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Control freak? Lighten up, dude

What was an asset in start-up mode can kill you when you're trying to grow.

You’re working too hard. No, really, you’re putting in way too many hours. You’re running yourself ragged by micromanaging the smallest details and aren’t giving the people who work for you a chance to show off what they can do.

You’re a control freak.

George Panas wants you to loosen up a little. He finally did. Seven years ago, Panas was working in his office at Spumoni’s, the Italian seafood restaurant he started in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1978. He’d been working 80 to 100 hours a week for years, long after the business required it. He’d opened a banquet facility a few miles away, and business at both locations was good. But still he worked, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week—overseeing every single detail.

Panas let up, but not by choice. In 2000 he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was away from the restaurant for two years. During that time something unexpected, at least to Panas, happened: the business prospered. Employees stepped up even as he stepped back.

Today, the leukemia vanquished and his business thriving, Panas is back at Spumoni’s. There’s a big difference in his attitude, though: “If I have to choose between work or a ball game for my grandson,” he says, “I go to the ball game.”

So, short of a terminal illness, how do you get to that point? How do you stop being the control freak you needed to be to get the business off the ground, and become the skilled leader who can take it to the next level?

The short answer, according to Ron Yudd, is that you don’t actually stop being a control freak—you just channel those controlling tendencies into more profitable areas for a growing business. “You can be a control freak with the way you go about the process of hiring people,” says Yudd, who runs Points of Profit Leadership, a Gaithersburg, Maryland, restaurant consulting firm. “Then you can create some mini control freaks in specific areas.”

The key, says Yudd, is in trusting your own work, in believing that you really have created a successful concept, along with the recipes, service standards and operations manual necessary to replicate it. “If you look at concepts that have been successful, there is a control freak behind all of them—but that control freak did not open 56 locations all by himself.”

Entrepreneurs in every industry experience growing pains as they move from the frenzied startup days to the more measured period of long-term growth. “That’s when the founder has to make a decision about whether they’re going to be able to make that shift,” says Holly Seaton, a management consultant with Sonoma, California-based Outside the Lines, “whether they’re going to take a different role and learn how to manage people well or they’re going to bring somebody in to do that for them.”

Bill Tribelli of Cranston, Rhode Island-based Tribelli Consulting is often called in when operators need help stepping back. He suggests they establish clear goals for employees and give them time to meet them. “I never tell employees how to do their job,” he says. “I give them the expected results and a time frame—we basically build the parameters and ask them to stay within them.

“It’s really hard letting go,” he adds. “So we’re going to take baby steps. The operator is going to feel that he’s still in control because he saw the numbers and we agreed on what the expectations are. And if employees are staying within those goals, I don’t want to hear a word from him unless it’s positive.”

Unspoken in this process is that along the way you’ve got to ditch your ego. “If you really want to grow your business, if you really want to see your baby in other neighborhoods, other markets, you have to understand how important it is to trust your people,” says Yudd.

As Panas will attest, it’s not an easy lesson to learn. But it’s one he wishes he could have taken to heart decades earlier. “After the first four or five years, I could have cut back quite a bit; I could have worked a 50- or 60-hour week, and taken more vacations. I missed my children growing up. I intend not to miss my grandchildren growing up, if I live that long.”

5 signs that you're a control freak

  1. You think no one can do anything as well as you can. Guess what? They can—and they might even be better at it.
  2. You love to give advice—to friends, colleagues, strangers on the bus. Trust us on this one: if they wanted to know what you think, they would have asked you.
  3. You never take vacations. Ever. While this may work in the short run—or even for a decade or two—in the long run it’s going to wear down your physical, mental and emotional well-being, not to mention your relationships.
  4. When you’re not on site, your managers call you with questions about every little detail. You act like you’re annoyed, but secretly you enjoy it (see #1). This is a sure way to achieve high turnover and low morale.
  5. You’re threatened by opposing opinions. While this may work in a political debate, it’s no way to grow a business, which can thrive on an open exchange of ideas and innovation.

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