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Stepping back Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

John W. Ford didn’t have a choice in the matter.

It wasn’t a decision he had the luxury of thinking about any longer. By the late 1990s, Insight Investments Corp. had outgrown the way it did business, and Ford needed to make a change.

“The truth is, I was forced to,” says Ford, the firm’s founder, chairman and CEO. “It got to be too much, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to work all the time.”

Ford’s financial services firm had grown from a couple dozen employees to nearly 200 in fewer than five years. The challenge he faced was to change the way both he and his employees handled tasks and assigned responsibilities in the growing company.

“It’s working with employees that had a broader scope of responsibility and reducing that scope based on the skill levels and what the company needs,” Ford says.

Smart Business spoke with Ford about how he sorted out his own priorities as well as those of his employees to keep Insight growing, reaching $109 million in 2007 revenue.

Figure out what’s important. The challenge I would post to people is to ask themselves what is important to them. Once you write that down, then write down how you spend your day. If you are saying things are important to you, but they don’t show up in your day, then they are not important to you.

You either have to change the way you spend your day to accommodate what you say is important to you or you have to admit to yourself that those things truly are not important.

That will cause you to let go of things because if you say your family is important to you, but you don’t see them because you’re working all the time, then you have two choices: You either need to write down that your family is not important to you or you have to change your days so you can see them.

You have to individually grow up and change what you’re doing and let go of certain things. Start delegating things you don’t want to do or things you’re not good at.

Share the power. You have to make the time to communicate what it is you want to do if you expect to be able to delegate to people and move away from them. You can’t just give them the responsibility without the authority.

If you’re going to ask someone to do something, you can’t withhold the authority from them. Then you can’t second-guess them. You have to be willing to sit back, and while they make mistakes, let them make them.

Encourage collaboration. I hired a guy to run operations in one of our divisions. He came from a very autocratic company culture where there was a lot of CYA. You didn’t copy the CEO unless there was an issue. You never wanted to let the boss know there was a problem.

One of my salesmen had an issue with what was going on there, and he copied me. The new hire who was also a direct report to me went ballistic. I said, ‘Hey, relax, it’s all good. We’ll get our heads together on this and fix this problem.’

I will come down hard on people that are not taking responsibility. As soon as someone takes responsibility for a problem, I’m the first guy to help. I have no issues with problems.

We all make mistakes. Once you’ve admitted to making a mistake, then we can fix it. If you’re just going to sit there and avoid the idea that you made a mistake, I can’t help you.

Don’t attack the answer. I took the billers out to lunch six months ago. I created structure and questions. We went out and I said, ‘What do you think is working here? What do you think is not working here? What would you like to see changed? What would you like to see not changed?’

The thing to do is, when they answer you, if you don’t understand the answer, inquire until you understand the answer. But don’t attack the answer. Just say, ‘OK, that’s interesting. How would you change that?’

Don’t go after the person, don’t agree or disagree with them. You just want to uncover the information. Don’t evaluate it while you are in the conversation.

Use your resources. I do management by walking around, and some people hate it. I end up knowing what’s going on down at lower levels that sometimes their own directors and managers don’t know. I get a lot of informal information.

I bring that informal information back to the management team, and I say, ‘Hey, I saw this. Help me understand what’s going on here.’ I’m not spot-checking, but if you were to be cynical, you could say I was. I get data points.

I don’t need to know what people are thinking, but I want to listen and hear what they are saying.

Let your people decide. If you’re in a meeting, you could say, ‘This is what I think we should do.’ Or you could wait and let people talk, and if it’s pretty standard, they are all going to come to the same conclusion.

Once they have concluded what you were going to do, now you can say, ‘That’s something I absolutely support, and let’s move forward on it.’ Now it’s not your idea, it’s their idea.