business advice | May 28, 2019 |
I’m terrible at delegating and miss being hands-on as my firm grows. What should I do?

Dear Sean,

As I've grown my firm, I’ve had to delegate work to my employees. I’m grateful for the success, but the team is big enough, and we have enough work, that I’m no longer able to be hands-on for every part of every project the way I’d like to be, and I’m struggling to adapt. How do I figure out what to let go of and what to hold on to?

Onwards and Upwards

Dear Onwards and Upwards,

Watching your baby grow into an adult is an apt metaphor for what is happening in your business: Perhaps you know everything that’s happening in your teenager’s life—but likely not. And while you might wish for the days when you were your child’s universe, the very definition of successful parenting is to nurture successful adults who meaningfully contribute to our society on their own, happy and confident in their ability to be self-sustaining. Your design business is no different. The only real difference is you, and what you need to feel happy and confident in your current role.

Here is where we take a left turn. The answer to your dilemma is where you fall on the Jimmy Carter–to–Ronald Reagan spectrum. As president, Carter was a well-documented micromanager, while Reagan was a famous delegator. I wrote a post in 2012 about this very topic. In short:

Many professionals and people much smarter than me will tell you that the key is to let go. I even thought so when I first started consulting three years ago. As with all things, I have evolved my thinking to the following: You have to be who you are. The information you need is the information you need. Nobody is allowed to judge the quality or quantity of the information, they just have to be in the business of supplying it to you how and when you need it. What you do have to let go of is only that it is your job to create the information. It is not and cannot be. The value of information is in its communication.

Once you decide what level of information is important for you to receive to feel good about what is happening in the areas of your business you no longer control—the information you need even from your teenager, as it were—you can begin to assess what your role will be. The point, as I made in my post, is that your comfort zone is your comfort zone. What you need to know, how you need to know it and when you need to know it is completely and utterly up to you.

I suspect that you are suffering from the “shoulds.” You believe that with a firm the size of yours you should not need to know about the nitty-gritty of X, but that’s just not true. You can get whatever information you need today—and if it gives you comfort, that is good enough for me. Establish an information flow that is authentic to you so that your team is getting you the information you need to feel secure in the daily workings of the business, delivered when and how you need it. (What you cannot do is change your mind every other day. That will make everyone crazy, yourself very much included!) With that information flow set in place, freedom from the notion that something is slipping through the cracks will open you to new opportunities.

As you work to establish your own role in your firm, search not based on what you believe is the most valuable part of what you do, but instead based on what brings you the most joy—the thing that matters to you as a business owner, sure, but also as an artist. In today’s world, you can outsource just about anything, and it sounds like your team could handle most, if not all, of a project without you. Who cares? If the reason you got into design is to see your client’s face when you finish your install, not being there because you “do not have to be” (or because it isn’t ”the most efficient use of your time”) is a fool’s errand. Instead, focus on why you find so much gratification in the install, and what it does for you and your client, without any of the pressures you used to face when you were a one-person show. Perhaps you will then see the line of accessories that needs to exist, and you can now set out to design them in a way you never could have before.

Please erase the box of “shoulds” that have to happen now that your design business has grown to the place where it no longer needs your vigilance. Unlike parenting a child, you started your creative business so that one day it would nurture you and take you to places you could never have contemplated when you started. You are there now; give yourself permission to embrace joy, your joy, as the essence of the opportunity tomorrow will bring. The rest will take care of itself.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.