Leadership Means Letting Go
Morra Aarons-Mele, Founder, Women Online/The Mission List
How long should a successful entrepreneur trust her gut? It’s a question I’ve been considering since returning from an incredible week in Dublin with Vital Voices. I was honored to serve as a Global Ambassador and work with Ntombenhle Khathwane, founder of AfroBotanics, one of South Africa’s fastest growing personal care brands.
During our week working together, Ntombenhle and I worked to position her powerfully mission-driven company, which creates natural hair and beauty products powered by African wisdom, for new levels of growth and scale. Not only did Ntombenhle pioneer a new category in South African manufacturing, AfroBotanics is a vehicle for larger social change. Ntombenhle knows that if her work can sustain and inspire a new ecosystem of South African brands the country she loves so much will engender better leadership, less patriarchy, and more positive growth. Her vision and intuition, paired with a great natural product, has positioned her for takeoff.
Her challenge lies in letting go of many of her daily tasks and matching her brilliant intuition with strategic use of data in marketing, sales, and manufacturing.
And so when I heard the wisdom of a founder both Ntombenhle and I admire tremendously, I took it to heart. One week after Dublin I heard Carol’s Daughter founder Lisa Price warn the audience at NPR’s How I Built This Summit to trust our guts, even when our companies grow and outside experts come in to advise. Much like Ntombenhle and AfroBotanics, Lisa Price started mixing natural beauty products in her kitchen in the 1990’s and built Carol’s Daughter into a giant brand, which she sold to L’Oreal last year. All week long in Dublin, we referenced Carol’s Daughter as a model.
Price noted that her new status allows her more time to focus on the big picture, but she remains a passionate founder. Price calls her business a “her” and likens the brand she built from scratch to one of her children. As her business matured, Price cautioned, “I began to lose my voice in my own brand and I had to get it back.” She did this by trusting her gut and asserting her power while still keeping her ears open to expert advice. Price illustrated the flexibility and constant learning it takes to grow as a business owner and as a leader.
As she grew, Lisa Price needed to consult experts with decades of industry experience, she needed to look at the data, but she needed to know when to turn off the outside voices and trust her gut.
Ntombenhle Khathwane’s powerful vision for her company blew me away. Faith in her knowledge and mission has allowed her to trust her gut and work with confidence. But the truth is, she was running out of time in her day because she took on so much. And so we worked on another kind of letting go, which is letting go of the control of what you do when you have started a business from scratch and you care so much about every detail. Every founder should ideally get to the place where they have enough time to think, dream, and get back in touch with their intuition.
And so here are three questions Ntombenhle and I worked together on addressing that might be helpful to other entrepreneurs:
1. What does your average work day look like? How do you allocate your time? Draw a pie chart and allocate percentages to different tasks, from financial management, business development, administration, sales, marketing, and strategic time. If admin is more than 25 percent, you might need to reallocate your time. What can you delegate? What functions do you need to hire for? And importantly, what functions do you need to focus on to grow your business?
2. What can you put into a system? We worked on an editorial calendar that would allow Ntombenhle to set up programming for social media and marketing campaigns well in advance. She could brainstorm and develop creative ideas with her team but would not be struck writing copy the day before. A simple Excel sheet or grid can work.
3. How can data guide decisions made by intuition? Founders know their messaging and audiences by heart. But data speaks, especially online. Instagram is a crucial marketing channel for AfroBotanics, so we examined Instagram insights to learn which posts performed best and what could guide future focus.
Ultimately, every leader’s goal is to free up space and hours to do the big work. When we start from scratch we can forget to ask for help but we must practice letting go of certain tasks in order to get to the next level.