Letting go as you grow

Apr 14, 2024

This exercise empowers employees and provides clear direction, allowing leadership to let go and focus on success during periods of growth.

Like many small businesses, my firm, Eclipse Engineering, started as an entrepreneurial company with talented engineers who possessed the ambition and skills to provide engineering services. During those early years, we shared the tasks required to run and operate a small business while outsourcing the heavier responsibilities.

It wasn’t long before schedules filled up with a healthy backlog of work and we felt the next natural step was to hire more engineers to share the workload. Making that first hire introduced new elements of business: recruiting, interviewing, human resources, and management. We often found ourselves with a second job when tasks included committing time for interviews, developing employee review processes, building compensation packages and benefits, and handling employee conflicts.

As we gained exposure in our market and broadened our client base, workloads became busier, schedule outlooks were extended, and we faced these options:

  1. Work more hours. Typically, the first action item taken by small business owners, and effective for a limited time before burnout sets in.
  2. Turn away work. This one sounds easy, but it was nearly impossible to ignore our competitive entrepreneurial spirit and we routinely chased down every opportunity.
  3. Hire new employees. This was the natural choice to ease immediate pain, but it required a growth plan and the ability to let go.

We decided to add employees, which required us to let go of the hiring process.

As we onboarded hires, we were reminded that our new employees brought a wide range of skills, backgrounds, and educational experiences thus engaging us in the business of employee management. When schedules are full, projects need to get done, clients are frustrated, teams are waiting for direction, and you are getting pulled in multiple directions trying to fill every role in your organization, it’s time to let go.

We found ourselves with an opportunity to get ahead of these crisis moments and were determined to problem-solve a way to systematically let go. As engineers, we reverted to spreadsheets and charts to begin laying out a process.

Rather than focusing on how to let go, we decided to develop an exercise on what to let go, which we call the “pyramid.” This exercise can be scaled to any group of people or activity involving more than one person.

This is how the pyramid works:

  1. First, identify the activity. For example: Bring on new talent.
  2. Next, draw the pyramid with horizontal lines.
  3. At each horizontal line, define a role or action item that is required to complete the activity. For example:
    • Attend career fairs
    • Create a new job position
    • Post job listing
    • Contact candidates
  4. Under each action item, list the people in your organization who can complete that task.
  5. List their qualities to complete the item (skills, schedule, education, relationship, experience, etc.).
  6. Organize your tasks so that those completed by the most people are at the bottom and the fewest at the top, following the pyramid shape.
  7. Delegate the action items.

We use this exercise in combination with an organization chart that defines roles and responsibilities. It allows us to empower employees and provide clear direction regarding expectations while at the same time allowing others to let go and focus on making the business successful during periods of growth.

With this exercise, control or responsibility is not taken away from the owner or PM; it simply pushes assignments to team members who can contribute at their appropriate level or role in the company.

Today, with a staff of 70, this exercise has helped our company leadership hire many non-engineering positions, including an HR director, marketing coordinator, and IT manager. By adding key quality people, time was freed for our project managers and group directors to focus on core sectors of the business and develop the next generation of engineers. We completed this concept five years ago and now are developing our strategic plan to push onward to the next plateau. 

Rolf Armstrong, P.E., S.E., is CFO at Eclipse Engineering. He’s based out of the company’s Bend, Oregon branch. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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