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Delegation: Scaling for Success

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Scaling for Success - Zahra and Nourhan Sbeih on Delegation
Scaling for Success - Zahra and Nourhan Sbeih on Delegation
“Entrepreneurs contribute innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, managerial skills, system organization, and creativity to their businesses. These aspects require space and time for reflection, an eagle-eye view of operations, and strategic thinking. Entrepreneurs often need to dedicate more time to these crucial aspects but find themselves trapped in a hustle culture that equates busyness with success.” Zahra and Nourhan Sbeih

Delegation is one of the most critical skills for managers, as it creates time for strategic thinking while empowering others to grow. This episode's guests are Zahra and Nourhan Sbeih, the founders of SVA Agency, which provides professionals with highly skilled virtual assistants to save time, increase productivity, and focus on strategic tasks. Zahra and Nourhan discuss the struggles when delegating tasks, such as perfectionism, control, and difficulty differentiating between short-term time investment and long-term time-saving benefits.

Stephen Matini: Did both of you have similar interests while growing up, or were your interests different?

Zahra Sbeih: Oh no, they were way different.

Nourhan Sbeih: We still don't have the same interests.

Zahra Sbeih: Yeah, we share the same values, and sometimes people notice that we speak very similarly because we spend a lot of time together. However, when it comes to hobbies and our personalities, there aren't many similarities.

SM: Where did you both get your work ethic from?

Nourhan Sbeih: I've always been very sensitive to the consequences of my actions and how they impact other people. I'm constantly aware of how my output is perceived and how I can make other people's lives easier. I know this can sometimes lean towards people-pleasing, but it has served me well.

I've set some boundaries, but when it comes to performance, I've always known that I need to present the best version of myself and do what I believe is the right thing. So when I had my first job opportunity, I didn't focus on the rules; I focused on delivering what I believed was a high-quality output. I wanted to be perceived in a certain way, and that approach has been successful for me.

Zahra Sbeih: I agree, and I also think our dad played a significant role. He's a business owner, and we've always been amazed by his incredible work ethic and dedication to his employees and company. He's been a role model for us throughout our lives, and I've definitely inherited some of his work ethic.

He's very disciplined and used to say, "If you expect your employees to arrive at the office early, and you're not doing the same, what message are you sending? You can't preach to them about punctuality and work ethic if you're staying in bed until noon." He's always emphasized the importance of leading by example.

SM: When did your professional paths lead you to this venture you now share?

Nourhan Sbeih: At no point did we foresee that we would end up leading a virtual assistance agency. We simply knew from a young age that we wanted to start a business together in the future. Life somehow guided us into this career path.

Zahra Sbeih: Even though Nourhan studied law and I studied economics, our current business is quite different from our academic backgrounds. Life takes unexpected turns.

Nourhan Sbeih: This is why we often advise against getting too fixated on specific career paths based on your degree. I, for instance, have a marketing degree, and I could have felt compelled to pursue a marketing career. But staying open to opportunities is key.

When we first started, we didn't have high expectations. We saw a gap in the market that our skills might fill. So, we thought, why not give it a try while continuing down our usual paths?

The response was surprising; there was significant demand in the market, and our venture took off. Being flexible and following your passion, along with adapting to where your skills are needed, is essential.

SM: You run an agency dedicated to assisting those who struggle with delegation. What insights have you gained about the challenges managers face when it comes to delegation?

Zahra Sbeih: Several challenges come to mind. For instance, some managers believe they can handle the tasks themselves and are reluctant to delegate, thinking it will take longer to instruct someone else than to do it themselves.

Nourhan Sbeih: Another common issue is perfectionism and control. Managers often have a specific way of doing things, and when they delegate to a virtual assistant who has their own approach, they may become fixated on having it done their way.

Zahra Sbeih: To expand on this, there are two major issues. First, they fail to differentiate between the time spent delegating a task and the time saved in the long run. Effective delegation is an investment in future time. Initially, you spend time explaining your preferences and workload, but you won't have to do it again later.

Nourhan Sbeih: The second issue, as Zahra mentioned, is that managers sometimes forget to provide the goal or context. When delegating, especially to SVA, where we offer extensive training and aim to add value, managers should avoid dictating the entire process. Instead, they should empower their virtual assistants by sharing the end result they want to achieve.

