BOTH APPRENTICE AND TEACHER

Want to survive in the new job economy? Learn to fire yourself

Once you have mastered a task, hand it off.
Once you have mastered a task, hand it off.
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When you start a company, doing every job yourself is a practical matter—there’s quite literally no one else there to do the work. But when my co-founder and I launched our startup, in 2014, we also saw value in doing every job in the company ourselves.

We wanted to understand every atom of the business we were building. If we didn’t know what needed to get done, we wouldn’t be able to delegate it to someone else successfully. Once we’d done the jobs and understood the pain points and the skills necessary to be successful, we could hire, empathize, and manage people who would be taking that piece of the puzzle.

In essence, we saw our goal as eventually firing ourselves from every role—because we’d hired great people and designed smart processes that could take our places.

Four years later, we still believe this but with greater conviction. Everyone should commit to firing themselves—repeatedly. Whether you’re an entrepreneur scaling a company or in your first entry-level position, your job is to put yourself out of a job by outgrowing it and moving on to the next challenge.

We’re all newbies

Adopting a mindset of firing yourself isn’t a nice-to-have—it’s a necessity. If you want to succeed in the job economy we’re entering, the most important skill you can have is the ability to learn new skills. There’s a reason why “Learning How to Learn” has been ranked the No. 1 online course and added to curricula at colleges and vocational programs. Continuous professional evolution will very quickly be the new normal.

We should all embrace that new normal—or become what Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, calls “Endless Newbies.” In his 2017 book, The Inevitable, Kelly writes this is the only reasonable response to a future in which new technologies will evolve and obsolesce faster and faster: “Endless Newbie is the new default for everyone, no matter your age or experience.”

Scale yourself out of a job

Embracing the humility of a beginner ensures you don’t stay one. But you have to be both apprentice and teacher. Think of yourself as a player on a sports team and, at the same time, try to zoom out and imagine yourself as the coach of that team.  The goal is to observe the way you work and evaluate how you spend your time.

Traditionally hierarchical organizations, like investment banks or management consultancies, provide half of that apprenticeship experience, with a succession of jobs that immerse you in the sausage-making. But when you take that active double-view on how you work, your job can become more than a static set of responsibilities defined by titles or boxes on an org chart. It becomes a system for solving problems in progressively better, more efficient ways.

Think about the repetitive daily and monthly tasks many of us find hard to avoid. None of us should be doing any rote work on repeat. It’s up to us to create systems to solve those micro-jobs and scale our time so that we can focus on learning and growth. That’s how we can begin to scale ourselves and delegate away the jobs we’ve outgrown.

Stop hoarding your Legos

As a founder and CEO, I’ve learned how to think about delegating as a process of hiring and then firing myself from every single job in the company.

That means building trust with the people who will take those jobs away from me. And that’s hard, especially for someone who has strong views on how a job should get done. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that people need to do things the way I’ve done them. But I’ve had to let that go and recognize there are many ways to skin a cat. Instead, if I’m clear about the outcomes we need, by when, and firm about the how-tos that aren’t negotiable, then I’m allowing people to own not just the problem, but the solutions they’ll create and everything they’ll learn from the experience.

Delegating can be especially hard during a period of rapid scaling. In a piece for First Round Review, Molly Graham, an early leader at Google and Facebook, compared scaling a company to building big, ambitious towers out of Legos. At first, everyone’s excited; but soon the number of Legos becomes overwhelming and requires adding more builders:

“There’s a lot of natural anxiety and insecurity that the new person won’t build your Lego tower in the right way, or that they’ll get to take all the fun or important Legos, or that if they take over the part of the Lego tower you were building, then there won’t be any Legos left for you. But at a scaling company, giving away responsibility—giving away the part of the Lego tower you started building—is the only way to move on to building bigger and better things.”

Failing to delegate doesn’t just stunt our own growth. If we don’t learn to fire ourselves, it can hold everyone back.

Whatever level we’re at, this framework of firing ourselves from routine and hiring ourselves for the next challenge is a powerful aspirational tool to keep us continuously growing and scaling our abilities. In a rapidly evolving economy, it’s the only way to ensure we don’t get left behind.