we were able to do so without overworking anyone and without our internal structure limiting our growth.

The main rule is that every single employee and owner, even part-time employees, is accountable for multiple systems/processes/tasks. Everyone has “ownership” over some aspect of the business. For a part-time employee, it might be as simple as keeping the shelves restocked. Full-time employees and owners have things like programming, customer service, and accounting.

This accomplishes a few key things. First, it forces us to truly delegate control. Second, it empowers employees to make their own decisions. Third, that sense of ownership extends to a greater sense of ownership within the business. Everyone is a big part of the team, whether they’ve been with us for a decade or a few weeks. Doing meaningful work has a huge impact on job satisfaction, and it’s probably one of the most critical components of our company culture.

As owners, we’re able to spend more time working “on” the business, we’re able to still find large chunks of time to do productive work (especially important for me as a programmer), and we’re able to live a healthy, balanced lifestyle while we continue to grow.

Relinquishing control is very hard to do. It’s also almost always a prerequisite for growth. It might be painful it first – I know it sure was for us – but it can be done in a way where everyone wins.

4 comments on Letting Go to Grow: Why Delegating “Ownership” Matters

  1. Tim says:

    Great post Adam, I mean REALLY great!

  2. Peter says:

    Hi Adam,

    Awesome post. But what are your processes when said employee doesn’t own up to their tasks? I run into situations where employee will forget or not follow the proper procedures. I have pointed out the mistake to them but it still happens, it’s not serious enough for us to let them go, but more of an annoyance for us when things are told yet same errors will keep happening.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      This is a REALLY good question Peter, one that we’ve struggled with quite a bit. A few things that have helped us recently:

      The hardest part for me/us was realizing that your employees aren’t you, meaning they won’t always do things exactly the way you would, both because they’re different people who think differently, and because they can’t possibly care about your business as much as you do. There’s always going to be some dropoff when an employee does a task that you’ve perfected, I think the best you can hope for is that they’ll do it 80% – 90% as good.

      With that said, we’ve tried to ask ourselves “is this something that really matters?” Does it reduce efficiency, increase customer errors, create a business liability for us, etc etc, or is it an annoyance that, while sub-optimal, doesn’t really impact anything important? If it’s the latter, we try to take a deep breath and move one to more pressing matters 🙂

      If it is something that matters, and it’s been a repeated issue, we’ve done a few things that have worked. You can try sitting down with them face to face privately and explain why it’s so important to the business that the mistake stops happening. We always try to ask if they have any ideas to help prevent it from happening. Sometimes employees see things you don’t. This puts the onus on them to at least think through the problem a bit. We try to do these meetings at a calm time, so not when we’re in the middle of a hectic day and people might be stressed.

      We document this (and any interaction like it) in their employee files, which we review with them at their yearly review.

      If that doesn’t work, we’ll consider formally “punishing” them if it doesn’t improve. For instance, if they don’t improve in the next 3/6/9 months they won’t get a raise. We’ve also had success at review time withholding a raise and instead offering the raise as a bonus in a few months if they improve. Nothing quite speaks like hitting someone in the wallet. It’s not the first step I like to take, but it does usually work for good employees who just need a bit of a wakeup call.

      – Adam

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