This approach allows for a unique perspective, creativity, and unbiased evaluation of processes. Effective delegation is not just about assigning tasks; it's about delegating responsibilities and building trust.

Zahra Sbeih: Trust is indeed crucial. By delegating responsibilities and providing a clear goal, managers can unlock the full potential of delegation and achieve outstanding results, while also fostering trust with their partners and clients.

Nourhan Sbeih: What also provide psychological and emotional support. In your line of work and business, many issues and challenges arise. Knowing someone is there to lend a hand is invaluable. On the flip side, we've noticed a problem related to delegation, which is delegation by abdication. It's different from effective delegation.

On one end, you have managers who are overly controlling, wanting to oversee every aspect, which hinders productivity. On the other end, some managers hand over tasks and disengage until things start falling apart, which isn't because the person isn't trustworthy or skilled but rather because abdication signifies the manager needs to provide more context, empowerment, or accountability.

This leads to a non-constructive approach where they remove themselves from the process, and that doesn't yield positive outcomes either.

These are among the top three issues we encounter with delegation, and we give managers a heads-up to watch out for these pitfalls. We're continuously refining our internal processes, but we encourage them to trust the process while being mindful of these potential challenges.

SM: What's the first step for someone who's used to doing everything themselves to start delegating without feeling overwhelmed or anxious?

Nourhan Sbeih: Typically, what we do is alleviate the pressure by asking them to identify the tasks that are most time-consuming for them. We conduct an audit and select one or two tasks that we excel at and are very deliverable-based.

These tasks aren't recurring, such as specific design work, research data, or video editing.

Before we start, we suggest tackling one of these tasks to break the preconceived notion that no one can do it as well as they can.

Creative tasks, particularly, tend to elicit the most hesitation due to their subjectivity. To address this, we begin with these tasks to break down the barriers. I review their previous work to understand their preferences and then assign a Virtual Assistant (VA) who has been performing excellently for us. This approach usually works well.

For recurring tasks like community management and email handling, which often cause stress when delegated, we propose creating a guide. We generate a guide based on our discussions with the client, incorporating their preferences and previous email content to standardize recurring messages and emails, thus preparing templates.

This step helps clients become more comfortable with the idea of delegation because they have already approved a scenario. We take a gradual approach, focusing on deliverable-based tasks first.

For tasks that are recurring, subjective, or personal, we introduce standardization, templates, and guidelines, which further eases them into the process. This gradual method prevents overwhelming the client or manager and minimizes resistance to accepting the output, even if it's of high quality.

SM: So essentially, you function as psychologists in a way.

Nourhan Sbeih: We work with people, not just our internal Virtual Assistants (VAs), but also individuals who are dealing with stress, overwhelm, and high ambition. Many of them are overachievers, juggling numerous external and internal challenges.

Over time, we've had to learn how to navigate these various dynamics. You mentioned empathy earlier, and that's the key – the "aha" moment that we need to understand what they're going through and tailor our support to their specific circumstances.

SM: How do you maintain a balance to avoid stepping on each other's toes?

Zahra Sbeih: When we initially launched, we divided responsibilities based on our key strengths. My strong suit lies in people skills, and I thoroughly enjoy working in teams and with individuals. Naturally, I took on operations, handling internal team matters, and related tasks.

Nourhan excels as a negotiator and a strategist. She's responsible for our growth, securing clients, and developing ideas for the company. We've established a clear separation of our roles, taking charge of our respective responsibilities while consulting with each other when necessary. This approach has operated seamlessly since day one, and it's been incredible.

We don't encroach on each other's areas because we're fully occupied with our own scopes.

The fact that we're sisters made trusting each other an easy step. However, I would advise that if founders are strangers or even friends, having a well-defined contract or a founder's agreement that codifies these roles, along with an objective accountability system, can work wonders for you. It's not about mistrusting your partner but preparing for all potential scenarios in the future.

SM: How do you manage the dynamics of a family-based business as it grows into a larger entity while maintaining a balance between the personal and professional aspects of your relationship?

