Throughout my life, I’ve always struggled with negativity. I complained a lot. I’ve consistently viewed various moments of my life through the lens of scrutiny and criticism.
Something was wrong. Something was missing. Something could have been done better. Every moment I experienced, whether it was an interaction with a friend at a party, or a movie I dedicated the past two hours of my life to watching, occupied the center of my critical thought.
What could have been done differently? What did I not like about that?
I never shined a light on what went well or what I did like, and this criticism caused many areas of my life to fall predictably short of my expectations.
I held two deep beliefs that contributed to this: first, that there exists a best way to do all things.
Every situation presents an opportunity to perform, and perform we must, and to perform is to give your heart and soul into every minute detail of the experience.
Second, that I was capable of the best.
I had the ability to be my absolute best in everything I did. This belief was engrained deep down into my psyche due to my parents being the product of baby boomer grit mentality. Dad always asserting that hard work and dedication to results would bring success and Mom encouraging that I had the power to do anything and everything I set my mind to. I believed their advice deep in my heart and it has loyally guided me to this very day. It has been the source of my greatest triumphs and has been a blessing, but with every blessing comes a curse. The curse of believing that since I can control the results in whatever I put my energy into, that I need to control those results and everything associated.
I am the owner of a business. I am the leader of a team with which began with just three people and grew into a multimillion-dollar machine with almost fifty employees, all from various upbringings, and hence, varying values, personalities, and strategies of interacting with the people in their respective lives.
As any business owner will attest, production and protocols are easy, but the people are the true challenge.
How do we get this organism, with its many living and moving parts, working together synergistically towards our business goals with ease, little stress, and the least complexity as possible?
This task seemed to come natural to me when our team was small, but as we grew, the task seemed more and more daunting each day. Employees disagreeing and disrespecting each other, not meeting expectations, not following the processes laid forth, and most upsetting, not doing things as well as I would do them myself. My two primary beliefs being put to the test by the hour.
There is a best way to do things, and I can accomplish them.
Day after day, evidence of the company’s decline was becoming more and more apparent. I could no longer ignore the obvious. What once was an organization with enthusiastic employees having fun while changing the lives of our customers, had morphed into departmental cliques of people, frustrated with each other, entering the workplace with residual animosities from the day before that could never be healed by one night of sleep alone. What used to be a palpable energy that brought life and possibility to our company, now became a dark and ever present cloud of anger, frustration, and despair.
Issue after issue continued to mount, and I felt responsible. This led to me blurring the lines between home and work. Carrying the stress of the office into my home life. Tainting every single interaction with my wife, my two daughters, and everyone I related to. I could not be present at home, there were just too many issues at the office. I needed to be the hero to fix it all and was failing miserably.
“I just need boundaries,” I thought. I need to establish a life outside of work that is independent with its own identity. I could not continue to live this way.
Desperately, I decided I need to take my life back, and with my new aspiration to making my life outside of work more livable, boundaries were built one by one. I used those boundaries to construct a fortress to protect me from the harms of the business and my team while I was at home.
“Do not text me, do not call me, and do not bother me with work matters while I am not at work.”
I was burnt out.
I wanted to only be available to my team while at work, yet when I was there, I would hide in my private office. I would close my door to shield myself from any disturbances, all the while verbally asserting my “open door policy” with the team.
“I’m always available no matter what. I am here for you, just come find me.” I would say.
Yet, while sitting in the protective “castle’ of my private office, overwhelmed with problems piled on top of problems, I only let down the drawbridge for a select few, and never with welcoming arms, only annoyance and frustration.
My team felt it. They feared me.
This served me to some extent by preventing further disturbances, but in the long run, it removed any opportunities for communication with them. And without communication, we could not solve any problems together. We could only barely survive and react to each and every symptom of the ailment that was our organization, without ever trying to treat the disease that infected it.
I was at the end of my rope. I felt helpless. I no longer saw feasible solutions. I was over my head. I was a failure. I let everyone down and didn’t have what it took to lead this many people.
