From the CEO: Why and How I Spent Most of 2021 Making Myself Obsolete

From the CEO: Why and How I Spent Most of 2021 Making Myself Obsolete

Hi, I’m Nora, the CEO of Growth Machine. This might sound like an unconventional leadership strategy, but my #1 goal for 2021 has been making myself obsolete.

You might be wondering why I would ever do such a thing. Aren’t CEOs supposed to be the beating heart of their organization? In my humble opinion, no - and here’s why.

First, we hire the best people we can find, and I strongly believe in getting out of their way and letting them be the experts at the jobs we hired them to be experts in. There is no sense in investing so much in hiring and training, only to treat people like robots whose only job is to follow instructions.

Second, because when the operations and — let’s face it, success — of an organization rests on one person’s shoulders, that creates a bottleneck not only in day-to-day operations, but also in overall growth. Put another way: if the CEO is focused on today, who is focused on tomorrow?

Third, it’s simply not healthy for the CEO who will become overwhelmed, make poor and rushed decisions, and eventually burn out. When the CEO is not in good shape, the organization won’t be either.

These are just a few of the many important reasons that I believe in making myself (relatively) obsolete as a leader. If you agree, read on for my process of why, when, and how to get yourself out of the way, to allow the company to thrive.

Why Should a CEO Make Themself Obsolete?

First, I need to clarify what I mean by obsolete. Once they have hired a full team, the CEO has an obligation to step back. I don’t mean disappear, go off the grid, or generally opt out of supporting your team. I just mean let the people you hired do what they were hired to do with minimal interference and micromanagement.

Allowing yourself to become obsolete requires a major mental and operational pivot that may feel irresponsible or, at least, uncomfortable to the leader, who may be used to wearing many hats, and DIYing all or almost all of the jobs that make the company run smoothly.

This level of involvement is essential in the early stages of a company’s growth. But as the company grows, it is tempting for the CEO (or founder, or other senior leader) to remain intimately involved in small details of the day-to-day operations, especially when the CEO has the most experience with a process.

As the business grows, so do the scope and complexity of the needs, the decisions, and challenges, and the overall human effort needed to run it. For one person to shoulder the burden of all these decisions and responsibilities of a growing organization is … not a good idea. The CEO has to recognize the point at which that level of involvement becomes a hindrance, and it’s time for them to take a step back from daily operational involvement and delegate these duties to their team.

In addition to taking the burden off of the CEO, redundancy and delegation is crucial for healthy, sustainable company growth. Without making sure that daily decision-making and the company’s institutional knowledge are distributed across the organization, everything has to go through the CEO, which inevitably throttles sustainable, consistent growth.

It’s also not healthy or realistic for a leader to successfully juggle all of the major decisions, needs, deadlines, and so on, particularly as the company grows. That’s a waste of their energy, a waste of the rest of the team’s time and skills, and a misallocation of the CEO’s time. Instead, a CEO should pivot at this point to focusing on the bigger picture of the company, identifying growth opportunities, solving problems and inefficiencies, and focusing on new product or service opportunities.

Finally, I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it’s the CEO’s responsibility to make sure the company can survive without them in case — and this is one of my favorite sayings (ask anyone at Growth Machine!) — you get hit by a bus. Seriously though, if you ever want to take a real vacation, take parental leave, or have a sick day, your company needs to be able to function without you. Even if you’re not actually flattened by a city bus.

When to Make Yourself Obsolete?

This one is a little trickier, since it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Generally, the time to take a step back and start working on making yourself obsolete is going to be the point at which you have hired enough staff to cover all the day-to-day decisions, operations, and management responsibilities that you once handled.

So, in practical terms, here’s what that means: when I first started at Growth Machine, I managed client onboarding, project management, writer management, editing, and publishing. Then we brought on Heather, who took over all of the writers, editing, and publishing. Eventually we started hiring other project managers and we finally hit a point earlier this year where we had enough people to take over all of the client-facing, day-to-day deadlines and responsibilities.

With those time-sensitive responsibilities handled, I was confident that it was time to step back and let the team do their jobs.

How to Make Yourself Obsolete?

Although there is no one-size-fits all solution, there are several steps you need to take in order to set your team up for success as you take a step back from daily company operations. This is in rough order of priority, but your process might differ based on your timeline and goals. Here are the most important steps to take to make sure you can leave your company in a strong position while you refocus your attention on the bigger company picture.

Hire a Stellar Team

None of this is possible if you don’t have total confidence in your team. Making sure you are hiring the right people, training them to work autonomously from you, and giving them the trust and confidence they need to do their jobs well, are the critical first steps toward removing yourself from the day-to-day operations of your company.

Be Honest With Yourself

It’s easy to justify all the ways you may be inserting yourself into daily company operations. But in order to start delegating these responsibilities, the first thing you need to do is sit down and make a full list of all the ways these operations rely on you.

