I didn’t know it when I first started my business, but switching from a derby to a panama to a sombrero to a kangol to a fedora to a beret was killing my performance. As the CEO of ConsumerAffairs; the vice-president of sales, engineering, marketing and product; and the CFO, I had become accustomed to juggling six hats to keep the company on track. Although I was multi-tasking because I wanted to achieve more at my newly acquired enterprise, wearing multiple hats was actually causing a 40 percent drop in productivity.
Not only was I damaging my brain, according to a Stanford University study, but I was significantly increasing my overall stress levels. Every time I switched tasks, my IQ level was dropping up to 15 points, which is three times more than the effects of smoking marijuana. Multitasking makes people less productive, less creative and more likely to get thrown off task by distractions.
That’s why, a year ago, I vowed to put all the hats down — and I’ve succeeded in putting them all down except for three — because I wanted to work on my business not in my business. The difference between those two focuses? My time is freed up to envision the future of the company and plan accordingly.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned that can help you detach from multitasking and simply wear that favorite ball cap called Chief Executive Officer.
Multitasking is distracting.
My job as CEO is to spend half of my time at the office recruiting amazing functional leaders and the other half preparing for the future of my company. If I’m too busy running around being the head of sales, the head of engineering and the head of product, I might miss the shifting of tectonic plates that underlie every business, which is how Netflix usurped Blockbuster. Back in 2000, former Blockbuster CEO John Antioco declined to acquire the DVD mailing service that a little known CEO named Reed Hastings was peddling for $50 million. That DVD mailing service is known today as Netflix. Evidently, Antioco hadn’t realized how just fully technology was transitioning to digital.
Other CEO oversights include when Verizon refused Apple’s first iPhone and AOL declined to marry AT&T, instead merging with Time Warner. You can’t help but wonder what these CEOs were thinking when they missed these deals in hindsight, but I have to imagine it was because they were working in the business and not on it. A one-time $5 billion company, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection and was subsequently acquired for $320 million by Dish Network. Worth a reported $56 billion by Motley Fool, Netflix lives on funding, producing and distributing their own content. These examples illustrate that CEOs need to be in tune to their industry to catch on as soon as there’s a structural shift.
Why three hats is still too many.
Total focus is needed to complete a task in any given discipline. While I’ve reduced the number of hats I currently wear down to three, fulfilling more than two leadership roles remains a distraction. According to a University of California study, the average time I spend on a task is only 11 minutes before interruption, but it takes some 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted. This means I’m spending more time regrouping than working when I am wearing multiple hats. The mere act of switching between tasks eats up a significant share of my time.
The best time to take off a hat.
As I have grown the business from a few people to hundreds, I have noticed that when the department gets too big for me to manage, I spin it off to a functional leader. I know it’s time to hire a vice-president when the flow of information becomes difficult to maintain — which is a big pain point — and when I find myself overseeing more than five employees from one department. Based on my research, the plan is to never have more than eight divisional heads reporting to me because each one takes an hour of my time, which is one full eight-hour work day out of a five-day week. I think I need that full hour with each leader to stay connected, to ask what they need help with and keep up with what they are working on.
Meeting one leader once a week within a department takes up less time than being in touch with five divisional employees throughout the week that don’t report to a functional leader. Which hats any given CEO passes on is entirely dependent on the relative strengths within the organization.
CEOs are talented, but they can’t possibly be the most qualified person for every position in the company. Realizing that someone else is more capable than you are to handle a team or run a department is an important part of moving your company forward. So, when you hire an all-star player to run a specific functional group, allow that person to be better than you. All they do every day is think about finance, or product or sales, while you as CEO are thinking about the business as a whole.
Promote from within.
To help junior employees step into leadership roles, I groom mentors that will guide them. For example, I relinquished my position as the head of engineering by promoting a junior engineer from within. Had he applied for the position online, I probably would have never hired him to be that functional leader because he didn’t have the experience yet. With a little coaching, though, that junior engineer, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, will become the perfect the functional leader for the department.
Since I acquired the firm in 2010, ConsumerAffairs has grown from 15 to more than 225 people. During that time, I’ve taken off extra hats one by one, and as I’ve done so, our company has grown in size and revenue.