Zahra Sbeih: Nourhan and I have learned to distinguish between our roles in the business and our personal relationship. When we're working, we're business partners, not just sisters.

This approach has been beneficial for us along the way.

Nourhan Sbeih: It wasn't an instant realization; it evolved over time through trial and error, as well as clearly communicating our boundaries.

There are times when we're driving back home, and Zahra wants to discuss work-related matters, but I remind her that I've been making numerous big decisions that day, and I need a break from decision-making. Zahra feels the same way at times.

We've also had moments when I'm discussing my concerns with her, and she'll playfully remind me that she's "out of the office" and suggests checking in the next morning. So, it's about defining boundaries in your partnership and being open about them without hesitation.

SM: Was it always easy for both of you to communicate your boundaries? Because for me, I had to learn it the hard way, I was a bit of a mess. How was it for you?

Zahra Sbeih: To be honest, it wasn't always easy for me. Expressing boundaries often requires a certain confrontational personality and the ability to communicate assertively.

Nourhan is a natural at this; she's very open about how she feels and communicates it effectively. In contrast, I'm not as skilled in this area, and at times, Nourhan has to coax it out of me. However, I've been fortunate to have a partner and sister like her because she has been instrumental in helping me become better at expressing my boundaries. Her encouragement and support in communication have been invaluable.

Nourhan Sbeih: That's true. I've never been uncomfortable with confrontation and expressing boundaries. I'm always ready to face whatever reaction may come. However, when you're in a partnership with someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, like Zahra, it's essential to be aware of that and set up systems for effective communication.

In our case, we established recurring check-ins. I've discovered that with Zahra, it's best not to start with big questions. Instead, I gradually break it down with simpler, more specific questions to help her open up and express herself. It began with self-awareness; you can't assist someone if they aren't aware of the issue.

SM: Often, people express a desire to be more strategic but feel they're stuck in their roles with no time. Could you please explain how your agency helps individuals who are overwhelmed with operational tasks and desire more time for strategic thinking, self-improvement, and upskilling?

Nourhan Sbeih: Absolutely, this is precisely the core of our agency's mission. It's a situation

Zahra and I found ourselves in as well. We had a vision for our business, but when we started, we ended up getting heavily involved in day-to-day tasks. We became the technicians of our own business.

Initially, we served as the first virtual assistants in our agency while taking on clients. We got so immersed in this dynamic that we found it challenging to transition to a more strategic approach when we started hiring others. We were too deeply entrenched in the operational aspects and held onto the process.

As we evolved, we realized that entrepreneurs contribute innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, managerial skills, system organization, and creativity to their businesses. These aspects require space and time for reflection, an eagle-eye view of operations, and strategic thinking. Entrepreneurs often need to dedicate more time to these crucial aspects but find themselves trapped in a hustle culture that equates busyness with success.

We encourage entrepreneurs to conduct a time audit and assess their daily routines. Most of the time, they're not allocating enough time for strategic thinking and self-care. When we suggest scheduling free time for relaxation, they often react with disbelief due to the prevailing notion that constant busyness equals success.

We emphasize that as entrepreneurs and managers, they need to create systems and order, focusing on strategic aspects that allow their virtual assistants to handle day-to-day tasks efficiently.

For instance, think about our business: if Zahra and I were occupied with customer service, digital marketing, and client account management, we wouldn't have time to network, identify strategic partners, or plan the expansion to new departments. This requires distance from daily tasks. If I spent my entire day answering emails, I'd have a false sense of accomplishment but wouldn't contribute to the company's long-term growth.

Zahra Sbeih: The difference lies in working in the business versus working on the business.

The former involves technician work and day-to-day tasks that don't foster company growth. In contrast, working on the business allows for strategic thinking, reflection, and the generation of ideas for company expansion.

Nourhan Sbeih: A business cannot scale or grow if it relies on an individual's presence. In such a scenario, the individual essentially has a job – they're their own boss but still answer to a boss. We experienced this dynamic after a year of struggle, and it drained our passion. It made a significant difference when we shifted our mindset. We learned to step back and create a business that operates smoothly, even in our absence.

SM: I've learned a simple yet effective productivity hack. I use a piece of paper, divided into green and red sections. The red represents operational tasks, while the green stands for strategic work. The night before, I spend just a minute planning and jot down the tasks accordingly.

