The Absent Entrepreneur

By Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, an EO Cape Town member and CEO of Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters

In early 2013, at the age of 42, I embarked on a proper mid-life crisis that took the form of wanting to dance again— professionally, on a stage somewhere and with a dance company. In my former career, I was a contemporary dancer, choreographer and director of an independent dance company. I retired at the grand-old age of 28 due to an injury and being flat broke. I took the business route and embarked on a new career as an executive headhunter.

For more than 15 years, I lived quite happily without the urge to dance or perform … and then overnight, the itch demanded to be scratched. An almost 18-month training and rehearsal process ensued. For the first time in a decade and a half, I was not 100% focused on my business, nor 100% available for my team, clients and the hundred other moving parts— and it terrified me! I found myself worrying: What if my team’s delivery and productivity dropped? What if my clients were unhappy and left? What if my reduced attention resulted in dropped balls and my business suffered irreparable damage?

The fear of failure was staring me in the face each time I made the nine-hour drive to my dance rehearsals. And yet, the re-inspired passion and goal of performing on a stage again were powerful enough to keep me dancing, in spite of the internal, critical voice of judgement. Before I knew it, performance day had arrived. I danced at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa’s biggest and most prestigious arts festival. It was magical to be back on stage, doing the thing that had been my all-consuming passion from the time I was a child. And then, five shows later, it was all over. I was back at work, all in one piece … and so was my business.

In fact, business was better than ever! Once I had a moment to catch my breath, I started to reflect on the many developments and transitions that my company had gone through over the previous year as a direct consequence of my passion project. And the realisation was that my absence had been the best thing for my business and team. Here are some related key learnings:

  1. Clients just want excellent delivery and great service: As long as clients are getting these things, they don’t care much about whether you’re at the office or playing golf (or performing at a dance festival, for that matter).
  2. Let your team do what they do best: Instead of the team being accountable to me for delivery on their projects, they set up internal service-level agreements and became accountable to their colleagues. Each person knew what was expected of them, so if someone was not delivering, it was visible. My personal input—sanctions or incentives—became unnecessary.
  3. Don’t just delegate— give a proper mandate: Delegation was not enough if I wanted to avoid being piled with final decisions on all of the same tasks that I had handed over in the first place. I looked at the many things that no longer needed my personal “yes,” and gave a mandate to my team to do more than just execute— I empowered them to make decisions.
  4. I still love my business: Perhaps the greatest insight I received from taking the time to do something that I had been passionate about early in life was the perspective that the thing I do now (executive searches) challenges, inspires and fulfils me.
  5. My company can survive without me: For the first time, I was able to test the resilience of my business and team— and the results were spectacular. Not only did everyone survive, but my key stakeholders thrived.

All in all, I think I’m (mostly) done with dance, but I now have the confidence and know-how to step away from my business from time to time to pursue whichever passionate endeavours arise. The bucket list beckons!

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat (pictured) is an EO Cape Town member and the CEO of Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters, a premier executive search firm in South Africa. Contact Debbie at debbie@jhammer.co.za.

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