The ‘Without Me’ mindset

You can’t change the world on your own

When you start a purpose driven business or organisation, it’s naturally all about you and your vision. It’s your itch that you’ve got to scratch or a wrong that you feel compelled to right.

Even if you have a partner or co-founder who shares your mission, you should always be thinking ‘what would this look like without me?’. How will it work if you wanted to leave or had to move on? Would the organisation be able to cope, or would it fizzle out? Who could and would pick up the banner and charge on with it?

Last month I wrote about why Our why’ is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than ‘my why’and it seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. Not just because we all want to join with people who ‘believe what we believe’ but also because, frankly, it spreads the risk.

Over the last few years, I’ve worked with dozens of founders of young businesses and charities, who are all growing, and the number one issue is how do I afford employee #2? Nearly all of the founders have a messianic zeal that drives them, but they’re doing everything - often to the point of exhaustion - and feel that they can cope with the poverty and bootstrapping, but taking on the responsibility of another wage is too much.

Just as common, is a growing business that has employed staff, and even managers, but everything still has to go through the boss. Maybe it’s their name over the door, and the sign on their desk says ‘the buck stops here’, and maybe it’s one big happy family but everyone is still relying on the matriarch for the wheels to keep turning.

This isn’t a question of doshing out equity or share options (but that might help), it’s a question of structuring your organisation so that people can make it their own, both practically and metaphorically. It’s about starting with, and maintaining, an attitude of ‘this thing has to be able to grow without me.’

My amazing friend Frankie Ratford founded and runs The Design Kids, an international network that bridges the gap between graphic design students and the industry, helping young talent to get jobs, helping colleges to stay relevant, and helping design studios to hire the best young designers.

It started - as Frankie freely admits - as a way for her to combine her love of graphic design and her obsession with travelling. So she travels the world in brightly coloured camper vans, firing up the local design community in every major city, and setting up self-organising chapters everywhere from Auckland to New York.

If you want to know what irrepressible fizzing energy and purpose looks like, watch her Creative Mornings talk (here), but she shares her most important advice at the end, by showing what The Design Kids looks like (pictured below) admitting that, “what I love most is that I’m not in any of these pictures”.

 The Design Kids’ #TDKTuesdays — founder not pictured anywhere.

The Design Kids’ #TDKTuesdays — founder not pictured anywhere.

Every city has a host responsible for running the admin - listing local events and job opportunities - and running regular meet-ups #TDKTuesdays, where graduates and pros get together for a very hipster kind of networking and lolz.

The Design Kids flourishes though individual city Facebook groups, to keep it relevant and local, as well as innovative showcases on Instagram, that give the network international reach, and because Frankie gives away nearly all control to the local chapters, they make it their own.

I often jokingly refer to her as the Richard Branson of graphic design, jetting around the world spreading good vibes, and letting other people run their own things under the really strong brand that she figureheads.

Which leads to the obvious question of what would Virgin look like without Sir Richard? Well, the planes wouldn’t stop flying and the broadband would still be irritatingly erratic, because the Virgin group has been structured to let other people build and run businesses under Branson’s grin, but without his direct management.

“I hate the idea of managing people. I purposely try to hire people who are really self-motivated and good at what they do, and then I just leave them alone.” 
— Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard handed over the CEO role of Patagonia decades ago, and although he’s still the face of the company and its driving motivator, it functions perfectly when he disappears off for months to go fishing and hiking.

This isn’t about a personal exit strategy, it’s about understanding that for a business with purpose at its heart to succeed and grow, it needs more than one heartbeat. It needs a structure, that’s baked into its DNA, that allows everyone on the team to own its mission, and to be able to cope when the dynamo at the top needs to take a month off surfing, or to spend more time with their family.

If you’re a breadhead control freak, by all means keep 100% to yourself, but don’t expect anyone else to want to go with you for long. If all you’re offering your team is money, they’ll quickly figure out that they can make more without you taking a cut.

It doesn’t matter if you’re launching an airline or an empowerment community, from the get-go, you’ve got to plan how you’re going to let someone else drive the bus, and be delighted to chuck them the keys.