This is the moment for which you’ve been waiting. Your journey from that Dissatisfied Employee in someone else’s business years ago to the Chief Executive of your own company is now complete. While we still have a few stages before your evolution as a founder is complete, Stage 5 of the journey is one to savor.
Gone are the days of having to sweat it out on the field. Gone are those constant annoyances of having to wrangle a rag-tag band of doers. Gone are those feelings of inadequacy you faced as you learned to lead from the sideline for the first time.
In their place is the joy of leading a thriving enterprise through its most profitable and productive era ever. Instead of worrying about the next play, you get to spend the vast majority of the time planning for an incredible future.
This is the first time that you’ve had the ability to truly run your company instead of it running you. Up until now, it’s like you’ve been fighting the waves in a small speed boat. You were moving fast but bouncing around a lot. Stepping into your role as Chief Executive is like stepping into the bridge of an aircraft carrier. Sure the waves are there, but you hardly even notice them. You just see the horizon. You feel the weight, momentum, and power of your ship.
You used to be alone at the wheel, and not the atmosphere is buzzing with trusted lieutenants capably doing their jobs. Now you don’t even have to touch the wheel. Your words carry weight and go far beyond what you could do or accomplish independently.
While you theoretically can let off the proverbial gas pedal at this stage, and many do, you are selling yourself and your organization short. The time will come to step back (in Stage 6). But there is a lot to accomplish and a lot of joy to be had by making the most of Stage 5.
Enjoying the game from the box seats
By this stage, you’ve successfully moved from trainee to star player, to captain, to coach. Yet, each of these positions bears one thing in common. They are all right there at the ground level for just about every practice and, indeed, every game. Come freezing rain or blistering heat, in each of those positions, you’ve got to be there grinding it out to win the game.
Not so in Stage 5. Of course, you’re still at the game, but you enjoy the game from the box seats. You can go down to the field whenever you want to (more on this later), but you don’t have to. No matter how hot or cold outside, it’s always a lovely 70 degrees and dry inside, where the General Manager is working her magic.
And let’s not for a moment mistake this as going soft. Succeeding as a GM isn’t sitting back and coasting into retirement. It’s not on the field, it’s not out there in the elements, but it’s not passive. Not at all.
It’s dynamic. Though it may not be as physically demanding, it holds a much more significant impact. And that’s a good thing. Because as a GM, you’re no longer responsible for winning the next game or even the current season. You are responsible for creating a winning dynasty. You are orchestrating decades of success. You are building a winning team.
Your team needs you to take advantage of your perspective, your ability to see the whole field from above, your ability to monitor the teams around you, your ability to scout out and develop the next generation of talent, your ability to shape and cultivate the environment for success to flourish.
That’s what a great GM does. They use the benefits of their position to make the team better rather than make their own life easier.
What can only I do?
If you were to hire any great business coach to help you make the most of Stage 5, the question they will ask you is: “What is it that only you can do?” Because leading away from the field is a strange thing to do. You are 100% unnecessary to win the game, maybe even to win the season. And that can leave you feeling put out to pasture.
But that’s not the case. Instead, your irrelevance at the ground level is eclipsed by your essential role in building a better future for the organization. And you do that by only doing what you can do.
And this often takes some time to discover. Your first instinct will likely take you back to an early stage – throwing, catching, calling plays, etc. But the truth is far more important. And often more abstract. And to get there usually requires some soul searching.
For this reason, the true question that defines Stage 5 is “Who am I?” You cannot get a clear picture of what your organization needs from you, “what only you can do,” until you are comfortable with who you are apart from what you do.
If you aren’t the skills you developed, if you aren’t any of those positions you’ve played so far, and if you aren’t any of the goals you have for your organization, who are you? This is a hard question to answer on your own.
If you don’t already have a business, professional, or life coach, now is the time to find one. It’s also crucial to spend time with your spouse and children, your close friends and confidants, and all the people you trust from outside of your organization. Allow them to help you define who you are, apart from the organization.
