In 2014, my family had a once in a lifetime opportunity to live abroad for a couple of years. When my husband first presented this idea, my immediate response was, “Yes!”. Following that first reaction, we had numerous discussions of how this change would impact Equinox. At that time, I felt I had a good team that could run the day-to-day operations without me; and with the help of technology and regular quarterly visits back, we’d be in pretty good shape. I recognized that I was still the “face” of the business from a marketing and sales standpoint and that was likely the highest risk area – however, I knew that we could reduce certain expenses (including my salary) if necessary to accommodate for lower sales. With all this swirling in my mind, we made the decision to go and let the chips fall as they may. Over the next two years, I led the business from afar and learned that I knew little about my business’ strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few things I discovered:
- Cultural Alignment. I remember there being a big leap for me in going from 3 employees to 5 employees. It doesn’t seem like much but, at that size, our onboarding process was limited – it was more “trial by fire” than “onboarding”. There was little time spent with new employees on who Equinox is, what we believe, our values, and our critical success factors. The first employees were ingrained in this as they helped develop it, but later employees were expected to just pick it up. The disconnect existed before I left for Ireland, but it became more apparent while I was away. The day-to-day connection with who Equinox is got lost with the what we were doing. I was the consistent thread and was missing.
- My role. Prior to leaving, I viewed my role as an operational one. I made sure the pieces were moving along in the right direction. I didn’t realize how much “fire fighting” I did with respect to the personnel issues. When there was a disconnect or disagreement, I was the mediator and fixer – in fact, I was the workaround. Without me here, the team members were expected to follow the new organizational structure but I had been the hub and workaround for years and that is what was expected. I didn’t realize that I was enabling these workarounds and, despite the organization functioning without me, it was still dependent on me as a fixer and workaround.
- Management vs. Leadership. In thinking about what Equinox needed with me away, the focus was on operations. We needed someone other than me to sign checks and be the face of the decision making. This decision was not difficult. However, it became apparent, as mentioned above, without me, leadership was lacking. The people who could get the work done had no problem doing that, but the shift in organizational structure created more stress than I would have expected. I realized that the best doers cannot necessarily just step into leadership. For a person to be a leader, he or she must have the trust of others in the organization.
- Communication and Technology. It’s easy these days to say that you can do anything from anywhere. I agree to some extent – the “stuff” can get done by leveraging technology. I found, though, that creating a real, authentic relationship with people is more difficult using technology. This included communications with clients and with the team. I relished my week-long quarterly visits to Seattle where I could sit face-to-face with folks and really connect. Technology can’t replace it. To bridge the distance, we developed some tools for me to stay closer to the team and keep them apprised of important things happening in the business. We developed a rhythm of communications and meetings that grounded the team in our business. This was helpful and often added a personal connection that was needed to maintain the “team”.
- Key Advisors. I engaged a business coach before leaving, someone who knew me, knew the business and could guide me and the team through the challenges that would inevitably arise with me away. Having an outside person to “gut check” me on what I thought I was seeing and feeling while I was remote was a big help. I wasn’t flying blind.
I’ve been back for a while now, and despite having to be very “in” the business for the first year, I feel the business is much stronger now due to these learnings. Without stepping away, I would not have seen these blind spots. I’m looking forward to continuing to step out of the business, creating accountability and new leadership opportunities for others so that Equinox can grow with the help of others’ talents.