Who’s in charge?

You are finally taking a vacation! Who will manage the staff and take care of the customers?

By Bob Douce

As a small business owner, you regularly pour your life and soul into your company working 60, 70, or 80 hours a week. A year or twodown the road, once things start running a little more smoothly, the idea of a few days off starts to creep into your consciousness (or is subliminally being beaten there by your spouse on a daily basis). Can you really separate yourself from the day-to-day operations?

Or maybe you are in a different situation. You really need to attend a conference, or maybe you’re presenting at your industry’s annual convention. This is a great honor, but you will be away from the office for four days. Who will you put in charge to be sure your customer needs are met, your employees have direction and guidance, and the building doesn’t burn down?

The issue

Too many owners are so vested in their company and working with too many hats to make a profit that they often do not have the time to work on their company process. The last thing thought about is who will run the operations when I am not around.

If you are still answering day-to-day operational questions or fielding most of the client calls yourself, you are probably in this situation. Taking a short vacation or attending an extended conference may seem impossible at this point in the life of the business. However, it is doable— and sometimes very necessary.

The solution

Planning ahead is the key to success in many things, including deciding who will take the reins, even if only for a few days. It starts with hiring the right people at the right time for your business.

Your interview process should look at not only the skill sets you need for the present day, but also what you will need six months to a year down the road. If you have already hired all the people you need, re-evaluate their skills and identify who may be the best prospect to cross train some of your responsibilities. Regular performance reviews are a great place to start when looking to identify your future leaders.

Once you have someone picked out, create a development or training plan for that person. Even if he or she came to your company with all the right skills, he or she doesn’t necessarily know your processes and procedures or understand your way of looking at the business—as an owner.

Evaluating and training your top managers for enhanced leadership responsibilities will increase their confidence and accountability. This leadership development will help set in motion your ability to rely upon their skills and management abilities while you are still in the office every day.

It’s also important to help these identified leaders understand the role they play in the company. If they know they may be being groomed for a temporary or permanent upper management role, they are much more likely to be fully engaged in the day-to-day operations.

They will also see the benefit of cross training on a variety of responsibilities. While they will not become masters of all the functional areas they learn, they will have a greater understanding of how each department or process is interconnected. With this knowledge, they will have the big picture view of what it takes to run the business.

The implementation

Everything is on track. You have identified your leader. You have begun work on the leadership develop plan and helped him or her gain more experiences in the company. But how do you actually let go and give it a try?

Start by turning over a project you would normally handle and give him or her full responsibility and authority to handle it. You have already trained him or her to do it, now let him or her go. You are still around and can step in if needed, but remember, you had to stub your toe a few times as you learned to walk, and he or she needs to do the same thing. The biggest difference is he or she has your experiences from which to learn.

Once he or she can handle projects on a regular basis, give him or her the keys to the shop for the day. If it makes you feel more comfortable, stick around, but work on your presentation for the conference or plan the excursions for your vacation.

Don’t get involved unless absolutely necessary. Don’t answer your phone, respond to your emails, or meet with employees. It may just be easier to head home for the day. Remember— your leader-in-training still has you to turn to if he or she feels like they are headed off the cliff.

Each step in the process gets a little easier, but it is important to evaluate his or her performance as you move along. Look at the good and the bad. Assessing the results will help improve his or her performance because you will reinforce the positive and correct the negative.

What was successful and went well? Don’t be afraid to tell him or her they may have handled it better than you. Praise the successes, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Even if it was a partial success, but a failure overall, identify what was right. Accenting the positives will normally result in repeat performances.

Next—what went wrong? If he or she had proper training, it shouldn’t have been a train wreck; however, everyone has been there a time or two. The good news is that you are still here and not sailing in the Caribbean. A wheel may have come off the track, but you prevented a full derailment. Talk about what happened and why and let him or her come up with the way to prevent it from happening again. If he or she is a true leader, he or she will be able to point out their own short comings and learn from their mistakes.

True succession planning

You have put in the effort to identify your future leaders, provided them guidance and training, and even let them take the wheel a few times. What you accomplished is what some large companies still have problems conducting on a regular basis—succession planning.

It’s important to be personally involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup company, but is equally important to train those you trust to do what you do. Not only have you developed a leader to run the operations while you spend a week on vacation or a few days at the conference, but you have freed yourself up to grow your business.

Everything doesn’t have to run through you anymore (read this as you have removed a potential bottleneck in your operations). You are now free to focus on business development and know that your company is in good hands.

Bob Douce is the vice president of sales and co-founder of Talent Development Inc. He can be reached at 904-262-4299,, or through

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