Become a Brilliant Delegator.
If you could ‘fix’ one thing in 2013, this just might be it.
Core Idea: There’s no such thing as a single-handed success. We all need help now and again. If you’re really serious about becoming a powerful player, you need to learn to delegate. Now, buckle in for the science!
Here’s how Branson recently described the importance of delegation: Imagine you’re a professional juggler. As a novice, you start juggling and slowly increase the number of balls to help draw a larger crowd. As the crowd increases, so does their expectation. You start adding more difficult items like pins. It’s going well. Sometimes you drop a ball but you continue and your audience slowly grows. Then you decide to move to riskier stuff, adding flaming arrows and chainsaws. The crowd loves what you do and you want to keep all the elements going (balls, pins, flaming arrows and chainsaws). But the risk is getting very high now. If you drop a ball it’s fine. But drop a chainsaw and you’ll end up in a wheelchair. So what do you do? You delegate. You hire an assistant to take the easy stuff out of your hands (balls and pins) and leave you with the important stuff (flaming arrows and chainsaws). If they drop a ball now and then, it’s not that big a deal. Just teach them what they need to change. Before you know it, you’ll no longer have to worry about them dropping anything. Perhaps you don’t buy the juggling analogy? Here’s some more arguments in favour of building your skills in this area:
Time is the most precious commodity for executives. No matter how hard you work, you can’t do everything by yourself. Leveraging time has always been the ‘X Factor’ in executive success. If you’re feeling overworked, stressed, or falling behind, chances are that you are holding onto more responsibilities or tasks than is reasonable. Key Question: Who else could do this?
As you move up the organization, senior executives watch to see whether you get the job done, but also how you get it done. They want leadership skills demonstrated with a focus on the future. Mid-ranking executives often spend too much time dealing with immediate problems, and not enough time working strategically on process improvements and building organizational capability. Delegation allows you the space to work ‘on’ the business (rather than being continually sucked ‘into’ it). Key Question: Can you switch from dipped onto full headlights and look further out the road?
Your job = getting the ‘next generation’ of managers ready for a bigger role. Adults learn by doing – not by hearing or seeing – but by getting involved in the action. Like that old line “You go to college to do your MBA, and then go to work to learn the rest of the alphabet”. Delegation allows senior people to leverage their time and offers developmental opportunities to junior managers. Key Question: Are you investing any real effort in this?
Great Idea: But here’s a killer question: “If delegation is such a great idea, how come it’s not used much?” There are a several reasons to explain why executives avoid delegation. Do any of these reasons apply to you?
(1) Some executives have never seen delegation in action and don’t really understand how it works
(2) Others have a negative experience of senior managers pushing the ‘crap’ parts of their job downwards, labeling laziness as delegation
(3) Those of a perfectionist bent often hold the view that “If you want something done right, do it yourself”. They never learn to let go and some actually compete with their managers to show them ‘how it should be done’ (the managerial equivalent of ‘mine is bigger than yours’). The result = junior managers become more and more dependent, and less able to act on their own
(4) Perhaps you enjoy doing particular tasks and don’t want to give them away; you just wish you had more time to do them all. Executives that don’t get satisfaction from watching their managers succeed might actually be happier in individual contributor roles. Career advice: Go back to being an engineer or an accountant – don’t clog up that senior role where the expectation is that you will manage differently than you did 10 or 15 years ago
(5) Sometimes executives feel that managers are already under pressure and are reluctant to assign more work, for fear of overloading them. If your managers think that you are dumping on them, this might well be the case. But where you communicate that delegation is part of your philosophy to help them grow, this is pretty unlikely
(6) Finally, there are a small number of executives who fear delegating on the basis of being outshone by their staff. There probably is no cure for this group; they should be rounded up at the back of the factory and shot!
3 Steps to Success:
To delegate effectively, you need to do three things
(1) choose the right tasks to delegate
(2) identify the right people to hand over to
(3) delegate in the right way. Complex? Not really, albeit it does take a bit of practice. Just remember that the potential prize is huge. Here’s how to make it work.
Step #1: Choose the right tasks to delegate: Check your diary (or ask your PA to do this) over the past month or so. Review what you are actually doing and how long you spend at individual tasks. When a job is scattered throughout the day or week or month, executives often seriously underestimate how much time they spend at it. Remember, when you’re doing, you’re not managing. Instead, you’re attending to tasks that could be handled by lower-cost people. The principle = division of labor i.e. work should be done by people best qualified to do it at the least expense to the organization. And there’s a second subtle point at play here. As an executive, you are not just another manager. You are a coach. Coaches understand the importance of teaching, motivating, and taking pride in the performance of others. It’s moving away from managing (focusing on what needs to be done today) towards leading (what you are trying to build tomorrow). Get those headlights onto a blue beam!
