Playing Office


I once worked with a brand-new start-up with investors anxious to start expanding. However, the president was regularly wandering off in the weeds getting the accounting set up, state registrations completed, and post office boxes set up.  I agreed that those items are necessary, but the problem was that he kept insisting he do the tasks himself. Unfortunately, despite several interventions from shareholders and other influencers, no one was able to focus the president appropriately, and the venture fell apart in a matter of months.

I call it “playing office” and I have a couple of theories of why it happens. The minutia is finite, definable, and controllable. I set up the chart of accounts in the accounting system. It has a discrete beginning and end. I have accomplished a task. Compare that to making sales calls and meeting with people about strategic partnerships. Not a discrete task. No clear beginning and end. That work is diffuse and messy and hard to define when it has been successful. But which do you think grows the business?

I think the second reason it occurs is fear of giving up control. What if the sales tax permit is not filed? What if the bank balance is incorrect? How can I possibly control these items if I am not standing in the middle of them? Certainly unfortunate things can happen if the minutia is not tended too. However, much worse things happen if the business isn’t selling anything.

So your survival depends on your ability to delegate the tasks to someone you trust and who is competent. Note both conditions– someone you trust who has never done any of the minutia work before will eventually figure it out, but may be slow and may make some big mistakes along the way. And obviously, a competent person you don’t feel comfortable with defeats the purpose as well. (They may not be untrustworthy- you just don’t have the comfort level with them to delegate effectively.)

Personally, I think the biggest element to judging both trustworthiness and competence is communication. Request a weekly update of progress and issues from the person you delegate to. Limit it to half a page, as you don’t want the preparation of the update to be a week’s work in itself. These updates can be delivered face to face, but I am a big fan of the well-thought email and a follow-up discussion. The email provides great documentation and can be referred to if either party forgets the discussion. If the updates don’t come without prompting, or you don’t think you get reasonable answers to your questions, that person is probably not who you should be delegating to. Delegate to someone else– don’t give up on delegating.

The reality is, if you want the business to grow beyond yourself (meaning you are looking for annual revenues over $200,000 or so) you are going to need help. Whether it is in the area of accounting or other business operations, you cannot do it all yourself and you are hurting your business and yourself when you try. Recognize your skill set and focus on it. Delegate the other tasks to people who can help you. Don’t play office. Play CEO of a multi-million dollar company and you are much more likely to become one.