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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

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Chris Christie's (and Marissa Mayer's) Lessons for Small Business Owners 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
Marissa Mayer and Chris Christie both learned an important lesson last week – and it’s one which most small business owners and leaders face, too: There comes a time when the team that got you here won’t get you there (with apologies to my friend Marshall Goldsmith).
In Mayer’s case, she’s learning that bringing a cohort of trusted lieutenants from company A isn’t a valid turnaround strategy for company B (as I wrote in the Huffington Post some months back). As for Christie, he’s learning that friendships forged in high school don’t provide a strong basis for building a team capable of managing something as complex as a large state.
But what does this tell us about running a small business? Well, in my experience there are three occasions when small business founders and leaders face similar, heart-wrenching questions about the continuing effectiveness of previously trusted colleagues. Call them rites of passage, or dark nights of the soul, either way, they’re amongst the toughest times any business owner or leader will face:
1. When a co-founder has to go.
Highly effective founder teams usually comprise a Visionary leader, together with a hard-charging Operator who implements the vision. These V-O teams power the business through the highly dangerous Early Struggle phase into the much more enjoyable first-stage growth of Fun.
Occasionally, however, a founding team will also include a Processor-type (sometimes because the product or service – especially in tech startups – requires one, sometimes simply because the Processor was there from the outset). And when this happens, there usually comes a point at which the Processor needs to either step down from leadership, or leave the company entirely.
Why? Because Processors can’t really add value until the company reaches a much later stage in development (Whitewater), and beyond. At that point, Processors are vital. Before then, they slow down the young company’s growth.
This dynamic – that the risk-averse, systems and process-oriented Processor is holding back the growth of the young company – usually becomes apparent, at least intellectually, to the other founders. Sadly, that doesn’t make the needed separation any easier.
2. When big dogs stand in the way.
We’ve seen this pattern before: a previously outstanding ‘big dog’ employee resents the loss of autonomy brought on by the professionalization of the company’s management, and begins to turn maverick, sandbagging attempts to get them to play along.
As I outline in this video, letting go of those once highly valued, hard-charging Operators is an unavoidable growth pain every company faces – those big dogs, after all, have typically built up a lot of sweat equity with the founder-owner – but finding the strength to let them go is an essential step in taking your business to true scalability.
3. When the once highly valued ‘team player’ can no longer add value.
It’s often the case that in the early stages of a business, a founder-owner will keep someone on staff who seemingly has no core functional skill – they’re not skilled in sales, or production, or administration, for example – but who excels at greasing the wheels when the founder-owner needs wheels greased.
Call them capos, gofers or all-rounders, these individuals are usually found doing just whatever the boss wants them to at any given moment: getting the car washed, taking a message to Joanne in warehousing, investigating why inventories are awry, sitting in on strategic meetings – the variety and span of activities these insiders undertake can often be bewildering to others and can make a nonsense of what’s laid out on an org chart.
Usually, they’re there for one reason: loyalty. The founder-owner can trust them to do precisely what they’re asked, promptly and without complaint (often they are family members, strengthening the implicit bond of trust). And, during the initial growth of a small organization, their value can be seen by most people. Once the business gets to any size, however, the irrationality and sheer incongruity of their position becomes an irritation to others, and those who expect the rewards of a meritocracy can become particularly irked at what, to them, seems like outright favoritism on the part of the founder-owner (think Fredo in The Godfather), and eventually, if the business is to grow, the much-cherished ‘gofer’ must be let go.
Recognize any of these situations? If so, be proactive – don’t, like Marissa Mayer or Chris Christie, wait until change is forced upon you.


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