How to get out of your own way

Sep 21, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

Many previously fast-growing businesses stall out simply because of their visionary leader’s inability to get out of their own way.

It’s as if they can’t help themselves – having achieved initial success, the visionary leader becomes a liability to the greater growth of the business: they seem compelled to meddle, interfere, radically switch direction and generally act like arsonists, all the while subconsciously self-sabotaging their own success, and that of their business.

Does this sound like you, or someone you know? Do you (or they) have a seeming inability to say ‘No’ to the next idea, the next bright shiny object? Do you fear that by saying ‘Yes’ to everything that comes your way you might be getting in your own way and impairing the growth of your business?

If so, here are the four key steps to getting out of your own way by learning to say ‘No’ – and more specifically, by learning not to say ‘Yes’ to every opportunity you see:

Don’t say ‘Yes’ when you’re alone.

Ah yes – the benefits of owning your own business: unexpectedly meeting a charming individual over dinner…and hiring them for a senior position without consulting anyone else. Learning over breakfast that a competitor is for sale…and negotiating heads of agreement before lunch. Spending a week in a beautiful city…and deciding to open an office there.

The truth is, most entrepreneurs don’t start businesses primarily for the financial reward (though that’s obviously important) – they do so because of a fierce drive for independence and autonomy – and saying ‘yes’ to their whims is one of the most important ways of expressing that fierce autonomy.

The problem is, as the business grows and becomes more complex, what was once a quirky individualism becomes instead a disruptive annoyance. Hiring people, opening offices, acquiring new lines of business – all things that in the early days fueled the growth and success of the smaller business now act like mammoth rocks thrown into a small pond, disrupting the organization’s existing strategy, and confusing the senior team who are trying to manage the direction of the business against a plan.

Rule #1: Stop saying say ‘Yes’ to every whizzo idea you have – at least until you’ve taken time to consult with your senior team.

Don’t say ‘Yes’ when someone else has said ‘No’.

Divide and conquer – it’s the oldest trick in the teenage book of parent-manipulating tricks: if Mom has said ‘No’, go ask Dad instead – or vice versa. And it doesn’t only happen in family relationships – adolescent companies suffer from it just as much.

Organizationally, ‘divide and conquer’ appears in many guises. Personal appeals from key employees to be exempted from the systems and processes everyone else is subject to; ‘Big Dogs’ seeking approval for pet projects they know will be turned down if they go through the regular channels; Managers pleading special treatment for their team members. And because you’re the top banana, you’re the one they go to, knowing that a ‘yes’ from you trumps anything anyone else may say.

Except that of course your ‘Yes’ also creates confusion, annoyance, tension and a loss of credibility for everyone concerned.

Rule #2: If it’s someone else’s job to say ‘No’, let them do so without interference. If you don’t trust their judgment, don’t second-guess them – instead, give the job to someone you do trust.

Don’t say ‘Yes’ when your team has said already said ‘Yes’.

I see it all the time: a senior management team puts a strong, creative initiative in place, and weeks, days – maybe only hours later, their visionary leader comes up with another, even more creative initiative for everyone to work on.

Of course this second initiative doesn’t directly compete with the first – that would look too crass, too petty on the part of the visionary leader. But the net result is the same: the team’s resources are stretched, the organization’s focus is diluted, and neither initiative delivers the success it should.

Rule #3: Don’t compete with your own team. Everyone knows you’re a visionary genius – you don’t have to prove it on a case by case basis.

Master the ‘silent re-entry’.

The worst time to be around a visionary leader? Mondays after they’ve had a long weekend, attended at a conference or other event, or worst of all, after a lengthy vacation. With all that time to think and percolate, and possibly hyper-caffeinated by reading the latest fad business book, they return to the office boiling over with new initiatives, new approaches, new passions.

All of which everyone else has to sandbag, smiling enthusiastically while using every trick in the book to avoid actually implementing any of this stuff, knowing as they do from long experience that their boss’s new-found enthusiasms will wear off after a week or so.

Rule #4: Discipline yourself to re-engage after absences in listening, rather than broadcast mode. Find out what happened while you were away. Instead of dropping all your new ideas on everyone else, identify one or two things that others did in your absence and reinforce those. If your new-found enthusiasms are truly important, they’ll still have value – and will attain much more credibility – if you quietly introduce them a week or so later, rather than in an all-staff meeting moments after your re-arrival.