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Automate, Delegate, Eliminate
The difference between good and great
A decade ago, I started an open-door policy allowing anyone in my prior company to ask me for help or advice. I would do these 15-minute calls twice a week, helping people who reached out however I could. (I still do them to this day, usually when I'm commuting or traveling.) Over the course of eight years, I was able to connect with 1,000 people, and I was sure I would never have enough time to go beyond that.
Eventually, though, I started to notice something. So many of the calls I took revolved around the same few topics. Those topics would ultimately become the foundation of Take Back Your Power: 10 New Rules for Women at Work. By addressing those subjects, I was able to compile the knowledge I had passed on to so many people in one place. Writing a book got all of those things on paper, allowing me to reach tens of thousands of people instead of just a few.
There are things you do every day that you cannot scale, but there are many things that you can. Rather than working harder, it pays to work smarter. Identifying what is linear in your life is the first step toward finding ways to delegate, automate, or eliminate. In doing so, you can have more of an impact than you ever thought was possible.
On being a bad new manager
The power of scaling is the first lesson every new manager learns. We have a tradition in the workplace of making the very best person on a team into its manager. But management is a completely different skill, and this is something many of us are forced to learn the hard way. Often, the person who's the best individual contributor is a doer. They are focused on executing and getting things done… and this is exactly how you end up at the conflict.
I ran into this problem myself when I first became a manager. I remember going to the director I reported to and telling him I was very frustrated with somebody on the team, who was very green. I talked about how I could easily do what he was doing, twice as well and in half the time. (As you can tell, I was humble, too.)
The director sat me down, looked me in the eye, and taught me a very important lesson. He said, "Yes, he's less efficient than you because he's more junior. Your job is to teach him and grow him so that you can scale. You can't do the job of everyone on the team. But eventually, five people doing your old work 80% as well as you become leverage you can use. Your job now is to help everyone else do their jobs."
I was taken aback. I had never thought about it that way, but it was true: there had been a point when I first joined Dave’s team and I was brand new to the role. Not only that but when I started there, I had never even been a product manager before. He handed the reins to me early to show me that I was capable of managing, and that trust was what enabled me to grow and become strong enough to eventually take on his role. I owed it to my reports to give them the same courtesy—and that would be what allowed me to continue to evolve in my new role, too.
More hours aren’t the answer
I’ve coached founders on some of the challenges they face, and burnout is one of the big ones. There’s a tendency for them to work on their company around the clock, only to hit the wall sooner or later. There are only 24 hours in a day, and they often find themselves on the verge of burnout.
The challenge is that founders are the very, very best at doing what they do, and they care more than anybody else. For this reason, they seek perfection in themselves and others. But scaling means trusting others, and not always taking on more yourself. It means delegating and giving responsibility to those who need to learn. The first time you hand something off, it's only going to be 50% of the quality you expect. But your goal is to get the other person to 80% over time. They might not reach 100%, but 80% is usually the sweet spot between quality and doability. If you never learn to let go and trust others to do a good enough job, you will always be doing more than leading.
Several years ago, I spoke to two different founder CEOs who were in the process of hiring CPOs. One of them was clearly not ready to pass on that responsibility. At the end of the conversation, I told him he should hold off on hiring someone until he was ready to hand over the reins, or else he would end up with a strong CPO who was frustrated every day. He ended up waiting and hiring someone much later, when he was ready. When I spoke to the second founder, and the topic of why he was interested in hiring a CPO came up, he explained, “I want to focus on these three new areas, and I want the CPO to run the core product.” With that clarity, I helped him brainstorm some good candidates for the role.
In order to scale effectively, you have to know what role you want to play. You also have to learn to let others grow into the space you leave behind as that role changes. If you’re always taking up all of the oxygen, they won’t ever be able to fill that gap. Make space for others and you may be surprised at how others rise to the occasion.
How to rethink scaling
I had a manager who once told me that in order to be successful in your career and at home, you need to pick one thing every quarter to stop doing. I took his advice and created an automate, delegate, and eliminate (ADE) list for my life. Here’s an overview of what this can look like.
Automate: I often get asked about specific things over and over, so my new policy is to write a post about it. By making this one change, my answer goes from a single email to something that can be shared widely and viewed by many people at once. One of the topics I have not published about (mostly because it's rather niche) is how to get on the board of a company. This is something I’m asked about every few weeks, so I created a document that explains the details. As people ask me new questions, I expand it and update it. Now, rather than writing an email back answering a specific question, I can just send a link to the document, saving us both time.
Delegate: I really dreaded the “management” part of writing this newsletter. I enjoyed writing and hearing from people, but I hated the process of editing, organizing, and publishing. To address this, I hired my sister to help out as my administrator. This is what has made publishing this newsletter for two and a half years sustainable. The moral of the story? Sometimes scaling requires you to ask for help. Other times, it requires investing in someone to do something you otherwise wouldn’t have the time or desire to do. Either way, this is another good reminder that you don’t always have to do it all on your own.
Eliminate: You would be surprised by how much is on your plate that doesn't actually need to get done at all. Like with the TPS reports in Office Space, we often get sucked into doing things we would otherwise never think (or need) to do. There’s a certain momentum to this, but it also eats up time that could be better spent doing other things. So do an audit. For one week, look at everything you do, and choose one thing you will eliminate. For example, I hate picking out clothes, so when I find something I like, such as jeans, I buy three. If there is a dress or blouse I like, I buy it in multiple colors. (This also makes mixing and matching so much easier.)
We all wish we had more hours in the day, but as I’ve gained more experience, I’ve learned that it can be just as valuable to build leverage in your life. The more you can streamline or pass on, the more time you free up to work on the things you can’t.
These sorts of changes don’t always have to be earth-shattering. You would be surprised how much more you can accomplish by just taking stock of what you’re spending time on and making adjustments to your approach. By automating, eliminating, and delegating the little things, you’ll have more time and bandwidth to focus on the big things.
“Work smarter, not harder” actually works; you just have to put your mind to it.