Pilots, Parachutes, and Air Traffic Controllers: Managing Your Business as an Entrepreneur
Every day I have the privilege of interacting with entrepreneurs with companies and impacts of all sizes, from a few thousand in revenue a year to many millions in profits each year. I generally notice entrepreneurs falling into two types.
Pilot entrepreneurs are the big picture thinkers. They have bold ideas but stick up their noses at the idea of getting their hands dirty or are too distracted implementing their next great idea to follow through on executing their previous one.
Parachute entrepreneurs dive in on every little problem. They value being involved in the day-to-day operations of the business but typically end up focusing on low-impact problems that are easily solvable just to create a sense of accomplishment. They fail to think ahead to the long-term course of the business.
While any entrepreneur tends towards one of these types more than the other, all entrepreneurs are guilty of falling into both traps at times.
Successful entrepreneurs reject both types and take on the role of the air traffic controller. They have an eye on every component of the business at once, see how every part fits together, and know when to zero in on a single element to guide it effectively.
Here’s how to approach your work with the mindset of the air traffic controller:
It’s About the Planes, Not About You
As the pilot or the parachutist, you feel like the hero. As the air traffic controller, you realize it’s about the business, not you. Check your ego. If you really want to grow your business, eventually you’re going to have to let it get bigger than yourself. This means letting go of small problems and allowing someone else to handle them.
That said, as the business owner, you have to be ready and able to guide any individual project. The buck stops with you. If you think you’re “above” doing any part of your business, you shouldn’t have started it.
Create Flight Paths
As your business grows, a big part of your role is going to be developing the processes that make up the business. When you’re managing a lot or know someone could do something better than you, it’s natural to want to take yourself out of the process and outsource immediately. Well, no shit you’re not an expert at everything. But you need to understand how it works. When something is happening for the first time (your first marketing campaign, your first podcast episode, your first pitch deck presentation), you need to be involved.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t ask for help or that you always have to do it yourself from here on out. But you should understand any project well enough that you can create a clear process for someone else to take it over. Spending time with your processes will also make you better at articulating the clear outcomes you expect once you’re ready to delegate.
Swoop In and Swoop Out
You need to be both hands-on and thinking about the bigger picture, but it won’t always feel clear when to do which. Ask yourself this question:
What will my involvement here contribute to my long-term goals for the business?
This could mean deciding you need to be highly involved in the sales side of the business in the early stages. It might mean being the one to create and give an important investor presentation, or it might mean letting a more skilled designer handle the creation of the pitch deck while you bring your energy and expertise to the presentation itself. It might mean completely letting go of a problem for someone else to handle.
You need to think strategically in deciding where your skillset and commitment to the business have the power to create the highest return and where your getting involved is distracting you from higher-order concerns.
Unlike the pilot or the parachutist, the air traffic controller also sees more than the singular problem in front of them. In other words, you should also always have one eye on the sky for new opportunities for growth.
You’re an entrepreneur because you want to have the freedom to control your own destiny. Don’t give up the parts of your job that you genuinely enjoy just because someone else could be doing them.
How Does This Look in Action?
In any given week, what I’m doing changes day-to-day. I might find myself:
- reviewing financial diligence (after doing this myself enough times, I can trust someone else to pull the data, but I still consider it my job to review the work and make final decisions)
- documenting a process for scheduling blog posts (my rule of thumb: if it happens more than three times or takes more than an hour of my time to complete)
- designing pitch decks and giving presentations (leveraging my abilities for the greatest impact on the long-term success of the business)
- design work (I love design, so I always hang on to some of this for myself)
There is no singular route to success. It’s up to you to both decide the course and do everything in your power to guide your business and your team there.
What’s something you do which isn’t a good use of your time or could be passed off to someone else?