Letting go

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Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less, love more; and all good things are yours.” –Swedish Proverb

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Perhaps one of the hardest things for any small business owner to do – and this is especially true in the trucking community – is “letting go” of responsibility.

Now, this is NOT by any stretch of the imagination an invitation for owners to hand over the keys to their fleet and then go on permanent vacation in the South Pacific.

But “letting go” does mean owners should delegate authority over time to proven staffers, for as a trucking company grows, one person – no matter how talented – simply cannot do it all.

And if one person TRIES to do it all, especially as a business grows, the results can often be less than ideal.

That’s one of the points Jerry Osteryoung, professor emeritus of finance with the College of Business at Florida State University, stressed in one of his columns recently.

“Growing a business, even in today’s economy, requires change and an ability to adapt, particularly where behaviors are concerned,” he explained. “You just cannot continue to operate the way you have in the past and expect to take the company to the next level.”

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Running a mature and dynamic operation requires a different set of skills than starting a business, and many entrepreneurs often find it tough to adjust, Osteryoung (at left) noted.

“As businesses grow, they typically get stuck at two levels: around 10 or 15 employees and around 75 employees,” he pointed out. “At both of these sticking points, it becomes necessary to introduce a new management environment with a new set of systems and procedures. The entrepreneur must let go of how he or she managed in the past – making every decision, for instance – and adopt a much more hands-off management style.”

Osteryoung used an entrepreneur from the travel technology industry as an example – a firm had been in operation for just over eight years, with sales at a plateau of around $1 million annually.

“Since day one, the owner had been the firm’s only real salesman,” he said. “This arrangement may have worked at the beginning, but as the firm grew, the owner inherited more and more responsibilities, including managing his 12 employees. He spent almost all of his time working ‘in’ the business rather than working ‘on’ the business. With sales efforts falling off, the company was suffering.”

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When Osteryoung tried to encourage him to bring in an assistant who could help with the operational details or hire a new sales person, the owner just couldn’t do it.

“Bringing in someone new would mean he would have to let go of his old behaviors, relinquish management of the minutia and focus on the tasks that would help the business expand,” Osteryoung said. “We had many, many discussions to show him how his behaviors were keeping the company from achieving its full potential, but convincing him was tough. He had seen his behaviors work well when he started the company and was sure they were working still.”

A nice compromise came in the form of making small adjustments to this owner’s management style – delegating small amounts of responsibility here and there.

“He proved more tolerant of these small changes, and after seeing the success he was having, he was more willing to try our other suggestions,” Osteryoung noted. “Little by little, the entrepreneur implemented all the necessary changes and his company is now doing much better.”

Now, a lot of trucking company owners might read all of this and think, “It’s just more of that ‘modern manager’ mumbo jumbo. I know what I’m doing and it works.”

Ah, but it’s not. In fact, delegating authority is a time-honored business stratagem – just look at the career of Josiah Gorgas, for example.

If the name isn’t familiar, don’t be surprised. Few remember the Confederacy's chief of ordnance during the U.S. Civil war, which began 150 years ago. I wrote a column about Gorgas, the man in charge of supplying Southern armies with rifles, cannons, gunpowder and bullets, almost 10 years ago myself, but his example is worth a look by today’s trucking owners and managers alike.

Gorgas developed an unfailing supply of munitions and he did it with the worst possible logistics and supply-chain scenario. In Battle Cry of Freedom, author James M. McPherson describes Gorgas as an unsung hero of the Confederacy. “Unsung, because while other men were winning glory and promotion on the battlefield, officers like him — without whom the battles could not have been fought — languished in the lower ranks.”

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Dr. Frank E. Vandiver, former president of Texas A&M University, put it this way in an interview I conducted with him about his book, Ploughshares to Swords: Josiah Gorgas & Confederate Ordnance.

Gorgas (at left) deserves high rank among the true geniuses of American logistics,” Vandiver told me. “He took over an impossible job, literally trying to make bricks without straw.”

But his real genius was in picking good subordinates, he explained: “He'd trust them and let them do their jobs. He was a marvelous delegator, pushing authority down to where the responsibility was. He shucked as much detail as he could, wanting his subordinates to be as independent as possible.”

Gorgas held his subordinates accountable, of course, firing those who failed in their jobs, but he also backed them up to the hilt if and when they stepped on toes trying to complete their missions.

It may be worth noting that Gorgas wasn't exactly a likeable fellow. Historian Louise Carroll characterized him as a “cool, aloof man, who appeared perpetually irritated.” Yet despite his lack of charm, Gorgas inspired great things from the men under his command — largely because he let them do their jobs and made sure they knew he had their back.

As my good friend Tim Brady always says, this gives trucking owners and managers trying to deal with the volatility in business today something to think about at the very least.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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