When I joined FMG Leading with my business partner Foster Mobley, I threw myself into the work. I loved it. Our revenue was just over a million, we had six employees, but we knew we would grow. We were passionate and hard-working, and the performance of the organizations we coached always improved. In turn, they became loyal clients.
Like most small enterprises, our work came mainly through referrals. (Marketing? Who has time or money for that?) When I began, I worked hard to prove to our clients that I could do what Foster could, and I soon became the coach companies would ask for. That was immensely gratifying. As a result, I was constantly on the move, and my calendar was always full. I couldn’t even think about taking a vacation.
But the company wasn’t growing. In 2009, revenue was about the same as 2008. In 2010, as the Great Recession began to recede, it ticked up, but just barely. In 2011, we hit $2 million but fell below it in 2012. In 2013, we reached $2 million again, but since that was our number in 2011, it wasn’t a reason to jump up and down.
I was working as hard as I could, but that wasn’t enough. I went on a quest to find out why.
How fear impacts decision-making
Leaders have fears just like everyone else, and, when they let it impact their decision-making process, it can lead to dysfunctional behaviors. Some of the most common fears we see include being wrong, not being good enough, missing out on opportunities, and being taken advantage of by others.
Many leaders choose to repress these fears because they’re afraid of appearing weak or letting down the people who work with them. From the beginning, Foster and I believed that if leaders could understand and acknowledge their fears, and act without being influenced by them, there are no limits to what they can achieve.
On identifying my fears
As a coach, I realized that it was vital for me to understand what my worries were. My personality type, based on the Enneagram Institute’s scale, was “The Challenger.” That meant I secretly thought of myself as a hero–the person who runs into the burning building to save the day. I feared the idea that others might see me as someone who didn’t have control over everything, or as someone who (god forbid) might need the help of someone else. This meant that I fed my ego by having clients who insisted I was the only coach who could help them.
But my time is finite, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t create extra hours out of thin air. I needed to train others to do what I was able to do, but I didn’t. Even when I became CEO in 2016, I continued to be on the road, and I was afraid that if I handed off an account to someone else, we’d lose that business and I would let everyone down.
I was able to keep such a busy calendar was because I had a VP who I relied on for almost everything. She left to pursue other opportunities and ended up finding a coach for me. Initially, I thought that the coach would be able to help us with our business processes. But as the coach quickly figured out, I was the process that needed the most tweaking.
On learning to do the right thing
I soon realized that my fear of letting people down was preventing me from doing what a CEO should: train others, build an internal leadership culture and infrastructure, help develop a growth strategy. I knew that there was no other way out–I needed to say no to opportunities to focus on training those in my company to get us to the next level.
In the end, saying no to some opportunities did cost us a lucrative client, but we gained a new (and better) operating model. The change didn’t come overnight, but, eventually, we started seeing our efforts pay off. This year, FMG Leading is on track to double its revenue over 2017, almost triple what we achieved in 2015.
You can’t build a business alone
Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, but I can tell you from experience that this particular fear is common among small business owners. Being a Challenger can be helpful when you’re getting a company off the ground. But starting and growing a business are two different things. If you find yourself working harder as your business continues to grow and believe that you’re the only one who can execute the work, you’re probably doing your business a disservice. Despite the “lone founder myth” that still exists today, no one builds a great business alone. The best entrepreneurs recognize that to grow their company, and they have to let others be the hero. It’s not the job of the founder to perform the services or make the goods, but it is their role to empower their team to do that to the best of their abilities.
Trust me, it’s the only way to grow, and it works.
Matt Brubaker is the chief executive officer of FMG Leading, a group of advisors, coaches, and consultants that help senior leaders transform their organizations by maximizing the performance of their human capital.