For founders, this is hard to do. It’s not uncommon for founders to get stuck here. It’s hard for them to separate themselves from the organization that feels like a child by this point. You’ve invested enough blood, sweat, and tears for this thing to have enough of your DNA to at least be related.
But that is what you need to do. To be separate from the organization while still leading it. And here’s why. This stage is where you build the foundation for what will remain when you are gone.
The essential strategies for Stage 5
So how do you do it? How do you secure lasting success for your organization that can endure long after you are gone? How do you succeed in Stage 5 of your Founder’s Evolution?
- Get clear on who you are and what only you can do: I’ve already hit this point, so I won’t drag it out. But there is one thing I must clarify. The question is not “What can you do best?” That is going to lead you back to the field and undermine the leaders you’ve put in place, and ultimately drive the best leaders out of your organization. The question is, “What can only you do?” When you answer this question, you may realize you aren’t good at those things that only you can do. Let me let you in on a little secret. No one is, at least not the first time they are there. Accept it as a challenge to grow instead of using it to disqualify yourself prematurely.
- Make people decisions, not policy decisions: This is a very important decision-making shift that will set you up for exponentially greater success in the remaining stages. In Stage 5, you are finally learning what it means to lead through other people. And the best motto for staying focused is to make people decisions, not policy decisions. Your job is to hire the right people and stay out of their way. Then hold them accountable for their results. And the mechanism for accountability is very important. It isn’t going in and changing their decisions. It is working with them directly and removing them quickly if things don’t improve. It is your job to make sure the right people are in the right seats. Period.
- Manage your team, lead your organization: Building off of the previous point, you will find the General Manager title is entirely appropriate. You are not graduating from management to leadership, as many other gurus claim. In fact, you have to be a better manager than ever. However, what is changing is who you are managing. That circle should be very small, typically no more than 3-5 direct reports. By focusing on managing this small group well, you will create an environment for greatness to thrive. And the icing you’ll add to that cake is leading the entire organization. Walk the halls, head down to the field, celebrate the wins and commiserate the losses. But when you do, don’t flex your managerial muscles. Don’t make any decisions with anyone but your direct reports. Lead with vision and paint an ever-clearer picture of the successful future you are building for the entire organization.
- Hire the next CEO: Five years before he stepped down as CEO of GE, Jack Welch said his primary responsibility was finding and developing his successor. There is a nearly universal mistake that Founders make when selecting their successor. They pick a COO and then call them CEO. They choose someone who can guarantee the trains will run on time, and the machine will continue moving forward. They pick someone whose perspective is, as Simon Sinek says, “Down and in.” Instead, you need to find someone whose perspective is up and out. You need to find a visionary whose vision for the organization’s future outstrips your own. This is very hard to do. It takes a lot of time. It is inherently more risky than the predictable COO type. But if you want to build a visionary organization that succeeds for years to come, you need to be the one to find the next visionary leader.
Transitioning Out of Stage 5
When you do these four things, you will find three things will happen. First, you will find more fulfillment in your work than you ever thought possible. Secondly, you will build a foundation for the organization to thrive on for years and decades to come. And thirdly, you will find a leader who can take your organization even further than you. And that’s when you will find yourself in the glorious place of Stage 6 of your Founder’s Evolution: A True Owner. You can own your company and not run it. So not only is someone else running it, but you’ll also have found someone who can lead it. And by choosing to do the hard work of Stage 5, you will set yourself up for the most rewarding and restful stage of all.
Enjoy the gift of Stage 5
But before you get too eager to give up the reigns, throw in the towel, or just plain disappear from your organization, there is something special about Stage 5 that you won’t want to miss.
You have the opportunity to be fully present at every game. You get to enjoy the air conditioning, the catering, and the cold beer. You get to enjoy being right there with the team whenever you want to without any obligation to make anything happen.
Stage 5 is where you have to use the slightest effort to exert the most control over your organization. And that is a great recipe for enjoying your time as Chief Executive.
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