Why even the self-employed still need a ‘boss.’

It was late 1992. I was having a drink with Frank Blau right after I was hired to help get a new organization off the ground. Frank was telling me his views on management, delegation, hiring, motivation and people development. I was on the edge of my seat listening. Forty years of business experience was being shared with me for the price of a Brandy Old Fashion.

I was feeling important and privileged. I must be pretty good for a man of Frank’s stature to trust me with the fate of his dream organization.

Right after Frank’s management discussion, he got quiet and leaned a bit closer to me. As he got closer, his unblinking eyes became huge - partly for emphasis, mostly due to the magnification of his thick glasses. I expected something profound. One more pearl of wisdom was about to drop.

“Jack, I love you and trust you to do a good job,” he finally said. “But if you make a stupid mistake, you’re ass is grass and I’m the lawnmower.”

I tell you that story to illustrate this point - everybody needs accountability. If left to my own devices, no way would I have been as motivated to succeed. Said another way, if I didn’t have to answer to Frank for my actions, I would not have been successful - period.

In contrast, the average independent contractor/owner answers to no one. In fact, an owner basks in the false pride of fierce individualism. Many contractors will say “My boss is my customer,” or “I answer to the ultimate tyrant - the marketplace,” or - my personal favorite - “I am a servant leader; I work for my employees.”

A Boss? Me?

The average contractor needs to look in the mirror and realize he or she needs a boss.

Have you ever heard the old phrase: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? While it’s typically said of kings and dictators, it may as well be said of contractor/owners. Without a check and balance in life, owners begin to lose perspective and judgment. Maybe not on the scale and magnitude of a tin horn dictator, but harmful enough to a business and employees in much the same way.

Poor decisions are made without consulting others. Important actions are delayed by indecision. No one questions why a deadline is missed. In fact deadlines stop being made at all. Isolated contractors begin to surround themselves with comfortable people - yes men, suck-ups and sycophants of all stripes. People who get indignant with the management style are summarily dismissed as troublemakers and malcontents. Wise King Solomon penned, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.” The richest, most successful man of his time, Solomon understood the value of outside perspective.

Let me define what I mean by “boss” and why even a self-employed contractor needs one. First, a boss does not have to be someone you report to each day. For the independent contractor/owner, a boss could take at least three forms:

  • An outside board of advisors/directors. A growing number of successful owners are employing a structured board of advisors. This group provides counsel to the contractor on important business decisions. They know important initiatives the contractor is undertaking and holds them accountable to meet deadlines. A strong board of advisors will take the owner to task for poor decisions and missed deadlines.

  • A business partner. Look around our industry and you will see many of the most successful companies are run by trusted partners. Individuals of high integrity who hold each other accountable and are there to kick around ideas or think through decisions before they are introduced to the company. No doubt their recipe for business success includes personal accountability to each other.

  • A business coach/consultant. Many successful contractors have partnered with an individual or a select group of individuals (operations coach or a trusted CPA, for example) who serve as a sounding board and accountability partner. While day-to-day decisions are not necessarily discussed, overall business strategies and performance are reviewed and analyzed. A wise contractor will allow the coach to threaten if not actually use the proverbial lawnmower from time to time.

    Which boss you choose is not as important as how you value your boss. For any of the above structures to work, you have to seriously want their input and involvement. You have to be willing to be “uncomfortable” while at the same time open to other points of view. You have to want the unvarnished truth as they see it. It will hurt sometimes but you can’t take it personally - a good boss is telling you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

    If you have a planned meeting or a deadline with your boss, it must be important to you. It can’t be pushed back and rescheduled because something more important came up.

    So if you are one of the contractor/owners who is going it alone without the benefit of a “boss,” I ask you to think about the past year. Did you make some decisions you now regret? Or, even more likely, were there some decisions that needed to be made that you put off? If you were reporting to another individual, do you think you would have done the same thing? Would he or she have tolerated your indecision? 

    I challenge you to structure your management team for success in the coming months and new year. Create an outside board of advisors, partner up with a trusted associate and/or get connected with a business coach. No matter what business conditions this year brings, you are virtually guaranteed to be more successful with the help of your own lawnmower.

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