Do project managers report to you? Do editors need to clear it with you before increasing writer pay? These are the kinds of duties that you need to see clearly, so you can successfully reassign to another member of your competent team, and focus your energy on bigger-picture responsibilities.

Make an Org Chart

It’s nearly impossible to successfully step back from the daily operations of your organization if the people who you’re stepping back from don’t have a clear picture of what they are supposed to be doing.

The purpose of an org chart, for me, is to make sure each employee has a discrete set of responsibilities, it’s clear where one person’s duties end and the next person’s begin, and every employee reports to one manager. (You’d be surprised by how often in small, young companies the reporting structures get muddled and employees don’t know who to go to for support. So they go to the CEO.)

Once you have clarified each employee’s role, responsibilities, and reporting structure, make sure you are communicating it clearly to your team!

Delegate

By now, you should have a clear picture of your awesome team, the scope of their respective duties, and the duties you need to get off of your plate. All you have to do is connect the dots to reassign tasks to the person whose role is the best fit for them!

Don’t discount the value of delegating to contractors, too. For example, I realized early on in my tenure as CEO that financial planning is not my strong suit and not something I am very  interested in. So we hired a part-time controller/CFO who does an incredible job keeping our books organized, forecasting, and tracking our overall financial picture. Given how much time and headache it saves me, delegating to a contractor is well worth the small additional payroll cost.

Promote

It’s especially difficult to extract yourself from the minutiae of daily operations if you have too many people on the ground reporting directly to you. While I am a fan of flatter organizations, and agree that bureaucracy just plain sucks, it is helpful to have at least one degree of managerial separation between you and most of your employees, so that someone besides you can help answer questions and solve problems. At Growth Machine, that looks like:

  • The editors report to our VP of Editorial, Heather, who reports to me.
  • The project managers report to our Senior PM, Paulina, who reports to me.

For our company, one degree of separation has worked well, since I am still close enough to the daily operations to hear when problems arise, but far enough away that many of these problems get solved before I have to get involved, which allows me the time to … well, write blog posts about it.

By the way, if you’re struggling to figure out how to delegate some of your tasks, this may be an indication that it’s time to promote someone into a new management position!

Automate

Some of the tasks you want to delegate may be better suited for software than a person to take over.

Automation software like Zapier is a reliable and inexpensive way to take repetitive manual tasks off of everyone’s plate, not just the CEO’s, and save a ton of time. We use Zapier as much as possible to create documents, Asana tasks, Google Drive folders, and more. For a long time I was doing some of this manually; now all I have to do is create a Zap once and the task is taken care of as many times as needed, without any effort from me.

Similarly, we prioritize tools that have built-in automation features that save all of us time. Before we switched accounting software, all invoices and follow-ups each month had to be created, sent, and tracked manually. You can imagine how much work that generated for our Operations Manager, Morgan, and me.

Since switching to Quickbooks, we only have to set up an invoice once for each client and it will automatically be sent each month. Quickbooks also sends a series of up to three reminder emails before and after the due date if the invoice is unpaid. As you can imagine, that saves us a lot of time!

SOP

Creating and documenting SOPs (SOP = Standard Operating Procedures) has always been a really high priority at Growth Machine. It ensures that things run smoothly even if the person who normally does a task is not available for any reason. Creating SOPs is simple: either write down the process, step by step, with screenshots where they are helpful, or record a screenshare of yourself talking through the process. We keep all of our SOPs in Notion, which anyone in the company can access anytime.

This way, no one — including me — who is an expert in a process is required to be available if someone else needs to learn that process. Even better, I like to link to the document with the process in an Asana task, which allows me to delegate a process (and someone else to pick it up) with minimal training or oversight.

There are lots of advantages to creating SOPs for your organization’s commonly-performed tasks; being able to easily delegate and remove yourself from the daily operations is just one of them.

Reinforce

The last step can be the hardest one, especially for a manager who is deeply invested in their organization. Once you’ve completed all the steps above to set up your team to succeed in daily operations without you, you have to resist the urge to jump back in.

If someone comes to you with a question or problem that you used to handle, it’s important to practice referring them back to the person who is now responsible for this kind of question. After a while, the new lines of communication will be second nature to you and your team.

The Benefit of Stepping Back

Taking a step back from intimate involvement in the day-to-day operations of my team this year has truly been a joy. It’s allowed me to take a breath, see the bigger picture, solve some big problems that wouldn’t have been addressed if I’d been too distracted by daily operational minutiae, and get us back on a strong path toward sustainability and growth after the instability that COVID threw everyone into last year.

It has also put me in the privileged position to take two months off for parental leave after my second son is born in September — which, incidentally, is why our blog will be fairly quiet in the coming months!

But you don’t need a major life event on the horizon to benefit from this process. Once you’ve gone through the process of hiring a great team, it’s your job to take a step back, let them be experts at the jobs you hired them to be experts in, and pivot your focus to the tasks that will facilitate company growth, stability, and a great work environment for everyone.

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Nora Schlesinger

Nora Schlesinger

CEO

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