Nourhan Sbeih: I love that, it's brilliant. And if you have a virtual assistant (VA), you've already done the hard part. By identifying the tasks you can potentially delegate to your team or VA, you're on the right track. Our entire business revolves around delegation, and our way of thinking is shaped by it.

For instance, when I plan a project, I instinctively create a general outline. Later, I duplicate the template, which becomes a standard format for future similar projects. This approach saves time in the long run.

As a business owner, your time is valuable, and you shouldn't do the same thing repeatedly if it can be avoided. If a task, like email replies, can be standardized, save it for later use.

Taking notes is a good practice. Digitize projects, replicate them, and then customize as needed. Don't start from scratch; use the resources you've already created. While some may prefer physical notebooks, digital notes offer the advantage of easy searchability. I use Evernote for this purpose.

SM: What advice would you give to anyone who has been postponing the idea of pursuing their dream, like becoming an independent professional or starting a company?

Zahra Sbeih: They shouldn't overthink it; they should just go for it. Don't spend a year planning and focusing on details while someone else is implementing the same idea, perfecting it, and growing.

Trial and error served Nourhan and me along the way. Sometimes we went with the flow and figured things out as we went, but the most important part is that we started, we tried. No matter how smart or prepared you are, you'll make mistakes that seem obvious later.

When talking to younger entrepreneurs, it's essential to have a passion and love what you do. However, it's also crucial to understand that whether you're self-employed or an employee, it'll always feel like work. It's hard work, and you won't feel the same about it consistently.

You'll face challenges and question why you're doing it. That's normal, even when following your dreams. I wish I knew this when I started, so I didn't feel like I was in the wrong place. I wasn't; I just didn't realize that it's normal not to feel good all the time, especially on the entrepreneurial journey. Zahra and I encountered unexpected problems that were challenging, but we handled them, and it was okay.

SM: It's about the process. I used to fear making mistakes, overthink everything, and set unrealistically high bars for myself. Now, with experience, I take a more rational approach. I focus on doing my best for today, regardless of how it may seem in the future. The key is to enjoy the process. If I'm still enjoying it, I continue; if not, I make adjustments.

Nourhan Sbeih: I agree with that, especially the part about reflection. If you're not feeling the journey, even though there will be tough times, but if you consistently don't enjoy it...

SM: Did your gender or age have any significant impact on your thinking or who you've become, given the context where you grew up?

Zahra Sbeih: I don't think they directly affected us in a straightforward way. The fact that we're women or our age played a part. But there were times when we kind of went through things and had thoughts like, you know, if we were men, would it have been easier for us? If we were older, would it have made a difference in that situation?

So we wondered at times. I wouldn't say it has played a direct part. There was no roadblock in our way, and we're very grateful for that because we live in a time where it's never going to be a roadblock. There's always another way to make it happen. But it was something that wasn't very nice to go through.

Nourhan Sbeih: Even from our families we wouldn't even get advice because they'd say, just go have fun. Instead of us pitching a business idea to capable women pitching a business idea, it was two little girls trying to play office. That was kind of how we felt in the moment when we were getting this kind of input, and that was a tough pill to swallow at the time.

Now I think it's because our identity is in our business. Some people might say that's not a good thing, but we felt like we built something that reflects our values, our work ethic, how we like to do things as well. It's very structured, and we have to figure things out from scratch, so it's not outdated because these are all new answers that we have to come up with.

But there's a success story for every gender, for every age. I wouldn't say that it was an issue, it's just it was a bummer. It was a bummer in some moments, especially when you go into a meeting with a client, they're taken aback, and you feel like it kind of brought the whole negotiation or the whole deal to a halt. But again, confidence focusing on your value makes you push through, and it wasn't a roadblock in any way.

SM: How did you discover and become involved in the Barkat program, a social initiative supporting female entrepreneurs in Africa and the Middle East?

Zahra Sbeih: We were in a WhatsApp group for women leader organizations, I'm not sure.

