Scaling by “delegation” isn’t good enough

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Founding a company is a selfish act. It will consume every waking moment for the next 1-10 years. It’s an act of defiance and irreverence towards competitors and the status quo. That matches well with the life of a 20-something — fueled by the energy of youth, too young to be jaded, with no financial or social dependents. Not all selfish acts are bad ones!

Young founders may fancy themselves wizards of coding, design, and salesmanship, because they’re individually excellent; I did! But it should be obvious that those skills don’t imply they can build a team of 75 engineers that balance quality with speed, or build an international sales team guided by principles other than overwhelming exuberance, or develop a consistent brand with a voice and adherents, or manage cash flows once the P&L becomes abbreviated “in millions.”

Introspective young founders appreciate this, and often the stated solution is “delegation,” as defined by: I’ll do it myself, then I’ll understand it, then if further investment is warranted, I’ll have the experience to hire and instruct a new person.

This is how I did it when I was young and naive, and I see the pattern repeated all the time. And it’s wrong.

The trouble with this form of delegation is it results in a team that is not materially better than the founder, at anything. Which is incredibly limiting for the company, and sadly quite common.

It’s actually a variant of the rule that if you think a certain position at the company isn’t useful, it’s because you’ve never worked with greatness at that position. When you’re looking for someone who knows what you know, you’re not finding greatness, you’re finding a substitute for your already-not-world-class performance, and of course you’ll get exactly that.

Whereas, as the founder, your job is the opposite: To build an organization in which each person is incredible and inspires others to become better. In fact, worse: To hire people who are better than you at every position, because only then is your organization increasing its strength and abilities.

This mistake compounds when you’re building a larger organization, because then the goal is even greater than individual excellence, it’s to built teams which themselves grow and create greatness. This is a meta or recursive problem: Not the founder attracting, identifying, and retaining greatness, but the founder building teams who themselves are doing that. This is the best definition of “team-building.”

Delegation isn’t team-building, and thus it doesn’t lead to scale, nor to greatness.

Scaling your business requires that you convert your initial selfishness into the empowerment of others. “Delegation” means you still own it but someone else does the work. “Team-building” means the team is trusted to own it, has obligations around that, can figure out and execute all the details, and is responsible not just for meeting initial expectations, but increasing their expectations of themselves.

This is where you achieve true scale in a company. Delegation is where you assign away lesser jobs so you can be even more heroic, because it’s still about you. But you’re still the bottleneck even if you’ve made that neck a little wider. Team-building means no bottleneck because the team can be as wide as needed. In fact the best teams measure their own necks and decide how and when to widen further.

This is where you derisk the company by moving from brittle to resilient. Through delegation alone, if one person gets sick, a deadline is missed. Or if someone leaves the company, a strategy isn’t executed. With team-building, you have group knowledge. Someone being sick or leaving the company gets baked into the plan.

The moment where you truly understand and embrace this concept is when you can turn the gun on yourself and realize that no one is exempt from this rule. It’s relatively easy for a technical founder to agree that she isn’t the best person to build a global sales organization, but is she ready to agree that even where she is excellent, it’s still her job to find people who are even more excellent, not just at individual tasks but at building entire teams?

But doesn’t this mean that ultimately leaders are managing a set of people, all of whom are better-qualified than that leader to do those jobs? And isn’t that difficult to manage, after all how do you argue with those people, and how will you earn the respect and confidence of those people? Yes, that is what it means, and yes that is difficult. And it’s your job, because anything less is by definition holding the company back.

So convert the selfishness and egocentrism of starting a company, needed initially to get the engine turning over, into an egoless, outward facing, empowering, team-growing organization, where your goal is for you to never be the most knowledgeable and experienced person in the room, because you’ve surrounded yourself with greatness, who each do the same.