Are You an Octopus?

by Tom Stocker

Is your business in control or do you control your business? Being an octopus stifles growth; revenue, creative, personal, profit and worker to name a few. Evaluate yourself. And be candid. Does everyone in your organization come to you to make a decision, big or small? Do you have a basic feeling that no one can do “it” better than you? Is it easier to do it yourself rather than show someone? Do you delegate? And when you do, do you give the person you are delegating to very specific instructions? Do you find it hard to get good people, and if you do find that person they end up leaving? How many hours had you worked already by the end of Wednesday following your last vacation? Do you have a short temper for suggestions? Do you ask for options? Do you make all the “big” decisions by yourself? Often wonder why no one in your organization is “thinking”?

If you are an octopus you may not realize it but you’ve trained your staff to let you be. For example, how often does your controller or bookkeeper come to you with a problem, perhaps about a collection issue? Do they bring you all the facts, information, alternatives and their favored suggestion for resolution? Or do they just bring data and wait for instructions? How often do you need to stop what you are doing, look at the data, hear their problem then have to send them back for more information; maybe with instructions about what you may need to make a decision? How do you think it would be if most problems came with suggested alternatives? Even better, what if the conversation was more about informing you what was being done rather than asking for your instructions?

“A” companies work this way. Most problems brought to superiors have already been analyzed for possible solutions and through the analysis the best alternative is presented. The manager is not necessarily being asked to decide, but approve the direction the employee is taking. In some cases, the alternative presented may not be the solution the manager would have preferred and subsequent peer to peer discussion to decide the best direction occurs. Subordinates are encouraged and expected to have alternatives and to be able to defend their chosen solution.

Where are you in your business cycle? If you are a start-up, being an octopus is part of the plan. You’re figuring everything out. You don’t have the cash you need to hire everyone you’d like to. But if you are past the critical stage of start-up, and you are still the octopus, it’s time to assess why. It doesn’t matter whether you are profitable or not, something is wrong. Your management style is holding you back.

An octopus may not realize the culture they have created. But over time, the octopus will get tired. The business may not be as exhilarating as it once was. Frustration may set in because no matter how hard he/she is working, the business doesn’t respond. Employees can’t or won’t help; they’ve been taught that their opinions aren’t valued. If they have been in the company long enough, they may not remember how. They may have become complacent and comfortable to let the boss do all the lifting. The business isn’t under control.

Earlier in the article I mentioned ‘A’ players don’t last long working for an octopus. They won’t tolerate just being a “doer”. It’s not in their nature. They need the mental stimulation of working though problems and don’t understand when they aren’t heard. Although the octopus may have great regard for that individual’s ability, the octopus has a hard time changing their ways. They may not give the responsibility the subordinate feels they should have. Ultimately, that person will get frustrated and leave.

An enlightened octopus won’t let that happen. Getting the business in control will require the octopus to delegate…and have the patience to let it sink in and work. When people step up to make the business easier, the octopus must embrace it. Challenge subordinates to provide their opinions, alternatives and solutions on a regular basis. A change won’t happen overnight and will require a significant amount of coaching and effort on your part. Empower employees to do the same thing with their reports. This is a serious change in direction for an octopus company. Many employees will be unsettled and may not be able to accept the change. It could drive away long-term employees. You may sometimes have to make employee changes yourself. But the change will be for the better of all involved.

One of the biggest positives of this change is the effect it will have on company growth. Over time, you will be able to concentrate on the things necessary to increase revenues or whatever your specialty may be. Others have stepped up to run their own areas, and with little “help” from you. Interruptions for every little thing occur less frequently. Staff is more energized. You will start to notice talents you didn’t realize employees had, and you will find you are actually having fun again.

Changing from an octopus doesn’t happen easily, and you may not be able to do it. But the consequences of not changing can be harsh. You will forever be saddled with ‘B’ and ‘C’ level employees. Revenue and profit growth will always be sub-optimal. With a weak team and one clear decision-maker your company will be considered a risk and you may not be able to get the financing you need and certainly the value of the business will be less than optimal. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Generally an octopus needs someone to help them change. This can come in the form of a trusted advisor, coach or mentor. It could also be a key subordinate, but this generally doesn’t work well as that individual has their own job to do and coaching the boss isn’t something very many people look forward to doing. Sometimes a board of advisors or an organization like Vistage can help, but generally the coach or mentor is the best choice as they have been hired to help with the change. Although CEO or owner groups are good peer to peer groups and can definitely help, they can’t provide the same depth and attention as the coach or mentor.

So to start the transformation, what is one to do? First come to the realization that being an octopus is not good for the long-term value of your company. A company similar to yours with a more disciplined and distributed management style is most likely stronger, growing faster and attracting the type of empowered employees you need to help you reach your goals. To be competitive you must change in order to allow your company to change. You are going to need the help of your employees. They will need to change as well.

Having a plan is important to making the transformation. As you work toward educating employees to analyze the data and produce potential alternatives and solutions, it will be important to spend time explaining your new expectations. In some cases you may need to show how analysis of the data will lead to multiple alternatives and make it easier to have meaningful discussions.

And in all cases, when employees come looking for your input and instructions, start asking one of these questions; “What are my options?” or “What do you suggest?” At first they may not know what to say or do, but over time you will see the transformation of your company from an octopus company to a company in control.


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