The boundaries I placed didn’t solve my problems, they only protected me from knowing about them. A simple question to a team member asking, “How are things are going at the office?” could easily reel me right back in. I lived in denial to cope with the stress, but my goal of ignorance only helped me to externally appear like everything was working, when deep down, the hard truth was that it was not.
I was just as infected as our organization. Discussing my despair with my therapist brought inquires to help find solutions. Instead of leading my entire team, which was now too large to be managed by myself alone, I should be leading only a select few department leads and letting them lead their respective cohorts.
“I already do that. I’ve had a leadership team for years,” I would say.
“They don’t do what I do. No one can.”
I was overcome with emotion. I was hurting in a way I’ve never experienced before. I so badly wanted a solution but felt a solution did not exist.
As any good therapist would, she asked questions. “Why not?”
“Why can’t you train them to do what you do?”
“Is what you do so special that no one else could accomplish the same goals?”
My eyes watery and my voice shaky, I couldn’t get the words out. This overwhelming feeling of failure had hijacked me. My logical brain no longer able to form the sentences to communicate what I needed to say. I wanted to confess my shortcomings. I wanted to run away from the business. I wanted it out of my life. I couldn’t meet the expectations of my team. I once had a gift of running an amazing business through my interpersonal skills and communication, but I lost it. I resigned. I gave up. I could no longer succeed. The business grew too large.
“Do you think they could do what you do 80% as good if you trained them?” She probed.
I thought about that long and deliberately to give the question the mental energy it deserved. “No,” I managed to articulate, “No one can do what I do even close to my abilities.”
“And how effective are those abilities being utilized right now?” she asked.
I was struck, deer in the headlights frozen, she was right. I was at my lowest point, burning the candle at both ends, bitter, angry, and taking my cloud of negativity with me everywhere I went. It spilled over into all my relationships. Every element in my life was now diseased by my burnout. And like a cancer, it had grown into something I could no longer contain. I had to do something.
I went back to the fundamentals.
I have a problem. I need a solution. I need help.
I sought the advice of a life coach and started working with Ellen to help me work out possible solutions. My solution at the time was to sell the business. I wanted the responsibility and burden to go away. After much deliberation and thought over the next 4 months, I decided to sell. 6 weeks later, I would liquidate 85% of my equity and serve the last of my 3 year “sentence” until my contract with the buyer would be fulfilled. The end of my misery was near. I could see the finish line, my freedom, my salvation.
I thought selling my ownership would change my relationship to the stresses of running the business. To my surprise, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Nothing had changed. I still cared just as much about the results and found myself just as entangled with the day to day stressors as ever.
As with any organization, it’s potential is limited by the potential of the leader, and leadership is mostly psychology and less reliant on specific mechanics. I knew it was time to change my psychology.
Ellen shared in the assertion of my therapist that I could have team leaders carry out the roles I performed for the business. I just needed to train them and trust the results. I didn’t believe this was possible, but being only a 15% owner, what did I have to lose?
I sat with each of my leads. I explained that I wanted them to handle issues without me, that I wanted them to seek out and have one-on-ones with everyone on their teams often, listen to their issues, encourage them, and collaborate to find solutions. I wanted them to implement the solutions without my approval or guidance. I didn’t want to be involved. They each assured me that they could do this, and so the experiment began.
I stopped asking my team how things were going. I stopped inquiring about issues and individual people’s upsets.
Deep down, I wanted to know what was happening, but I forced myself to stay in the dark. “Don’t get involved. You don’t own enough of this business to care,” I constantly reminded myself.
When I received a knock on my office door and a team member wanted to talk to me about an issue, I would now respond, “This sounds like something you should bring to your lead.” It was hard. I wanted to know. I wanted to fix it.
I placed so much of my identity on being the problem solver and everyone’s hero.
It was painful to delegate completely to my leadership team. I pressed on though, committed to being “all in” on trusting them in their abilities.
