John Werner, President/CEO of White Commercial Corporation, knew something had changed around his organization when, one day, he walked by a conference room and noticed a meeting he was completely unaware was taking place.
No invite or no notification—nothing.
“We have a big window that you see from the hallway, and it looked like they were really getting work accomplished,” says John.
His first instinct was to wonder why he wasn’t a part of the meeting. Then John quickly realized it was exactly what he had been working towards for several months.
“This is what you're trying to accomplish here,” he said to himself.
“I may have wanted to be in there, finding out what was going on, making contributions, but they didn't invite me on purpose. I gave them a mission, and they were out there trying to win the game. So I caught myself in that moment,” says John.
Stepping Out of the Way as a Leader
For many self-described “Type A” entrepreneurs like John, letting go of what is perceived as “control” can be difficult. That’s why John is quick to point out his leadership style has been an evolution over the years, and especially in recent months.
John joined White Commercial Corporation in 1981, and since that time, he’s helped the company grow to a broader sector of the agriculture industry.
White Commercial Corporation is a futures clearing and grain trading company that offers the industry specialized training. Customers include country elevators, feed mills, and rice dryers.
Today, White Commercial Corporation has more than 250 customers, across 25 states and Canada. These customers range from small, family-owned businesses to multi-location co-ops. Customers all have a similar aim: improving their margins, capturing new opportunities for profits, and adding value for growers and end users.
John credits his two mentors as having helped him see the value of hiring great people at White Commercial Corporation over the years. “What they taught me to do as a leader, is hire smart people who are talented and experienced, and let them operate autonomously in whatever sector they are in our business, whether it was sales, marketing, education or transactions.”
John says when you’ve hired great talent that is participatory and involved in decision-making, the idea of “control” becomes less of an issue.
The critical part, he’s found, is having those people aligned with your vision, mission, and values. (Since its start, the company has been pursuing a single goal: to educate, motivate, and support country grain businesses.)
A New Stage for the Business
“If you envision an upside down triangle, with the point at the bottom—that's where we started. As you move up, and grow, the moving parts were growing, too. I was trying to hold it all together myself, and it eventually came to me that I needed some help.”
Around the same time, one of White Commercial Corporation’s customers (and employees) had recommended that John take advantage of a business advisor.
When John met with the recommended advisor, he encouraged John to join a forum of business peers. “He told me, ‘You need to get involved with other business owners like you. Would you like to sit in a room with other people like yourself?’ And that’s where it started for me.”
A Group of Peers That Could Meet Him Where He Was At
For John, the guidance was powerful from his advisor, but he found deep learnings and greater awareness when he became involved with other owner/operators in his peer group.
“Once I got involved with this outside organization, and then I got involved with other people in businesses like ours, it was phenomenal,” says John. “I was sitting in a room listening to other business owners who were sharing the same stories and experiences I was having. I was able to get ‘outside’ of where I was and see a new perspective,” says John.
With the desire in place to grow as a leader, the group gave him space to talk through issues and hear from successes and failures from others who had been in similar positions.
Being able to find the leaders who have done it—in this case letting go of “control”—has been critical to John’s evolution as a leader.
“For me, it was about getting outside of where I was used to going. Find the guys that have stepped back and empowered their people successfully. They are the ones who gave me greater perspective, and the ability to ask questions I needed to ask,” says John.
“The best thing that's ever happened to me in the last few years for [my leadership growth and advancing the business], was getting involved with other people like us—other businesses, other entrepreneurs like us, all sitting in the same room. That is the magic.”
Learning to Work Through Others
Since learning about the art of “letting go” from his peers, John’s seen 3 factors that have accelerated his ability to empower those around him:
- Participation and collaboration. “What I have learned is that if you want to achieve meaningful control of anything—opportunities, challenges, processes, whatever it may be—if you're going to be successful at it, and it's sustainable, it's always collaborative. It's never one guy carrying the flag. You have to get collaboration.”
- Get comfortable with shifting from a tactical focus to a strategic focus. “I had to learn how to become more strategically involved. Having capable, committed people on your team is always the key for this,” says John. “It can be hard as an entrepreneur, but taking a step back, it's been really rewarding. I’m seeing people taking initiative on their own, making good decisions, and maybe not the ones that I would have made exactly, tactically, but they're good decisions nonetheless.”
- Allow people to make mistakes. “If you're not out front making decisions on the firing line, and you don't make mistakes, you're not really out there on the firing line. You have to allow people to get out there ,” says John.
Stepping Out of the Way
“Stepping out of the way is so hard for an entrepreneur like myself, but I’ve done it, and now that I've done it, I know in my heart it's the absolute right thing to do. The company is moving in a direction that I am so proud of,” says John.
He says it may be difficult for other business owners to learn the art of letting go, but it’s rewarding when you’re able to do so.
It’s part of how leadership, and their organizations, need to be growing at all times. “Everything evolves. We're all marching along to the same beat, and it's time now for these employees to start building it and creating their own direction.”
Become a Better Delegator
Do you want to learn new, actionable ways to develop those around you so that they can do their best thinking and their best work? At the upcoming Learning to Work through Others workshop, you'll learn ways to rally your team on collective outcomes, build trust, become a better delegator, develop clarity and closure, and skills that will help you confront difficult issues when they inevitably rise. If you seek to learn best practices and skills for creating an environment where people are engaged and able to do their best work, this workshop is for you.
A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.