CHICAGO — You run a small shop with several experienced employees. Business is great and the customers love you, but the grind is getting to you. It seems like nothing gets done unless you’re there. Thus, you have to be there all the time. Sound familiar?
This is the solo-operator syndrome, otherwise known as the curse of the small-business owner. Your business is you, and therefore the demands on your time and energy are all-consuming. You might have a spouse as the “other” boss, but that creates another problem—inbreeding.
Wouldn’t it be better for your marital partnership if he or she developed her own interests and pursuits? Not to mention the extra money that would accrue with a second income-earner. Also, how can you manage family vacations?
There is another solution. You (or you and your partner/spouse) can develop a second-in-command—someone who steps in to assume the mantle of “boss” when you’re not there. Having a second-in-command might cost you more than just having a good employee, but it will be worth it for the sake your business and your mental health.
The first step is to be willing to give up some of your leadership role. Giving up control means letting someone else have the responsibility to make decisions. Not everyone has an easy time letting go of the reins, of course.
When a person makes a bad decision—alienates a customer or buys the wrong soap—it won’t do any good to yell. Your job is to explain why the decision was not the best course he or she could have taken. If a machine breaks down and time is lost, you must patiently instruct your second-in-command how to solve the problem next time.
In developing a second-in-command, select the staffer most likely to rise to the challenge. This individual may be your cleaner, a trusted presser or a front-end manager. He or she is an honest person who has the company’s best interests at heart. And he or she is willing (for extra pay) to step up to the plate.
This might take some coaxing. After all, the individual signed up to be a presser, not a manager. There’s a difference between running a press and facing an angry customer, or dealing with a fellow worker who had a bit too much to drink last night and won’t cooperate.
Furthermore, a second-in-command can find their new status tricky. Most of the time, he or she is just a presser or cleaner. But you chose this person because, time and again, you called on him or her to perform a management task, and he or she came through.
Why do you pick one person over another? Because you sense that there’s more to the individual than what’s on the surface. You feel that this particular person has the confidence and inner strength to walk the fine line required of a second-in-command.
When you’re away, staffers approach him or her for guidance. He or she faces angry customers, and makes customer-saving decisions. When a machine breaks down, he or she knows who to call—and does the calling. If a vendor visits, he or she is familiar enough with the accounts and supply demands to be able to carry on a conversation.
Obviously, for an individual to accept this level of increased responsibility, he or she must be rewarded with a raise. Will $1 an hour work? $2 an hour? A full salary and benefits? It depends on the business, the individuals and the amount of time you—the management—spends away from work.
You will have a conversation something like this: “Pat, you’re now my second-in-command, and I am going to depend on you more and more,” you’ll say. “When I’m not there, you’re in charge. That’s why I’m raising your salary $2.00 an hour. It may not be every day, but I’ll probably be away for an afternoon a couple of times a week.
“Of course, there will be no more saying, ‘The boss will be back at 5:00’ if you accept the offer. You’ll be in charge, and I will expect you to solve whatever comes up—not just postpone the inevitable for me to take care of when I return.”
Assuming he or she accepts, you will then need to train, train, train your second-in-command. As you run the operation, feed him or her the information he or she needs to know. Review each situation as it comes up, offer advice, and offer a critique on what was done well and what was not.
The tone is crucial. You can’t say, “You should have done it this way, stupid.” You want to say, “The problem is this; the alternatives are this, this and this. We prefer the first solution whenever possible, and the second when it isn’t. Here’s why.”
Give the second-in-command a notebook so he or she can jot down pertinent information, phone numbers and technical jargon. He or she will soon get in the habit of taking notes, which will improve performance.
Make sure both of you understand your roles. You are the boss; there’s no question about that. But when you aren’t there or when you call on your second-in-command, he or she morphs into a different role—he or she is management, and represents you. He or she is not management when you’re on the premises.
It can be a tricky balancing act, but the two of you can work it out, and it may lead to an increase in responsibility for your second-in-command as the business grows. For now, it means peace-of-mind for you and a better paycheck for a staffer you trust.
The key to developing a good second-in-command lies in selection and grooming. Go with your gut and develop the person’s leadership skills with patience and understanding, and you’ll be happy that you have a new shadow to back you up.