Little by little, the weight of the office lifted. I went an entire week without any problems to solve. Then another week, then a month and then another. I watched from afar as my team implemented new policies and strategies to deal with employee’s frustrations. They began to get the team working together again. I watched them do team building exercises at meetings and have one-on-one sit-downs with everyone.
That was something I used to do often but could no longer with the size of the company. I watched the energy return. I watched the business come back to life, like an ill emaciated dog taken in and given the care and nutrients it needs to thrive.
To the team’s amazement, they watched me come back to life. I became engaged with checking in with only my leads, asking if they needed support, and only intervening with their affairs if they so desired.
I remember expressing to my main lead that lately, it feels so good at the office, almost like nothing is going wrong and there are no longer any issues.
“Oh, there are plenty of issues! We have them under control though. Do you want to know about them?” she nervously asked.
I sat at a crossroad in my mentality. How could I not want to know? I need to fix this. They need me. After a deep breath, I responded, “No, I’m good!” I questioned my entire being as the words left my lips. I meant it though. I truly did. I smiled and we both had a good laugh at the thought of my self-proclaimed request to remain in the unknowing. It felt amazing!
Sure, there were issues, but like she explained, everything was under control. I thought about that for a moment. She was right! Everything felt very under control.
It was then I realized that I had leaders at the office that could not only do what I did as well as me, but even better. Business was great, morale was like it used to be, and I was free to lead the organization from a bird’s eye view, way up high, above the noise. I felt alive and rediscovered my passion. I was free to focus on growing the business as I had before.
I had always loved it, I just got overrun with the sheer magnitude and multitude of time sensitive matters which needed my constant attention. I was not able to focus on “big picture” goals, I was too busy putting out fires every day.
It took me selling 85% of my equity to make the shift, but in retrospect, I could have done it all while I was still the 100% owner. The personnel were there, I just needed to get out of their way. I was the bottleneck. My fear and need for control kept my leadership team from being their best. They were always more than capable for the task at hand, I just couldn’t extend the necessary trust to allow them to execute.
This was all a lesson in trust.
I didn’t trust that anyone could do what I did. I didn’t trust that my team had the leadership skills or the drive to take their roles as seriously as I had taken mine. I was dead wrong. They always had it in them. I just didn’t allow them the freedom to use it.
There may be best ways to do everything, but’s it futile to believe there is only one way.
It’s also futile to believe that we always need the best. Our organizations grow because we provide something that our customers want and value. That’s because we are doing something right. At some point, more and more people will seek out our services, and our organization will grow to accommodate.
Consequentially, more people and personalities join our team and we reach an organizational size that requires us to level up our leadership. Instead of leading all of our employees, we lead our leaders, so that they can lead their departments. Without this transition, we are doomed to fail. We need to humble ourselves and our own abilities, so that we can grow and develop the select few leaders in our close circle. Only then, can we push past the barriers that were containing us.
We must trust ourselves and our abilities, but even more importantly, we must trust our leaders and theirs.
When we, as leaders, empower a small and manageable leadership team, set clear expectations, keep accessible and constructive lines of communication open, and ultimately accept that better results will come from the help of many rather than us exclusively, we can then engage in a healthy relationship with our businesses, so that we can engage and be present for all of the relationships in our life. We begin trusting in the results and less in the minute to minute details of the process.
For it is more trust, not more effort and grit, that is needed to take our leadership and lives to a place of peace. That is where we can feel the freedom, enjoy the journey, and live our best lives as entrepreneurs.
Dr. Paul Etchison is a Dentist, Business Owner, Entrepreneur, Host of the Dental Practice Heroes Podcast, Speaker, Coach, Founder of www.DentalBusinessMentor.com, an online teaching library for dental practice management, and author of two books, Dental Practice Hero: From Ordinary Practice to Extraordinary Experience, and Dental Practice Hero II: How a 3 Day Work Can Give You the Life You Want. He currently resides in the Chicago Area with his wife and two daughters.