Delegating to strong managers is essential to our success as entrepreneurs, but it also chafes at our control-freak beings. We start our businesses performing most of the management functions ourselves, but while it takes an autocrat to successfully start a business, it takes an astute delegator to attract and keep people strong enough to manage our businesses for the long-term. You must do it quickly enough to let people learn from their own mistakes, but not so fast that you risk sinking the business. This conundrum is enough to drive a dyed-in-the-wool control-freak entrepreneur like me nuts.
This is why my favourite co-management scenario is what I call Band of Brothers (Sisters) Management. The term, Band of Brothers, originated with Shakespeare’s Henry V, but it was British naval hero Admiral Nelson who gave the phrase its managerial connotation. Band of Brothers is what he called the captains under his command, and he managed them like a brotherhood.
Royal Navy captains in the 18th century were the corporate control freaks of their time, exercising total autonomy in the management of their ships, even dispensing corporal punishment. But collectively they had to operate as a perfectly synchronized part of a larger fleet, in which victory depended on executing a single, coordinated strategy. The overall strategy was Nelson’s and what he excelled at was very close consultation with everyone until they understood his goals and tactics. His iconic victory at Trafalgar in 1805 was a triumph of out-of-the-box strategy and disciplined captains who followed it to a T.
In fact, Nelson’s Trafalgar strategy is now known as “Crossing the T.” Naval fleets of the day conventionally lined up in two parallel lines and broadsided each other until one side had noticeably fewer ships left afloat than the other. Nelson’s problem was that the combined French and Spanish fleet he was facing outnumbered his own ships so that, gun for gun, he would inevitably lose.
Instead, he led his captains in two straight lines perpendicular to the enemy fleet that ‘crossed the t’ and gave him the advantage of being able to fire from both sides of his ships at once, effectively doubling his firepower. However, to get to that position the British ships first had to bear withering enemy fire. Those autonomous captains had to hold fast and strictly adhere to strategy. Though Nelson lost his life in the conflict, he never lost a ship, and Trafalgar started Napoleon on his downward spiral to defeat.
Running a high-growth business requires working with a similar dynamic of strong egos. You need people to run their divisions with the entrepreneurial ferocity that derives from steering their own ship, but you don’t need loose cannons. How do you strike this balance?
I take Nelson’s Band of Brothers (and Sisters) approach. My direct reports consist of our four directors and my co-founder/vice-president, who collectively oversee every activity in the business. The six of us have the further bond of being the company’s sole shareholders. I meet with each at a dedicated time every week, during which we educate each other on our activities, monitor progress, discuss challenges, review department budgets and everything you would expect in a regular status meeting. Then, of course, there is the ever present subtext and context of these meetings.
The subtext is peer relations—did I mention that my directors all have big egos? (Which is a prerequisite or my own would consume theirs.) Such egos don’t mesh easily into a single team and need ongoing encouragement, lubrication and guidance. So part of these meetings involves working through differences the director may have with departments run by other directors and nurturing sufficient cohesiveness for the weekly directors meeting. This is pure problem solving and finding remedies that both enable the directors in their responsibilities and advance the company’s goals.
The context of our meetings is corporate strategy. We maintain a formal, three-year strategic plan linked directly to our budgeting and financial forecasts. The strategy is my principal responsibility, as is communicating it to the directors and coordinating the efforts of their departments. Our version of Nelson’s Crossing the T is to flank our much larger competitors with a game-changing digital messaging platform we have developed over the past two years. I just wish I could get the description as poetic as Nelson’s.
Of course, the ultimate alignment in our case is equity. Just as Nelson’s captains shared the spoils of war (the prize money from captured enemy ships), we have the rising value of our shared ownership and its eventual wealth implications. It would be difficult for them to be “brothers and sisters” without it, although not impossible.
So raise a glass of grog to Admiral Nelson and his genius of channelling strong egos into united teams.
Read more of Randall Litchfield’s columns.
Randall Litchfield was the editor of PROFIT Magazine from 1986 to 1990 and has been an entrepreneur ever since. He is most recently co-founder of Inbox Marketer Inc., a Guelph, Ont.-based email marketing services firm, and a four-time member of the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies.