“I don’t want to grow too big” are words I very often hear from business owners, when we start a business planning project. My understanding of their opinion is that, at that time, their businesses are already pushing them to the limit, stressing them out and not giving them the time or financial rewards that they want. My reply is the common business idiom ‘It can be easier to steer a ship than to row a boat’, but these words can be hard to absorb for the business owners stuck in the trenches. Knowing the difference between ‘rowing’ and ‘steering’ is an essential first step, which must be followed by making changes to the way you work; the transition takes time, persistence and some nerve.

Rowing the boat

Most of us started our businesses doing everything ourselves, bootstrapped to the eyeballs and juggling faster than Cirque de Soleil. It’s necessary to get started, but obviously not a long-term viable strategy for growth. Even with a small team, most business owners are still hands-on and involved in pretty much everything that goes on in the business. It works OK on a small scale but there’s no buffer, rough conditions throw the business around and there’s only room for a few in the boat. Everyone is on for the ride. And it’s exhausting, with all the energy to drive the business coming from you. You can only go so far and so fast, with growth always limited by capacity. Small boats are very vulnerable to sudden changes in conditions: staff leaving, losing a client, changes to technology or economy can capsize the business.

Steering the ship

By comparison, steering a bigger business sounds like a piece of cake, with employees to help and focus on the bigger picture. Making the transition is a notoriously difficult one, with the business owner so used to rowing that they find it hard to change their habits and focus on the new set of skills they must develop. Rather than being reactive, dealing with the ups and downs, they must assume a long-term view and let their team manage more of the daily operations. Steering a ship requires that the owner takes a big picture view; of seeing storms on the horizon, making sure the course is the safest and there is enough fuel for the journey. For the business owner, that means doing different things with your day and thinking differently about the business. Your focus needs to be on:

  • Building the team that makes your business hum, recruiting the right people, planning for future needs and building a culture that makes your business a great place to work.
  • Overseeing projects rather than doing them, with every fix needed treated as an opportunity to teach the team rather than jumping in yourself.
  • Managing the finances of the business – not just for right now, but also for the future, to ensure there is enough cash for growth and business functions.
  • Maintaining and developing relationships with suppliers and clients, identifying opportunities that come from strategic relationships.
  • Watching the changes in the economy, regulations, laws, your industry and the world that can disrupt the business or create new opportunities.

Case study

In a recent project, the business owners of a fast-growing plumbing business sought advice to determine the best path for themselves to continue growing their business, so we created a Business and Action Plan. In business for many years, they were typical rowers: mostly still working with clients, pushed from one side to another with every cashflow shock, at risk of staff leaving and working on a day-day basis with little long-term direction. For the business owners to become steerers, we put an annual plan in place, then started to look at the long-term, including staffing needs, a financial plan, better accounting practices, improved reports, team culture and the best services to focus on for best profit. The owner started to oversee projects, build the team and open new business networks for their preferred projects.

The transition from boat rower to ship captain is one that is not successfully made very often, with the mindset of the business owner a big obstacle. There is a lot to learn, and a need for the owner to let go of many responsibilities; it’s very easy for owners to be back ‘on the tools’ during rough patches. To make the transition requires persistence, but is necessary to take your business to the next level.