Ask Yourself: “How much of the work that I currently do myself would I hand off to my managers if I were comfortable that this would be completed within quality parameters?” When asked this question, many executives respond that they would hand off up to 50 per cent of their workload. Here are some examples of good tasks to delegate:
a. Eliminate It: All too often, work continues to be done because it has always been done. If you set aside time to review your work, you will probably find opportunities to streamline processes and procedures. Don’t delegate anything that can be eliminated.
b. Repeat Tasks: Delegate tasks you do over and over. You’ve probably mastered them, but managers could learn new skills by completing these for you.
c. Complete Jobs: Try to delegate complete jobs, rather than portions. It gives managers the chance to come up with creative solutions from start to finish and feel a sense of ownership and pride about their work.
d. Long Deadlines: Delegate tasks that don’t have immediate deadlines. These provide good opportunities for managers to learn without too much time pressure.
e. Mission Critical: Would a failure de-rail the business? If it’s a ‘bet the farm’ project, don’t hand it over to someone else.
Of course, not everything can be delegated. Sometimes you’re in charge of a project because of your particular expertise and D.I.Y. is the best bet. If a project is confidential, it may not be possible to outsource this. And some jobs, by their very nature, need to be done by the person sitting in the executive seat (“Excuse me Theresa. After lunch, could you inform George that he’s fired? Thanks, I really appreciate it”). So, let’s assume that you have segmented your job into two columns – the bits that you can do and those elements that you can safely ask someone else to tackle. What happens next?
Step #2: Choose the right people to delegate to: Not all managers are created equally. Before you hive off a chunk of work, consider your managers’ skill level, motivation and dependability. Matching the person and the task is more art than science; start small and be patient. When you find the right manager for the work in question, everybody wins.
a. Showing Potential: Have particular people shown an appetite to move up a level? Encourage this by giving them ‘chunks’ of your current job to complete.
b. Skill Up: Delegate a task to a manager who needs to work on particular skills (awkwardness at running meetings, failure to meet deadlines etc). Use delegation to help the manager overcome the obstacle and advance their career.
Step #3: Delegate in the Right Way: How many times have you been given a job and the first thing you need to figure out is “what exactly am I supposed to do here?” When you are assigning unfamiliar tasks, be specific in explaining what you need, the expected quality standard and timelines. Detailing an assignment (in writing) leaves less room for error based on misunderstanding.
Pro-Forma: It’s really useful to use a standard format for this. This should include: Description (what you want done), Purpose (how it fits into the overall business goals), Timelines (milestones for checking in), Authority (the type of decisions that can be made) and Resources. A standard format will help to become adept at quickly delegating tasks to others and will become part of your managerial toolkit. It’s much easier than ‘re-inventing’ the ‘form’ each time you want to delegate a project. When you delegate a task, you retain accountability for the successful completion of the work. To hand over is to trade one kind of work for another. You still have to manage, coach, and appraise and there are key steps in this:
a. End Results: Remember that you are delegating responsibilities, not methods. It’s OK to talk about techniques you’ve found helpful, but not every person will do the job the same way (the manager may find a better way to do the job). Focus on results.
b. Project Control: Explain how performance will be measured and the level of accountability that comes with the task. We know we shouldn’t micro-manage. However, this doesn’t mean we abdicate control. In effective delegation, we have to find the (sometimes difficult) balance between providing space for people to use their abilities, while monitoring to ensure that the job is done correctly.
c. Bite Sized: Large projects may be easier to monitor if they are broken into smaller segments where staff report to you after each segment is completed. Doing this daily, weekly, or monthly will help you keep on track. If the Dublin to Cork train does not reach Portlaoise in an hour, Irish Rail know that something has gone amiss. A similar review mechanism will keep your projects on track. Staying informed limits the possibility of failure.
d. Staff Coaching: When you delegate an assignment, make it clear that managers can come to you with questions. New tasks are always confusing. Be patient and ‘catch people doing something right’ to build their confidence. Research clearly demonstrates that people live up (or down) to our expectations. It’s important to realize how your support and expressed confidence can help a manager succeed. Equally, hesitation, even if never stated verbally, can undermine a positive outcome.
e. Be Patient: When you first start to delegate, the manager will take longer than you do to complete tasks. Remember, you are the expert in the field and the person you have delegated to is learning. If you’ve chosen the right person and you are delegating correctly, he or she will quickly becomes competent. Be patient.
f. Full Acceptance: When delegated work is delivered to you, set aside enough time to review it thoroughly. Only accept high quality, fully-completed work. If you accept work where you’re not satisfied, the manager does not learn to do the job properly. Worse, you accept a new tranche of work that you will need to complete yourself. Of course, when good work is returned, make sure you recognise and reward the effort. Give managers the recognition they deserve and don’t (this is a huge No No) take credit for their work.
g. Post Mortems: Ask the manager to reflect on ‘lessons learned’. It’s important for managers to know that you will tolerate imperfection. Encourage them to be open when mistakes have been made and to learn from this. Ask: “What are the two most important insights you’ve gained from this experience?” & “What would you do differently next time out?”
Is it worth it?
At first glance, delegation might feel like more hassle than it’s worth. And that would be… a major mistake. Some years back, I saw an old cartoon. It depicted a medieval battle scene where the soldiers were fighting using longbows and swords. Just off the battlefield one of the soldiers was explaining a new technology (a machine-gun) to the King who said: “I don’t have time for this newfangled stuff, we have a battle to fight”.
If you want to put rocket fuel on your own career, learn how to delegate effectively. Become a productivity legend while getting most of your work done by others. Now, what’s not to like about that idea?
By Paul Mooney (PHD)
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