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3 Ways to Replace Yourself in Leadership Roles

George Brooks
George Brooks

Letting go is never easy, but as a small business owner, you need to focus on high-level strategy while your team handles the day-to-day work. Use these three strategies to get started.

  • Most small business owners like to feel in control, but you need to put your budding business's interests first.
  • Scaling successfully means entrusting teammates to fill roles you once owned.
  • Follow these three steps to let go of some control and help your company grow.

When I founded my business, I oversaw product, strategy, marketing and sales. I was even the janitor. But to keep evolving, the company needed to grow, and I needed to understand how replacing myself in these roles could improve things for me and my business. If every decision and action had to go through me as the leader, we would only grow as much as my workweek allowed.

I would be the bottleneck that kept my company from growing.

I think a lot of leaders are a little addicted to the feeling of control. Perhaps that's why 86% of small business owners admit to working on the weekends, and another 53% said they work during major holidays. But as I've learned to trust others to wear hats for me, my company has grown. My team members have, in turn, grown to fill the roles I've entrusted to them. And it's been fulfilling to see them meet and exceed the goals they set for themselves within their new roles and learn to trust others.

That doesn't mean replacing myself has been easy. I've had reservations many times, and occasionally, I've let go of a role too soon and had to take the reins again. But these are necessary changes in order to scale successfully.

I've learned that humble confidence – taking pride in your skills while acknowledging room for growth – is key. No one is going to do a job exactly how I would do it, but that means that person is bringing something new to the table: a different perspective and mindset. Those are the things that keep a team growing.

Are you ready to let go of some control and start allowing your team or company to scale? Here are the three steps I took.

1. Outsource your mind so you can focus on your strengths. 

As we assembled our company, my co-founder and I began outsourcing our minds without realizing it. I would let him handle the operational and financial stuff to make the day-to-day operations thrive, and he allowed me to handle our forward-thinking strategy. That way, we weren't spreading ourselves too thin, and the company progressed because we were both playing to our strengths.

You can follow the same mindset whether you manage one team or a whole company. Outsource certain responsibilities to others and free yourself to focus on larger tasks.

The first step in doing this is identifying which jobs you do really well. What are your greatest strengths? These are the areas that you should continue to manage and control. Other areas will be better suited to other team members. Setting these clear delineations will give you the ability to focus on doing what you do best and to say "no" with confidence when you're at capacity.

2. Replace your skills. 

As I made moves to replace myself in some roles, I was apprehensive. But I couldn't do the work and lead forever, so I hired designers, a sales rep and strategists. As a designer myself, hiring designers came naturally and I worked alongside them. The first person I chose to actually replace me was in sales.

As he started taking over, I realized that we had very different strategies. He had an edge; I had always been a bit of a yes-man. At first, I was terrified; I kept trying to micromanage his approach. But his work was having a positive impact on the business, and he made sure we were bringing on the right clients.

As my design team grew, I began to step away from day-to-day design. I became a more strategic practitioner. But our team was growing, and I needed to replace myself as a strategist as well. This proved to be the hardest step because it was truly the core offering of my company and much of it came from my personal experience. Over time, we equipped the entire team to think strategically.

It may seem easy to find people to replace you with the same skills, but be careful. Make sure your replacements understand the outcomes needed to be successful but be flexible about how they get there. Your willingness to invest in the next wave of talent will create not only skilled workers but also loyal partners who want what's best for your business.

There were times when I had to step in and either rescue or support each of these roles when mistakes were made, clients were dissatisfied or people just weren't ready to be on their own. But over time, I continued to trust, let go and grant autonomy to these replacements.

The hard part will be the emotional toll of changing how you relate to others. You're going from keeping in touch with each person to giving people autonomy and trusting them to do their jobs. But once you see them excelling, your confidence will be more than rewarded. Be patient. This work takes time, and people will need your support. But when I learned to relinquish control, Crema began to grow. Now, we're a team of 40, led from within by a unique leadership team.

3. Replace yourself with new leaders. 

When hiring new leaders, I didn't just appoint people and leave them to it. I coached them. I gave them space to find solutions while supporting them along the way. The new leaders you empower will need guidance. They will fall short and fail sometimes. So, keep remembering how that feels, and empathize as you support them.

Make sure to step into the awkward conversations of checking in. You don't want to micromanage, but you do need to track their successes, failures, struggles and unique discoveries. Celebrate their approaches and be willing to help them unpack challenges as they find their place in this new role.

Bringing in new leaders can happen in many ways, but we decided to invest internally. We selected individuals from each of our crafts – e.g., design, development, and sales and marketing – to step up and take their expertise and apply it to developing their teams.

These individuals embodied humble confidence, and they were sure that they could help make each of these craft teams flourish. But we knew that they had a lot to learn as leaders. My business partner, our vice president of engineering, and I spent additional time with them, teaching them how to be great coaches.

Over the first year, they earned trust with their teams, worked through hard conversations, and found their own way of enabling growth in their teams. For them to step into these roles, they needed to replace at least part of themselves in their day-to-day responsibilities. They had to learn how to bring up replacements on their client projects. Similar to how I could become the bottleneck preventing company growth, they ran the risk of becoming the bottleneck preventing team progress.

The idea of replacing yourself isn't always an easy one to swallow. You've shaped this company or team into the fully-functioning machine it is today. What if someone else ruins it? But letting go of control has been one of the best leadership moves I've made in my career because it's empowered others to step up and take ownership, too.

Image Credit: fizkes/Getty Images
George Brooks
George Brooks Member
George Brooks is a digital product designer, strategist, and entrepreneur. He has spent the past 10 years growing a beautiful idea called Crema into a flourishing digital product agency.