Remove bottlenecks but don’t become a bottleneck

13 May, 2024

Without realising, founders and corporate leaders often become chokepoints to growth. Here’s how to recognize and address the problem.

I was chatting with a founder whose venture had seen tremendous success but had been stalling recently. In the initial years, the company was agile, bold, and ready to take on the world. Lately, he felt that as they brought in new senior leaders on board, they were losing their edge, with complexity creeping in and key decisions slowing down.

As I dug deeper, it became apparent that the problem was not with any environmental changes or the influx of new talent. It had more to do with the founder’s struggles to adapt. He was finding it challenging to trust his team and let go of his tendency to get involved in every detail. This was not about relinquishing control but figuring out how to enable others to step up.

Sometimes the biggest bottleneck in an organisation isn’t a process, the people, or the system—it’s the leader themselves.

Think hard.  Could you be the reason your organization has slowed down or stopped growing? This is a tough question for leaders to ask themselves, but necessary, given the seriousness of the implications.

Unfortunately, leaders can unwittingly become bottlenecks in their company, inhibiting growth and efficiency.

Founders are especially at risk: Many of the traits that drive a business’s early success, such as top-down decision-making and being in the weeds, can get in the way of future progress and expansion. A start-up is very different from a scale-up, and founders need to learn how to lead and not run everything by themselves.

In his Harvard Business Review article, investment banker Brett Martin gives the example of a Greek shipping firm built from the ground up by its two co-founders, Aris and Stavros. After the initial strong growth, revenues plateaued for three years straight. The problem? Aris and Stavros insisted on vetting every single proposal personally, causing massive delays in negotiations and causing most prospective clients to go elsewhere. Martin explains:

Aris & Stavros had some very important decisions to make, both financial and personal. Did they aspire to expand at the risk of delivering inferior service or damaging treasured relationships? Or, did they wish to stay small but successful, assured to impress their clients through personal involvement? What was more important to them: growth or control?

As Martin notes, the choice doesn’t have to be quite so black and white. Founders can have growth as well as control, although it may mean redefining these ideas slightly and making certain compromises in the interest of long-term success.

Another way in which bosses can become bottlenecks is by hoarding power and hindering the advancement of top talent. In this scenario, things simply cannot function without the leader being closely involved. With their progress continually stifled, high-performing employees end up departing for greener pastures.

Leaders can fall into the bottleneck trap and stay there for years, not realizing that the company’s most pressing issues stem from their leadership behaviours. As Greg Alexander, the founder of Collective 54, points out:

Leaders who don’t see much movement in their firms…believe that the problem lies elsewhere and is out of their control. Not true. More often than not, a firm that’s trudging along at a snail’s pace — and losing great employees year after year — is being negatively affected by a leader’s bottleneck-style behaviours.

As a leader, it’s vital to watch out for signs that you may have become a bottleneck in your organization.

Do any of these statements ring a bell?

  • I need to be involved in most decisions.
  • Many of our key projects are getting delayed.
  • I spend most of my time in firefighting.
  • I am perpetually over-scheduled. My priorities are endless.
  • Our organisation is seeing high attrition, especially in the senior team.
  • Our competitors seem to be moving faster than us.
  • We are becoming less innovative.
  • Clients/partners/stakeholders only feel special when I interact with them personally.

Stop being a bottleneck

If you look in the mirror and recognize some of the behaviours listed above, it’s time to take action. Consider the following six suggestions to stop being a bottleneck and allow your organization to reach its full potential.

1. Distribute decision-making authority.

A common refrain among entrepreneurs and corporate leaders is that they alone have the knowledge and capability to make all decisions. Like Aris and Stavros (mentioned above), they believe it is vital for every single decision to run through them, stemming from the belief that no one else can be trusted with the job.

While leaders may need to take the ultimate call on high-impact and revenue-generating activities, this does not extend to routine operational and administrative work. A company can truly grow only when decisions (and the information needed to make them) are pushed down the ranks.

No doubt some mistakes will be made — these are part and parcel of every company’s growth journey. Martin’s excellent advice for founders applies equally to leaders who are learning to share decision-making authority:

All founders hate to watch employees make “avoidable” mistakes, but savvy entrepreneurs remember that perfect is the enemy of good (and in many cases, growth). Anticipating employees’ shortcomings is not an excuse to do everything yourself. Successful entrepreneurs know that their time is best spent preparing their employees for potential difficulties and helping those same employees learn from their mistakes. Only then can future mistakes be avoided.

