Leadership Lesson #1: Let Go

Environmental Pest Management will soon be celebrating its 20th anniversary, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how the business has evolved over this time. And as we head into our next 20 years, I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve learned about leading. It’s been quite a journey.

EPM’s Evolution

In retrospect, I realize that my company today is quite different than the one I started nearly 20 years ago. Back then, my motivation for having my own company was so that I could be in control of my destiny. I didn’t want anyone else telling me what to do, where to go, or how to behave. And my vision for the business was to make enough money to support myself. That was the extent of EPM’s business strategy. So much for lofty goals and vision.

A couple of years into EPM’s existence, Karen, who at the time was my neighbor, joined me to answer the phones and set appointments. She brought a sense of order and structure to EPM, and in doing so, took EPM from a one-man show to a real company. She started hiring other technicians to handle the work, collected on our receivables so the business had enough cash to keep us in chemicals, and set the standard for dealing with our customers with care and empathy. I know now that her involvement was the best thing that could have happened to EPM and to me.

With Karen on board running things, I was freed up to develop EPM’s proprietary Work Order System. This software was unique to EPM and was a game-changer for our company, as well as the pest control industry. The software allows for efficient two-way communication between our pest management professionals and our property manager clients, and keeps the records for each property’s pest treatments in one place for easy reference. The Work Order System, in addition to our excellent standard for service, made EPM very attractive to residential property management companies, so I aimed our business development efforts toward that market. Consequently, EPM now services around 80% of the multi-family residential properties in Ohio, which represent thousands of units treated each month.

As the business was starting to take off, I was fortunate to enlist the help of a few mentors, including George Babyak. George showed me that my small business could become a thriving company, and that EPM had the potential to become a leader in the pest management industry. Granted, I was an expert at killing bugs, but I wasn’t going to achieve business success as a pest control technician. With the help of George and other mentors, I began to understand the distinction between being a business owner and a business leader. My mentors taught me to be great at the management and leadership aspects of my business: finance, sales, marketing, negotiation and planning. And even more importantly, they helped me nurture and articulate a vision for what EPM could ultimately become.

Jason’s Evolution

 EPM isn’t the only thing that has transformed in the last 20 years. For starters, my partner in business became my partner in life when Karen and I got married. There’s a lot to be said for working alongside someone you can trust, but it definitely changes the dynamics of your professional and personal relationship. To help us manage the many stressors that come along with working and living together 24/7, we enlisted the help of a marriage counselor-business coach who helped us understand our strengths and define our roles – at home and at work. Our coach understood us as a couple and as business owners, and this was a key to our success working together. She helped me see that being a great leader doesn’t mean I have to play a part in every aspect of our business. While I’m a good business strategist, Karen is better at day-to-day execution. I’m great at pushing the team to dream bigger, and Karen is great at creating a culture of empathy and care. By defining our respective roles – and being disciplined about staying in our own “lanes” – we were each free to focus on what we did best. 
I also had a series of health scares in recent years. These incidents made me reconsider my perspective on the role the business plays in my life and that of my family. I was forced to contemplate my mortality. While this was an incredibly difficult time, it galvanized me to get the business vision – the one my mentors had helped me create – out of my head and onto paper. I created an EPM playbook, so that if I were to die, others could execute my vision for the company. That playbook has provided a solid foundation for the year-over-year growth EPM continues to achieve.

Also, during this period, it became apparent that my business could not only survive but thrive without my daily involvement. There were things that my team could do better than I could. I realized my best move as a leader would be to let go a bit, and to trust my team to do what they do best. I also realized I didn’t have to push so much to make growth happen – it was happening anyway, with the right people in the right places.

And there was a bonus: not only was the business thriving without my day-to-day meddling, I found that I was freed up to be a more supportive husband to Karen and an even more attentive parent to our daughter, who is just finishing her first year at The Ohio State University.

I’m still deeply invested in EPM’s success, its growth, and its future, but not the same way I was nearly 2 decades ago. I don’t go into work every day the way I did then. I don’t even have a desk in our new building. Of course, I enjoy visiting the office occasionally, seeing the new folks on the team, recognizing individuals’ and teams’ achievements, sharing EPM’s quarterly and annual goals with the management team and providing a vision for the company. I’m still leading EPM, but I have found a different, more sustainable way of doing it: a way that allows both me and EPM to flourish.