How losing control can help you increase your span of control

Jul 05, 2016
As a leader and entrepreneur, you go through different stages when growing ‘your enterprise’, while learning some valuable lessons along the way. Here are some of my lessons learned that may guide you through your own journey.


Already some 30 years ago, my career started – as for most people – as an employee. I have always had the pleasure and privilege to work with bosses who stimulated intrapreneurship. The kind of leaders who act like coaches, rather than bosses, by triggering you to:

  • co-define your own objectives; and
  • decide and do what’s necessary to attain those goals.
In this phase of my career, I learned to see opportunities, rather than problems. To find solutions, rather than excuses. To try and avoid mistakes, while not being afraid to make some. And to assume full responsibility.

Building and growing a team of your own

Late 1995, Delaware Consulting was the very first company in Belgium to position SAP R/3 at midsize companies. I received the opportunity to build ‘my own business’, safely sheltered within an existing company. It proved to be the start of a challenging but rewarding journey.

The first 10 people: ‘Do it all’

While assuming responsibility for the team, I also managed its projects and continued to work as a senior consultant, took the lead in the hiring process, and defined and co-executed tasks and roles with my colleagues. During this phase, I fulfilled virtually every role, as the team’s primus inter pares.

Growing to 30 people: ‘Know and control almost everything’

Our SAP business gained momentum. We sold and delivered multiple projects in parallel. I defined the team members’ assignments and followed-up on their execution. I had to delegate an increasing number of implementation tasks, while keeping a close personal relationship with all colleagues and customers. In short, I was still feeling very much in control.

Growing to 150 people: ‘Let go of full control’

When I was promoted to unit manager, I supervised other ERP teams as well. A little later, Delaware was acquired by and integrated into Arthur Andersen. For the first time, I had to lead people who knew things I did not, learn to assume responsibility for assignments I did not master, and assess the way people approached their roles, rather than how they performed their tasks.

Many entrepreneurs feel an urgent need to stay in control, and so did I. That way, however, you eventually become your own bottleneck, before ultimately understanding that working harder is no longer the way to attain better results. Failing to understand and accept that golden rule is the main reason why many entrepreneurs cannot maintain their growth momentum.

Going against my nature as a control freak, I had to delegate more authority to managers, even though I still thought I could do the job better and faster myself. Here, I learned an extremely important and valuable lesson: if you give people more responsibility, you will often be pleasantly surprised by their achievements and their tremendous personal growth.

In this phase of my career, I still knew all the colleagues and customers, including most of their individual sensitivities. To assure continuity, however, there also was a gradually growing need for management structures and processes, highly autonomous teams, and evaluation and reporting processes.

Growing from 3 to many partners: ‘Less fast and intuitive decisions’

When we conducted our Management Buyout in 2003, Luc, Peter and I assumed the responsibility for 124 colleagues. As we personally knew and fully trusted each other, we did not need to discuss a lot. The process of decision-making was fast and easy.

Over time, we grew to an international partnership of 25 partners and 1,300 professionals. Instead of what was often quite intuitive decision-making, we needed to implement a sequence of informing, consulting, deciding and validating. All of this enriched but also slowed the process. We had to distribute responsibilities within the partner group as well, as it became impossible to involve all partners in every decision!

This distribution of responsibilities comes as a surprise to some junior partners, and even I sometimes have mixed feelings when decisions are made without me being involved. Yet, even though it makes you feel a little redundant (the organization doesn’t seem to need you anymore), it does allow you to focus on new learning domains and jump onto another personal growth curve.

Furthermore, also the communication between our partners changed. At first, it was mostly informal. Yet, as our small, straightforward company grew to become a larger and ‘GLocal’ structure, we needed to communicate more formally. While we consciously tried not to introduce internal politics, communication did become more tactical.

Growing to 750 people: ‘Let go of management’

As the need for an additional management level grew stronger, we had to delegate more management tasks to senior management and support colleagues. This changed the relationship with our people. It became impossible to know everyone by their first name. Our Delaware village gradually developed into a small city.

Nonetheless, we definitely wanted to keep our people from feeling like a number. To drive ‘district dynamics’, we dispersed people management and funded a variety of team initiatives. While informal communication remained very important, it clearly was not enough anymore: it had to be complemented with formal communication.

Growing to 2,500 people: ‘Grow and control the framework’

Today, halfway through 2016, our Delaware family has more than 1,300 members. If we achieve our strategic five-year plan and continue to gain momentum, this number will reach over 2,500 by 2020. This will make our organization even more complex, that much is certain. The risk of internal politics will keep increasing, and so will the risk that some managers start to settle in their role.

As a result, we have to accept that our senior partners’ role as entrepreneurs will continue to evolve. Our future task? To drive the group dynamics even more and assure the organization’s continuity. We will have to focus more on growing and controlling its framework. And consequently, we need to accept that we will continue to lose direct control: our impact will become increasingly indirect.

Wrapping it up

If I had to draw one conclusion from my 30 years of personal experience as an intra- and entrepreneur, it would be this: you have to let go of control in order to increase your span of control. If you fail to do this, you’ll end up becoming your own bottleneck.

Hence, the most important advice I can give to ambitious people is: make yourself redundant in your current roles. In short, give up power to gain influence!

Author: Jan Delaere. You can follow Jan on Twitter (@delaerej) or connect with him on LinkedIn