Don’t Waste Your Time on the Wrong Problems

A former employee of mine once allowed a serious business problem to go unreported because he thought he could fix it himself. He couldn’t — and it cost the company $400,000.

Had he brought the problem to me in the beginning, I could have solved it by making a five-minute phone call. That frightened me. So I made it a policy that all serious problems had to come to me.

But that policy had an unexpected and undesirable side effect. I began to get pulled into lots of complicated discussions about problems that were not so serious. (I remember one ridiculous battle about employee parking spaces, for example.)

It was taking far too much time away from my main responsibility — marketing. So I rethought my policy. The question I had to answer was this: How do I ensure that only the big problems that others CAN’T solve come to me?

I came up with a simple strategy that I’ve used ever since, one I’d recommend to you if you are ever in the same situation:

1. Call your key people together and explain your goal: to give them as much authority as they need to solve problems they are accountable for, but never to let them get stuck trying to fix a problem that is beyond their abilities. Give them specific examples if you can. Answer all their questions. And get their active support — their agreement to try to make it work.

2. Ask them to have the same discussion with their people.

3. Provide a financial guideline for distinguishing between “big” and “not-so-big” problems. With most of my clients (Stage Three companies), “big” is anything that can cost the business more than $50,000. If you have a Stage One or Stage Two business, your threshold might be $5,000 or $10,000.

4. It’s not just about money. Make a list of other problems they might encounter that you would like to be consulted on. When a situation threatens to demoralize the workforce, for example, or has the potential to affect customer satisfaction, that should be brought to your attention.

A growing business will always have problems. Be prepared to tell your key people to “figure this out yourself” when you think they can. Teaching them to distinguish between big problems and not-so-big problems is important. Encouraging them to come to you when they are in trouble is important too.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]