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Risky Business: Who’s in Charge When You Step Away?

If you dream of slipping the bonds binding you to the business you built, you have to learn to delegate—and trust


by Kara Baskin

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You grew your business from a tiny seed, but now it’s time for a break. Maybe you want to travel, or volunteer, or spend time with family. You know the reward is well-earned, but how do you loosen the reins and trust someone else with your baby? Andy Atkins knows how. Named a Top 100 Thought Leader by Trust Across America, Atkins is the Chief Innovation Officer at Interaction Associates.

According to Atkins, we need to reframe the concept of trust. “Most people who are transitioning leadership worry that their replacement needs to do something in particular in order to get the job done. But it’s not just about their skills. It’s about you doing the right things to let go,” he says. “Trust is a willingness to put yourself at risk based on another person’s behavior or actions. In years of doing management development coaching, we always focused on making sure managers knew how to delegate. But it’s not that people don’t know how to delegate. It’s that they don’t know how to trust.”

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Here’s a three-step plan to build that trust:

Step 1: Trust someone based on their past behavior. Look for an employee who has displayed the ability to take on progressively greater degrees of responsibility. Then remember: “You’ll be putting them into a scenario that may be different from anything they’ve done prior. Resilience and adaptability are key,” Atkins says. These qualities are just as important as their actual on-paper accomplishments.

Step 2: Trust someone based on expertise, not on similarity to you. “Don’t let a halo effect cloud your eyes,” Atkins warns. “When choosing someone for a new role, we tend to overvalue things that are important to us personally but not important to the position.” For instance, just because you have an MBA, don’t automatically trust someone else with one, too. Instead, evaluate their specific track record. 

      See also: Are you Making the Right Moves To Keep Your Key Employees?

Step 3: Trust someone who shares your goals—and give them a stake in the company’s success. “The key here is involvement and a sense of shared responsibility,” says Atkins. Instead of telling an underling your vision for the company’s future and asking them to get behind it, take their views into account and ask for advice on trying to meet a goal. “It’s not about ceding decision rights; it’s about considering the degree to which a colleague could add something valuable, seriously evaluating it, and being open-minded.” Colleagues who feel like meaningful contributors will care about the company as much as you do—giving you peace of mind to enjoy that time away.

Photo Credit: Tim Robberts/Getty