David Ogilvy used to send a set of Russian nesting dolls to new executives at his advertising agency. To divine the gift’s meaning, the recipient would need the “curiosity to open it,” as the legendary ad man wrote in his book Ogilvy on Advertising. And then keep opening it. The persistent would find a message inside the smallest doll. “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs,” it read. “But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
Elsewhere in the book, Ogilvy summarizes the moral of the story thusly: “Hire people who are better than you are.” Like most good advice, its wisdom is immediately apparent, but most people will likely have trouble following. It’s a sentiment I saw repeatedly while reviewing the applications for our annual ranking of Canada’s Top Growing Companies. To build the list, we require firms to share financial information with us. But we also ask their executives to offer other insights as well, like what lessons about leadership have been gleaned from their entrepreneurial careers. And amid some very practical ideas about cash flow and inventory management, I discovered a theme about hiring great employees and then getting out of their way. “You can’t control everything, and sometimes it’s best to relinquish control early and often,” wrote David Whyte, the CEO of Irwin, a software company. “I focus on hiring people that are better or smarter than me.” That notion was echoed by Somen Mondal of Ideal, an HR consultancy: “Learn to delegate and empower other people at the company. A successful business needs to scale and can’t have the founders micromanaging everything.”
That’s true, despite contradicting the stereotype of the details-obsessed entrepreneur (see: Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs). It’s clear many leaders are inclined to indulge their inner micromanager; a survey conducted by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found 46% of companies were concerned that employees weren’t delegating effectively.
But one lesson of the 2021 crop of Top Growing Companies is that businesses thrive when their founders can let go. That doesn’t mean walking away. Once you’ve hired top performers, the job becomes ensuring they continue to perform. “Set high standards for the team, and don’t let mediocracy creep into the organization,” advises Utkarsh Bhatnagar of Cloud SynApps. That’s what it takes to lead a company of giants—but you also get to enjoy the view as you stand on their shoulders.
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