Becoming Your Own Boss

From dream to reality

PHOTO: Jon Feingersh/Getty Images; Post-Its: UFUK ZIVANA/iStockphoto

Most of us dream of being our own boss, answering only to ourselves, choosing what we’ll do and when, and accomplishing great things on our own. Many of us have already accomplished this goal. Some of my former engineering students started their own consulting firms soon out of college. I started my own business eight years ago, after a 30-year career at a public agency. And we all know of the famous bosses of technology—the Steve Jobses of the world who go out on their own to develop the megaproducts of our age.

But, alas, most of us have to deal with the challenges of getting a steady income, putting food on the table, and gaining experience in our chosen field, supported by our employers, before we can consider breaking away. So how do you know when you’re ready to branch out on your own? Here are some things to consider on the ”if” and the ”when” of becoming your own boss.

Identify where you are already your own boss. In your current job, what activities are you responsible for, how many people do you supervise, what level of dollar responsibility do you have? These are all measures that show you are accountable for results, with some degree of independence. Don’t forget to include your membership in voluntary organizations, like professional societies. Being a chair of a professional committee or a scout leader gives you some measure of taking responsibility for running things.

Ask yourself what you like and dislike about having responsibility. Are you comfortable when other people depend on you to make decisions, or would you rather not have the added pressures? Are you willing to work harder and longer hours to get a job done, or do you place a higher value on being able to leave work at a regular time each day? These are tip-offs on whether or not you have the inner drive and motivation to be successful on your own.

If you’re looking for more opportunity and autonomy, here’s something you can do right away: try ”managing your boss.” You can exert more control over your work than you think by helping your boss. Don’t wait to be told what to do all the time, take more initiative under your general guidelines, keep your boss at least as well informed as he or she would normally expect, and see whether you get more support. Treat your job as if it were your own ”candy store”—as if you were running your own business. This attitude will probably make you more effective and give you a sense of how you would operate if you became the boss.

IMAGE: Jon Feingerish/Getty Images

The CEO of you

In a sense, you are already your own boss.

Start a side project at work or a home business. Some companies will allow their professionals to take some time (say, 10 percent) to pursue a pet project along with their assigned responsibilities. This may be a great opportunity to show your entrepreneurial skills while staying in your current position. Similarly, developing an outside business in your spare time may be the perfect opportunity to see if you have what it takes. This business could be the kind that you would start on your own full time, or it could involve turning a hobby into a business. But be careful: don’t quit your ”day job” until you have established a track record that makes you confident that you can strike off on your own.

Assess the skills that you would need to be a boss. All these skills are necessary to be an effective professional, but they are especially critical in helping you succeed in your own enterprise:

Are you willing to work long hours? Face it, the days of the 9â''toâ''5 job will probably be over forever. Do you have the ”fire in the belly” to put in the time and effort required to succeed?

Do you know how to delegate effectively, so that you can leverage your goals through your staff? You can’t be everywhere and do everything, so your people will need clear direction and the appropriate degree of autonomy to get things done right.

Do you understand business planning and finance and the need for sufficient working capital? You need a fundamental knowledge of business management, so you can develop your business as well as work with accountants and lawyers.

Are you well organized? You’ll need to find important things quickly and keep track of appointments and deadlines.

Are you able to set priorities and adhere to them? Are you able to judge what’s important on your to-do list? There’s a difference between doing things and getting things done.

Do you have good interpersonal skills? It’s not just the technical know-how that makes for success. You need to deal with all sorts of people—customers, suppliers, and, of course, employees.

Do you know how to market? Do you even like to do it? You must understand the need for your product or service and be able to target specific markets. Apply the so-called 4 Ps of successful marketing: product/service, price, promotion, and the place where you sell it.

Are you decisive? People will look to you to make decisions, from strategic choices to where to take a customer to lunch.

Are you comfortable taking on a heavy load of responsibility? If you’re the boss: tag, you’re it. The buck stops on your desk. Ready or not, you’re in charge.

And, perhaps most significant, can you manage increased stress in your life? Stress is a fact of life for all of us, but learning how to manage higher stress levels—like finding time to relax—will enable you to stay healthier while you’re in charge.

When should you consider going on your own? This will depend on your career attainments, family commitments, and financial situation. But engineers at any age can contemplate doing this: you can be right out of school, at midcareer, or approaching retirement. You need to develop realistic strategies that deal with your obligations, especially those to your family.

Plan by projecting scenarios three to five years into the future. Envision several approaches. What product or service would you provide? What skills would you need? What income would it take? Learn what you need to know, take business or technical courses, get certified in key skills, and build financial reserves.

Now that I’ve given you some food for thought about becoming your own boss, let me ask you another question. Do you want to become a chief engineer or a chief executive officer some day? Be honest. This is not a trick question; I’m not trying to test your level of ambition but to surprise you a bit. You are already a CEO…the CEO of you! Although you may have to get advice and support from others, such as your spouse or your boss, you are ultimately accountable for your own actions. In this sense, you are already your own boss.

You owe it to yourself to seriously consider becoming your own corporate boss. Whether this means gaining more responsibility in your current position or planning for the day when you’re truly in charge of your own enterprise, look into it carefully. Assess your abilities, do your homework, and challenge yourself to make your career more satisfying and rewarding by going out on your own…or by happily staying put.

About the Author

CARL SELINGER is an aviation and transportation consultant, author, and professor. His series of professional development seminars is called ”Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School.” His book of the same title was published by Wiley-IEEE Press in the United States and by Science Press in China. Visit http://www.carlselinger.com.

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