Modern job descriptions, especially those at the managerial level, often specify more responsibilities than anyone can accomplish within an ordinary workweek. This may seem ludicrous at first blush, but it reflects the reality of the business world as it exists today. No one really expects upper-level managers to directly handle all their responsibilities; nor could they. Trying to do so would wreck their lives inside of a week.
It’s called “management” for a reason. True achievers know to parcel out most of the items on their plate to subordinates or even to people outside of their organization, before focusing on the few things they do best that profit the company the most and produce the highest value for the time worked. In other words, leaders delegate like crazy to those who can accomplish the work at a lower pay level.
We all know people who seem not to have gotten the memo—or who have simply ignored it. We call some of these people micromanagers. Others decide, for whatever reason, to kill themselves and attempt to do it all. Managers in both misguided categories work ridiculously long hours. However, in this era of decentralized business functions and near-instantaneous long-distance communication, they don’t have to. Just about any form of rote work, and many higher-level functions, can devolve to people who can get the tasks done more cheaply and more effectively. By taking advantage of this fact, modern managers (and their organizations) achieve true long-term productivity. Other people are your greatest productivity resources, forever and always. If you don’t figure that out quickly, you may spend your next vacation in the hospital, keeled over from exhaustion.
Extending the Metaphor
Then there are things even your team members don’t handle, as it’s not worth their time and the opportunity cost of what they could have done instead. When the copy machine breaks down, your folks shouldn’t be climbing in there and trying to fix it after a few minutes of trying. You can think of better uses for their time, so you usually hire someone else to do those things. This process, formally known as outsourcing, allows you to use your people and resources more profitably.
Given the general tone of the outsourcing debate in recent years, you might think the concept is something new, but it’s not of course. Businesses have been outsourcing work to other businesses since the beginning of the modern era, if not longer. Consider subcontracting, a venerable practice, which is just a form of outsourcing. When you hire someone to fix the roof of the shop, wire an electrical outlet, handle the coffee service, or carry a package across town, you’ve just outsourced some of your organization’s work.
Many companies also commonly outsource their information technology, customer service, and accounting (including payroll processing); indeed, you can outsource almost anything. And you should, because outsourcing simply makes sense. While it has its flaws (as its critics will happily remind you), outsourcing can help you increase your efficiency, let you connect with a flexible pool of specialists in a particular field, reduce risk, reduce capital costs, reduce overhead, and most importantly, allow you to concentrate on your core business.
Basically, outsourcing lets you tap other people’s knowledge and skill sets without having to take them on full time. You use them as you need them—a real bonus when dealing with short term projects or peripheral functions you just don’t need a full-timer to handle. And let’s cut to the chase: in tough times, outsourcing also makes it easier to streamline your team without loss of function—a point inevitably brought up by the critics of outsourcing.
Small Businesses, Big Advantages
Many people associate outsourcing with big business; and yes, the larger companies do tend to drive the outsourcing industry, with their endless need for specialized services. However, businesses of all sizes can reap the benefits of outsourcing. In fact, small businesses (particularly sole proprietorships) often depend on outsourcing to get all the little things done. Here are some of the duties I outsource: video editor, bookkeeper, accountant, graphic designer, article editor, virtual administrative assistant, social media posting, computer/IT/networking, website design, mobile app designer, press release writer, PowerPoint slide designer, student workbook designer, transcriptionist,, voiceover/audiobook reader, comedy writing, online book promotion, eBook distribution, book trailer, IP attorney, CRM consultant, photographer, employee assessments, Excel programming, and a book agent. Whew! And that’s just off the top of my head!
Oh, I COULD do all of these things, but the company president shouldn’t be washing the windows, cleaning the toilets, or dusting the ceiling fans. While there’s nothing wrong with good, honest labor, the leaders at the top need to hand all the low-profit work to other people, in favor of those things that bring in the most money for the business. Marketing and innovation usually top that list.
Most people start out by wearing all the hats in a small business, and if you want to do that to gain some business expertise, then no problem. But at some point, you’ll need to shed all the little things, or they’ll hold you back. Many Mom and Pop businesses stay Mom and Pop businesses because they lose sight of this fact (assuming they ever learned it in the first place). So while you may have to put delegation off until you can afford it, don’t wait too long. Today, any time I’m sitting at my desk, realizing my current staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to manage a particular task or project that just popped into my mind, I immediately log into elance.com and have someone working on it within a few days. I sort by feedback score, number of reviews, location, and tested skill level, so I know I’m picking the best person. I have rarely had a bad experience with anyone I’ve hired online.
And don’t assume that just because you operate a small business, you have to limit yourself to delegation partners in the immediate neighborhood. Yes, you’ll need to find someone local to clean your offices; but when you need someone to design a flexible shopping cart for your new website, maintain a database, or serve as your late-night customer representative, the world’s your oyster. Thanks to the growing web of high-speed communication links such as www.elance.com or www.odesk.com or www.vworker.com, you can tap people in Texas, Topeka, or Timbuktu to do that work for you. These sites offer a global marketplace for outsourcing partners, in just about any field of work you can imagine—and many more you might never have considered.
Given the growth of international currencies like the Euro, as well as simple online payment providers like PayPal, you can easily reach out and hire someone halfway across the planet if they seem the best choice for a particular service. PayPal even lets you convert U.S. dollars to many foreign currencies. All for a fee, of course.
The Bottom Line
Approach outsourcing as just another business decision. Treat the subject the same way you treat buying computers or office supplies: calculate the best deal and implement it confidently. Remember, though, that the cheapest choice doesn’t always represent the best one; after all, you don’t buy a two-dollar watch if you want something you can rely on for accuracy and durability. So when considering an outsourcing provider, keep these things in mind besides cost:
- The provider’s expertise
- The provider’s reputation
- Your confidence in the provider
- Convenience of location
- How quickly can they start
- General responsiveness
- Risk vs. reward
- Return on investment
Can outsourcing experiments fail? Of course, sometimes spectacularly. But the same applies to any business arrangement, because all business involves a degree of risk. You limit the risk through careful consideration of the options, by doing a thorough background check of the potential partner, checking feedback from their other business associates, and by interviewing representatives of the provider so you can get a feel for their level of quality, experience, and integrity.
Delegation through outsourcing probably won’t solve all your business problems. However, refusing to consider the possibilities it offers—or simply assuming they don’t apply to you, for whatever reason—is an error. Reach out and seize the day in whatever form it presents itself. Take advantage of the technology available to the modern workplace, and, if it represents the best choice for your business, don’t hesitate to reach for help a hundred miles away, a thousand miles away—or as far away as the other side of the world.
If you’d like further details on how to construct and maintain an effective workflow process that allows you to get everything done and still have a life outside of work, be sure to grab a copy of my new book, What To Do When There’s Too Much To Do, when it hits bookstores in 2012.