Remember that pushing decisions down is not just about assigning tasks but entrusting responsibilities – it is important to trust the relevant team members. And while you are doing this, it is important that you have the right systems and processes in place to have visibility into what’s going. Many leaders misconstrue delegation – it is not about handing over the keys. You need to make sure that you create establish clear guidelines, define clear expectations, and create the necessary feedback mechanisms. Put a sound operating model in place – with dashboards, high quality reviews and aligned ways of working. That way, you will be in the loop on the important stuff and can step in when your team needs help without having the urge to get into everything.

2. Evolve from a doer to an empowerer/developer.

“Doer leaders” take pride in their ability to get down in the trenches and get things done. Founders, particularly, wear several hats in the early stages of their company’s journey: sales, marketing, finance, recruitment, IT, and more.

Ultimately, every leader needs to evolve from being a doer to more of an empowerer and developer. There are only 24 hours in your day — and an expanding company’s demands go far beyond that. When leaders fail to make this transition, they essentially become micromanagers. Growth slows down and golden opportunities are missed. Plus, micromanaged employees are three times more likely to burn out.

In contrast, the empowerer/developer leaders” invest their time and energy towards educating and enabling capable employees. Functional roles, especially, should be passed on to team members with the right expertise — they will likely add more value than you can. You might see a short-term dip in quality or efficiency, but keep in mind this is the only way to increase the overall capacity of the business. Once people settle into their new responsibilities, leaders can turn their attention to the next big challenge or opportunity.

3. Clean up your schedule, re-prioritize ruthlessly.

An overscheduled leader is prone to all kinds of bottleneck behaviours, from hogging decisions to micromanaging. Take a long, hard look at everything on your plate. Are you spread too thin? Reset personal priorities based on your organization’s current reality (this is especially relevant for founders in the process of scaling up their business). Delete or delegate every single task that cannot be classified as high-impact or revenue-generating. Spending time on this work is not a good use of your time.

4. Share your knowledge.

As you encourage team members to take ownership of new duties and make independent decisions, it is vital to share your knowledge with them — instead of being a human repository that needs to be continually consulted. In her piece on Medium, Julie Penner, who has worked with and invested in over 70 early-stage companies over her career, elaborates:

There’s one person who seems to know all the answers and own all the relationships. That person tries to unload tasks, but work is so intertwined, it’s hard. The person assigned the task doesn’t have all the information they need to complete it, so they go back to the leader for more information and it ends up being more work than if the leader had just done it themselves in the first place.

To get past this roadblock, document all pertinent information, insights and learnings in a way that can be easily passed on. This will allow incoming team members to pick up from where you left off, get things done properly, and ensure that nothing slips through the cracks. Documentation takes time and can feel somewhat wasteful (especially in the frenetic world of startups), but it is indispensable to speed and scale over the longer term.

Along with knowledge, it’s also important to share relationships. Bottleneck leaders often take on a disproportionate share of equations with clients, partners and other stakeholders. If this sounds familiar, now is a good time to start handing over some of these relationships to trustworthy employees who have proven their mettle.

5. Develop rules-of-thumb.

Another excellent suggestion from Penner is to create heuristics — simple guiding principles that help employees make choices and act in alignment with the company’s core mission. Examples include Southwest Airlines (“We are THE low-cost airline”) and Patagonia (“We’re in business to save our home planet”). These clear, catchy rules offer a benchmark for daily decision-making.

6. Cultivate future leaders.

Ultimately, if you don’t trust your team, you will have the constant itch to be involved in everything. So, hire right and develop confidence in your leaders. Bring on board individuals who will fit in with your context and culture. At the same time, nurture and develop your internal talent. Accelerate their progress through increased responsibilities and opportunities, supported by training and development. Cultivating future leaders not only helps to retain top talent and bolster current momentum but also enables the organization to continue thriving once you redefine your role.

The Theory of Constraints tells us that the output of a system is determined by one bottleneck. When the leader becomes the constraint, they limit the capacity and growth of the entire organization. If you are the reason your company has plateaued, don’t stick your head in the sand. Stop being a barrier by distributing authority, sharing knowledge and giving your employees the support they need to grow into more ambitious roles. Boost your personal impact by focusing on high-impact leadership tasks, instead of getting mired in the nitty-gritty of work that can be handled equally well (or even better!) by talented people in your organization.


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