You started your business and you’ve worked hard to grow it. But now you’re working harder than ever before and have no idea why. What you do know is that your current approach is unsustainable. You’re unhappy, your relationships are suffering, your health is suffering, and your reality is far from what you expected when you started your business. You feel trapped on a hamster wheel, spending your days going round and round. The good news is you can get off and turn things around – have that life and business you dreamed of – but it’s going to take some more work, just of a different kind.
Most business owners I speak to experience this scenario. Maybe it’s because all businesses go through this at some point, or perhaps it’s because they have the necessary awareness to acknowledge it and seek change when they come to me. Either way, it’s distressing to me that so many business owners are going through such a tough time. You only have to look at the rate of mental health issues amongst entrepreneurs to see just how tough it is.
Based on my experience, business owners hit the ceiling because how to run a business is not something we are ever taught. We are taught all kinds of unnecessary things, but this vital skill is somehow lost. For example, it’s not taught in the trades, where we know a high proportion of people will eventually go out on their own. My BA in Business and Commerce didn’t even cover it, and I majored in Business Management! The one degree I thought for sure would cover the mechanics of running a business left me wanting. I graduated with a pretty plaque to hang on the wall, but I didn’t even know how to write a business plan. The sad part is that most of my coursemates were there because they wanted to start their own business; they were studying at night to get ahead, but it really missed the mark.
What does ‘hitting the ceiling’ look like?
Metaphorically speaking, hitting the ceiling means you, as the business owner, are working ridiculous hours and still not getting ahead. You may have some staff, but they aren’t working effectively and seem to require your assistance all the time. Even though you need to, you can’t bring on anyone else because you don’t have the time to deal with them. You have work lined up, but you don’t know how you’re going to deliver it all. You’re spending less and less time away from work, and the other areas of your life – family, friends, health, etc. – are suffering. There are several matters that need to be addressed at the back end of the business, but you just don’t have the time or the energy to address them. People are chasing you for your invoices, but you can’t even find a spare thirty minutes in your day to prepare and send them. Ironically, your lack of time to prepare invoices, together with inconsistent sales and delivery, has led to cash flow issues. The list could go on, but I think I’ve painted a good picture of what the ceiling looks like and probably where you are now. This is generally what the first ceiling looks like for a business, but be aware that there may be others as you grow.
What’s the solution?
Fortunately, the solution is always the same no matter how many ceilings you may hit in your business journey, and that solution is to leverage. You need to leverage every part of your business so you can grow and successfully smash through every ceiling that threatens to derail you. Let’s look at how to achieve this.
When you hit the first ceiling in your business journey, you leverage by creating the structure and foundations for growth. These foundations include systems, documentation like policies and procedures, and a strategic direction. You need to make it so that your business never relies on any single person, not even you. Your business needs to run independently of every individual; if someone can’t be there or someone leaves, the show must go on.
Creating the right foundations should be done systematically. I have created an effective outline of what you need to do below.
Firstly, I suggest you create a framework for managing your business. Do this by:
- Documenting your strategic direction, outlining where you are going and what you are trying to do.
- Establishing and communicating your goals, both long term and short term.
- Creating a methodology for achieving your goals. Hold yourself and your team, if you have one, accountable to those goals.
Secondly, start to document how things work. Your documentation should include:
- The company’s structure and workflows, so that you have an overarching guide of how your business works.
- The responsibilities of each role so that everyone knows their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. This is important to do even if you are the only one in the business because, as a sole operator, you are wearing multiple hats, not just performing one role, e.g. sales, marketing, operations, finance, etc.
- Begin at the top of your company's structure and work your way down, documenting the how-tos for each role. Include policies, procedures, forms, checklists, and so on. Basically, you must create a handbook for each role so that anyone can perform it.
Last but not least, create the systems. Start by identifying the patterns in your business. What policies and procedures work together to produce a bigger process? For example, you may have a recruitment procedure, an onboarding procedure and a training procedure in place. These would form the foundation of your staff hiring and training system. All of the systems that make your business work need to be identified, refined and implemented.
In this article, I have identified a high-level overview of what you need to do – and what I have the privilege of helping my clients with every day – to leverage your business to prevent work overload and hitting the ceiling. Implement these few suggestions, and you will create the leverage you need to get you off the hamster wheel so you can grow your business sustainably and thrive. With all of this in place, you will own a business reliant on systems, policies, and procedures rather than you.