Flying high Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

Paul Touw has a saying at XOJET Inc.: “It’s not the spin that kills you; it’s the lack of recovery.”

The saying refers to the moment an airplane begins an uncontrolled spin toward the ground — one of the most dangerous situations a pilot can face. The executive chairman of the fast-growing private jet company uses the saying to prove to his 150 employees that mistakes can be forgiven — if you can fix them before it’s too late.

“If something’s not working, even if you were the cause, let us know, and we’ll help you fix it,” Touw says. “That’s more important than getting into the mess in the first place.”

Smart Business spoke with Touw about the challenges of delegation and how creating a “do not do” list can help you delegate.

Q. What are the keys to delegation?

The biggest problem with delegation is (CEOs) having a problem letting go. They often think they can do it better than someone else, and that is generally one of the biggest fallacies of people who lead companies.

You tend to think you’re in a leadership position because you’re better at something than someone else is. That’s not the case. You’re in a leadership position because you’re the best person to lead the company — not because you’re the best person who can do every job in the company.

No. 2 is hire great people who can do the specific functional things better than you can. So if you are in a position where you find you’re not delegating, it’s probably because either you think you can do it better than anyone else, or you haven’t hired the right people. It’s one of those two things.

If you think you can do it better than the people you’re delegating to, you haven’t hired the right people. If you have people who can’t accomplish what you’re trying to do, you haven’t hired right in the first place.

Q. How do you decide what to delegate?

Figure out your ‘do not do’ list. Sometimes that’s more important than your ‘do’ list. You have to prioritize your time, and to do that, you have to figure out what things are the most important and what things are the least important.

My role in the company is to set the vision, set the direction and make sure the team is all marching down the same street. To do that, I have to make sure I’m not doing a bunch of things that would distract from that.

Q. How do you decide what things go on the ‘do not do’ list?

You have to force yourself to say, ‘I can’t do everything.’ So the things you cannot do, you have to off-load onto someone else and trust that they can do it. They’re not always going to do it as well as you think you can do it, but you have to let that process work itself out.

You might get an 85 percent product, but that’s better than me spending a small amount of time on it when I don’t have enough time to do that particular thing and getting a 50 percent product.

Q. How do you attract the right employees?

People aren’t just looking for a good job. They’re looking for a variety of things. The traditional military environment is very good for military applications — it’s not so good in corporations. But a lot of companies still run their company command and control down.

That doesn’t bode well for attracting a high-performance individual, because they don’t want that kind of environment. They’re looking for a safe environment where they might make a few mistakes here and there, but they won’t get battered over the head for it.

Quite frankly, the great corporations are ones where you do make a few mistakes along the way and you learn from them. So in some respects, we encourage people to tell us what’s not working. We’re not going to turn around and tell you, ‘You dummy, you screwed up.’ We’re going to recognize that you took a path that didn’t work. Now tell us how you’re going to fix it.

Q. How do you create that environment?

There is a lot that goes into the mix of how you make that happen, but there are some simple rules, like people support what they help create. So you have to make sure that your people are part of the creation process. Then, they are much more likely to buy in to that and be a strong advocate of it.

In some of the older styles of management, you had a dictatorial CEO saying, ‘This is how we’re going to do it. Now let’s go execute.’

What’s more important from a leadership standpoint is setting a clear objective. Inspire them to climb that mountain. Then ask them, ‘How do we get there?’ They’re part of the process of climbing the mountain, as opposed to saying, ‘We’re going to climb Everest, and this is how we’re going to do it.’

HOW TO REACH: XOJET Inc. (650) 594-6300 or