Multi-tasking: choosing the right hat
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Multi-tasking: choosing the right hat

Launching and growing a startup is enough of a challenge, without having to continue wearing many different hats. Insider Engage looks at how leaders manage multi-tasking as a business expands

A selection of Panama hats, Cartagena, Colombia, Latin America.
Credit:LisaStrachan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is often acknowledged that the early years of starting a business are not the most glamorous. Once the champagne has been drunk, the company registered and the premises opened, the hard work begins.

Growing a business is hard enough, but at the beginning an entrepreneur will often be working with a skeleton staff (or even by themselves), which means the ability to manage numerous tasks simultaneously is incredibly important.

“My own experiences have shown me that I like getting my hands dirty with roles that span the entire business,” says Steven Darrah of Fuelled, a brokerage he founded in 2018.

“It keeps things exciting and, more importantly, it gives you great insight into your entire business, which is something that can often be lost after the dilution of C-suite roles as the business grows,” he says.

“While building the company, I have always made sure that the exec team are aware they will be involved in tasks that may fall outside of their structured job title, which has definitely helped with the rapid and efficient progression of the business.”

This is a common experience among start-up founders, who are all-too-aware of the need to work evenings and weekends to get their businesses up and running. Multi-tasking may be par for the course, but there are risks to this - aside from the stress and demands it puts upon the individual.

“As ‘Chief Hat Wearer’, I have had to engage with and have an awareness of all aspects of the business from the office space contract management to account management and engagement in new sales,” recalls James Willison, managing director at technology company WCL.

“There is always a risk in a small business that you can become a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’,” he warns. “Therefore, while the executive team has a diverse knowledge on the business, it is essential to identify areas that require specialist support, such as legal or financial management. Planning and prioritising is absolutely key.”

Watershed moments

This risk becomes apparent when a business arrives at an inflection point for growth. This will differ for each business but overall refers to the point the status quo needs to change, and operations have to be expanded. At times like this, founders and members of an executive team may need to start delegating or changing their existing roles.

“Where we previously have employed people who have multi-discipline prior experience, as a company grows it is critical to recognise when you need to bring specialists into the business,” says Willison.

During lockdown WCL took on five new starters - four of whom are filling brand new roles in the business.

“For a long time, we generally hired people that we knew within the industry through recommendation or previous experience of working together,” says Wilson. “As the company continues to grow and to hire people with specialist skills there is less requirement for the broad skillset. As such, that broadens the recruitment pool.”

Given the fast-changing demands of a rapidly growing business, it can sometimes make sense to bring people into an organisation’s management team that are suited to more than one specialism. But having a less-siloed approach is only one part of the multi-tasking challenge. An individual may be perfectly capable of doing a variety of tasks, but what about several tasks simultaneously?

“Siloed roles work well once an organisation reaches a certain level,” says Chris Reed, head of business development at brokers Protect Line. “This point will vary from business to business but usually it’s pretty easy to know when it has been reached. No one person can be an expert in every area.”

As a business owner or exec in a new or small company you may come close, he says, adding that he is “a big fan of a less-siloed approach overall”.

“Working with peoples’ skills rather than shoehorning them into a pre-defined job spec has worked very well for us. I would encourage other businesses to try this. Sometimes you never know what skills people have until you give them permission to share them.”

Learning to let go

The issue of permission is pertinent in a growing business, as founders will sometimes be multi-tasking due to a hesitance to delegate. This is likely to be down to the emotional commitment a founder has to a business, which will naturally make them protective of its future and less inclined to share responsibilities.

Dr Aaron Turner, founder of consultancy OneThought, says executives in this position often feel the need to multi-task, which can establish a negative culture.

“Specialised execs in this state of mind will be siloed because they are too stressed and pressured to listen to each other as they are preoccupied with the demands of their own role,” says Dr Turner.

“For less siloed execs, a clearer mind allows them to organise and prioritise areas without neglecting any. Whereas a stressed, un-siloed exec will tend to become overwhelmed and lose the ability to organise and prioritise.”

The real problem is that these issues are organisational and so never really get solved, because they are caused by the same state of mind that drives the inefficient multi-tasking approach to getting things done, according to Dr Turner.

He advocates for a clearer minds of individuals - and this leads to clearer focus for the organisation.

“What you want is a team that understands they can have clarity no matter how much they have to do,” he added. “If they have clarity of mind, it is amazing how many tasks they can get through in comparison to a team with sped-up minds who are frantically multi-tasking.”

Multi-tasking may be a difficult thing for many business owners to get right, but it is apparent that the hardest part of this process is learning to pass on responsibilities and instead focusing on one task: being in charge.