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By Emily Soccorsy and Justin Foster

There comes a point in the leadership of every privately-held company when the owner is forced to relinquish a healthy amount of control in order for the company to grow–or continue controlling everything and stagnate.

When business owners decide not to let go, they often become afflicted by what we call “Shopkeeper Syndrome.” Shopkeepers wash the windows, count the till, measure the drapes, serve the customers, hire the help, and write the marketing—in other words, they run every aspect of their businesses. This is often necessitated by the lack of available resources during a business’s growth phase, but becomes a leadership habit as the company stabilizes and achieves significant profitability.

This all-too-common condition is rooted in the owner’s insecurity in his or her ability to retain control as the organization grows. Shopkeeper Syndrome sufferers are often self-made, and believe that holding on to once successful strategies from the past is the best method for future development. They’re scared of what they don’t know—and terrified to admit it. At the same time, they take on a level of arrogance fed by their past successes.

Shopkeeper Syndrome is characterized by five key traits:

1. They believe tactics trump strategy.

The most common errant behavior we see in marketing and branding—by far—is excessive focus on tactics and very little focus on strategy. Invariably, our conversations with those afflicted by Shopkeeper Syndrome suggest applying the mantra, “Strategy first, tactics second.”

Unfortunately, most of the afflicted will not relent from their obsession with tactics. In fact, they seem to relish swiftly shifting between them, believing that once they find the magical tactic it will unlock a rush of inbound leads or viral hits.

Additional symptoms include: obsession with slogans and jingles, hiring SEO “gurus,” copying gimmicks from their competitors, and taking advice from “samples of one” or random strangers.

2. They are always the smartest people in the room–and they’re keeping it that way.

Those suffering from Shopkeeper Syndrome are very insulated from people who think critically and tell them the truth. This includes both their staff and their business friendships. This deluded state causes them to feel they have the upper hand or the most experience. They tend to ask loaded questions, have preloaded responses, and are dismissive of facts and data. Our advice, “Trust your talent,” usually falls on deaf ears because they think that they are the only talent.

3. They have an outdated and static knowledge set, and they keep returning to it.

At some point these owners acquired a skill or knowledge base they believe caused their businesses to grow. This base becomes the center of all decision-making, even if it hasn’t been supplemented by new information and ideas for years—or decades. When it comes to acquiring knowledge, the afflicted tend to read business books that focus on fixing other people and not themselves.

When they attend trade shows or conferences, they do so to scope out competitors, to be recognized by others in the industry, or to indulge in other forms of distraction.

When we try to adjust thinking in this arena by encouraging education about current trends such as social mobile, Millennials, and customer experience, the afflicted resist by saying, “That doesn’t apply to my industry.”

4. They have little or no talent bench.

Often related to trait number 2, these business owners tend to hire people who are great at doing what they are told, doing what the owner does not want to do, and/or doing what the owner can’t do. Their lens of talent is focused around technical skills, not a critical mind-set.

They’re obsessed with leadership, but they don’t truly want to develop leaders. They see no real need to develop talent because there is no one who can achieve their standards, yet they continually question why there are no other leaders. When someone talented leaves the company, they deem the person ill-suited for the role.

When we ask about the future of their businesses, we’re often met with discomfort and the claim that we instead need to focus on what’s going on right now.

5. They take a high-involvement, high-urgency approach to every project.

The previous four traits are all culminated and amplified in this trait. When employees complain about lack of strategy, poor communication, being too hands-on, lack of clarity, inconsistent direction, and overreacting to the “next opportunity,” trait number 5 is the trait they are talking about. It leads to employee and vendor fatigue, innovation stagnation, and a sloppy customer experience because the people responsible for those three areas are never fully free to own them. In fact, due to this trait, no one else in the organization is fully free to own anything.

When we confront owners with the plea, “Let it go,” they often counter with, “If I don’t do this right now, it’ll never get done.”

Do people with Shopkeeper Syndrome ever recover? There can be periods of fewer symptoms, depending on the company’s balance sheet, pressure from influencers, or short-term bursts of strategic enlightenment. But for true change to occur, a healthy dose of self-awareness must be prescribed. The afflicted must become aware that they’ve fallen into the Shopkeeper Syndrome cycle.

For those who can recognize and be accountable for their behavior, and who understand the frustration and inefficiencies these habits are creating, change is possible. But they must consistently remain open to change, and find a way to trust the future of their company to people beyond themselves. It’s a tall order.

To start, we recommend a tough love and brutally honest intervention—beginning by sending them this article.

Emily Soccorsy + Justin Foster are cofounders of the intrinsic branding practice known as Root + River. Together with their defiantly different clients, they uncover then articulate the foundational elements of the brand. Then, they provide brand strategy and brand coaching as the brand is rolled out internally and externally. Obsessive about language and differentiation, Emily + Justin are also authors and speakers. Follow @rootandriver @fosterthinking and @emilyatlarge.

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