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Illustration: Graham Roumieu

A few years ago, Chandra Clarke, who runs Scribendi, an editing and proofreading firm, had some stickers printed up to affix to all the workstations in the office. They read, “Feed or shoot the monkey.” The expression was meant to encourage her staff to think about how high up the organization’s food chain any given question needs to travel.

Clarke has run the Chatham, Ont., company since 1997 and realized, as it began to attract more and more work, that she and her partner needed to do less. “What is the highest and best use of our time?” she asks herself and her staff. Enter the cheeky stickers, which were inspired by a hugely popular 1974 Harvard Business Review essay about how managers should deal with the torrent of responsibilities on their to-do lists. Giving staff the agency to make decisions for themselves, says Clarke, has empowered her employees to come up with decisions and options.

Entrepreneurs who are too hands-on can gum up an organization’s machinery. “At a certain point in the development of the company, the owner has to delegate or the business stalls,” says Jim Skinner, a marketing and entrepreneurship professor at Humber College. But learning to let go is seldom easy.

Skinner recommends beginning by taking time to identify the tasks and functions you can off-load (some, like key client relationships, for instance, should not be delegated) and then systemically giving them away. Key to that process, he adds, is publicly and formally granting authority to a manager or employee, thus communicating that shift to everyone in the firm.

At custom printer Posterjack, president Tim Faught sets the tone by encouraging his employees to take ownership of their decisions. Having worked in the past for entrepreneurs whose micromanaging wasted “so much time,” Faught says he stresses to employees that if something goes wrong, there won’t be any pointing of fingers. And when he recruits, he explicitly tells hires they’ll have lots of autonomy and responsibility. “They see [that culture of trust] from the very first day,” he explains.

Both Clarke and Faught say that by shedding onus for smaller decisions, they have time and space to focus on long-term strategic planning and new opportunities. There are other dividends, too. “Our employee retention rates are awesome,” observes Faught. “I think it’s working well.”

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