They sent a broadcast about this coaching program called Barkat, which focuses on things I wanted to develop in myself, such as leadership skills and networking opportunities with other women entrepreneurs in Lebanon. I saw it as a great opportunity to apply and see if I could get selected because I think they only accept six women. So, I applied through the form, had an interview with Puneet Sadchev, who's amazing, and then I got selected. I was really, really happy for the opportunity, and it's going really well.

SM: What has been the most significant benefit you've received from the program as a female entrepreneur?

Zahra Sbeih: The program's greatest contribution has been the support system it offers. Being part of a cohort of six women, sharing our experiences, and realizing that we face similar challenges has been enlightening. It makes you feel less isolated, knowing that others are going through similar experiences. While our industries and businesses differ, we share common core challenges, and having this support system to share and seek advice has been incredibly valuable.

SM: Is there anything else that you believe would be important for our listeners to know?

Nourhan Sbeih: Firstly, when we started working remotely, the dynamic was entirely different from in-person interactions where tone and body language play a crucial role. We were initially put off by the communication style of the people we worked with, including their texting style. Perhaps they felt we were too distant or not fully human because we were behind screens. This remote working dynamic has a different psychology.

What has greatly benefitted us over time is the presence of empathy. Our clients are typically ambitious, perfectionists, stressed, overwhelmed overachievers – a challenging combination. They might not always use emojis or excessive compliments, but that's because they are trying to accomplish substantial tasks and achieve their goals. Understanding this has been particularly helpful, especially since 80% of our clients are women.

It's interesting to note that women clients are generally more expressive, while men clients may not use emojis or offer excessive compliments. When clients, especially women, are overwhelmed and don't express themselves in a warm way, the Virtual Assistants might wonder if they are upset. In such cases, it's essential to remember that societal conditioning plays a role. Having empathy for their busy lives and the demands of remote work is crucial.

On the other side, we encourage our clients to recognize the human behind the screen, as forming a connection can make a significant difference. Our setup focuses on direct contact, getting to know the VA's name, background, and preferences. We also emphasize regular video calls and direct call access, allowing clients to connect on a more personal level. This has a positive impact on the overall dynamic between the client and the VA. Empathy, understanding, and acknowledging the varying circumstances are essential aspects of this approach.

Zahra Sbeih: I completely agree with Nourhan. It made me reflect on the relationships between VAs and clients. We often develop strong bonds with our clients, and VAs become something akin to the client's best friend. There have been instances where clients have wanted to engage on a personal level, setting work aside to connect and get to know the VA. Building this bond is incredibly valuable because sometimes you just need to talk to another human being, and it's not all about work, work, work.

SM: Contrary to the misconception that digital interactions lack empathy, I've encountered instances in my own work where in-person situations were devoid of it. People may physically be present, but their lack of interest or engagement demonstrates the importance of empathy, even in a digital context.

Nourhan Sbeih: In the realm of digital work, the importance of empathy becomes even more critical. Here, we often find ourselves grappling with numerous preconceived ideas and assumptions, and it can feel like a constant battle to suppress these unfounded judgments.

For instance, the absence of an emoji can lead to misconceptions like perceiving someone as rude, when the text alone doesn't convey any assumptions. In this context, empathy plays a pivotal role in allowing individuals the space to express their humanity.

The second point I'd like to emphasize is the significance of asking for help. Entrepreneurs and ambitious individuals should understand that their success is not diminished if they collaborate with others to execute their ideas.

Being perpetually occupied with tasks like emails, meetings, and operational activities doesn't define your success as an entrepreneur. Success lies in your ability to generate innovative ideas, not in how much you can handle on your own. There's no shame in seeking assistance. Empowering and collaborating with others is a key determinant of success.

I'm frequently asked about the key characteristic of successful clients. It's not just about being incredibly disciplined or exceptionally intelligent. The most distinguishing trait I've observed in successful clients is their ability to be effective team players. Their collaborative and cooperative nature makes a significant difference and often defines the ultimate success of their businesses. These are the two essential aspects to consider.

SM: I must say that you have a truly wonderful dad, and even though I don't have children myself, considering I'm twice your age, I can't help but think that having two daughters like you would be an absolute joy. You are truly remarkable.

Zahra Sbeih: That means a lot.

Nourhan Sbeih: You're gonna make me cry; thank you!

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