How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation

“The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” –- Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States.

How to Lead By Stepping Back: Five Steps to Delegation by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipIf you’re a reader of my blogs, newsletters, and Tweets, you’ll know I’ve returned repeatedly to the topic of delegation over the years—and for good reason. As a leader, there’s no more effective and productive way to handle all your responsibilities. Leadership positions come weighted down with more than their fair share of tasks, because by definition a strategic initiative is more than one person can handle. Effective leaders must parcel out that work and a good deal of the associated authority, so they can continue to think strategically and get things done through others.

I was on a board of directors in a non-profit association where the CEO didn’t have an executive assistant, in an attempt to save money. He was scheduling his own calls, sending out minutes, and spending his time on administrative duties not appropriate for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he was paid—he was actually wasting money. When I became president, I told him in no uncertain terms I expected him to hire an assistant to free him up to focus on the strategic responsibilities we were paying him to fulfill. Ultimately, delegation extends and enriches your leadership, because it allows you to accomplish what can’t be done without you and moves the organization forward.

Like any other business system, the ability to delegate doesn’t leap to life fully formed. I totally understood why he didn’t hire someone, because I used to be the same way. Because of my desire to take on the world, delegation has been a steep learning curve. I could do any of these tasks—and so can you—so it takes time to build delegation into a profitable skill. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Do Your Homework. Study exactly what your new position entails, ideally before you take the reins. If this isn’t possible, spend the first few weeks at least asking questions and understanding how everything “works.” Examine the staff, the roles, and the existing delegation structure, and see if it makes sense to you. You may be able to ascend into the position with everything already just the way it should be—but that’s not likely—that’s why you’re there.

2. Determine what you should be doing. You’ll need to determine what should be reshuffled or tasked. There will inevitably be certain jobs only you can do (perhaps deciding on budgets, influencing stakeholders, or closing big deals); typically, these are the ones that earn the organization the most money and justify your salary. If you step into the C-Suite, you’ll need to do high-level tasks suited to your position: approving entry into new markets, liaising with the Board of Directors, communicating with the press, or arranging new financing. Mid-level managers should be facilitating their employees’ performance, acting as coaches, helping employees deal with change, and lobbying for the resources they need.

3. Delegate what you should not be doing. Delegate anything else that is NOT at the top of your priority list. Anything you can hire someone else to do means that you aren’t the only one uniquely qualified to do it. If you are to make the best use of your time, you need to free up everything that isn’t a good use of it. In a recent blog, I introduced my readers to PetraAquatics, Inc. a real-life, big-city environment services firm whose name has been changed to protect the guilty. I know a former middle manager well, and he recalls less-than-fondly his department head’s tendency to take on work others didn’t do to his satisfaction. It took a while, but ultimately this “reverse delegation” broke the departmental workflow system, and briefly killed productivity. First it turned the boss into an ogre as his micromanaging overwhelmed him and everyone else; then it all but put him in the hospital with exhaustion. It took a while for things to get back into order.

4. Pick the right person and make the hand-off. Define what the end result will be if a task is done correctly. Note I did not say the step-by-step how-to instructions of how to do it. Define your expectations: (a) the outcome, (b) the criterion for success, (c) any budget constraints, (d) authority limitations if any, (e) reporting requirements, and (f) milestones. When assigning the task, explicitly explain these details. Let the person get creative in how it’s done.

5. Ensure understanding and get buy-in. Ask for a reframe of what the other person understood you to say. “So what I hear you saying is…” Resist the urge to get impatient as you walk through this process. As a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, my father taught me that repeating orders back to the Commanding Officer is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), because a misinterpreted order can literally result in death and disaster. This (hopefully) isn’t the case for your organization, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Reinforce to the employee that any and all questions are welcome.

6. Follow-up. You’re heard the saying, “Trust, but verify.” Delegation is the situation the saying was invented for. You don’t dump a task on someone and forget about it—that’s abdication, not delegation. You can’t just task the job, check it off your list, and forget about it. Some of the biggest errors I’ve made as a leader happened when I trusted too much, never checked in, and heard about problems too late to avoid a crisis. Instead, program the milestones into your time management system and check in at agreed-upon timeframes. If someone needs help, lacks ability, or is simply slacking, you’ll be able to catch it in time and respond appropriately. Coach where requested and/or needed.

Duck the Boomerang

In part, your ability to lead effectively arises from your ability to delegate—and make your delegation stick. Too many of us end up taking back projects a direct report can’t handle and making them our own again. Or worse yet, we leave great projects to stagnate on our list, because we don’t take the time to walk through these steps.

If you’re doing things you shouldn’t, or things that should be done aren’t getting done, you either don’t have the right team, you don’t trust people enough because they lack the ability, or you’re a paranoid control freak. Offer the training people need, equip them properly, shuffle tasks around, or allow people to discover their next opportunity. You have enough to do. You can’t take on the work of your subordinates too, especially not when your salary level will erode the profitability and productivity of the task, no matter how well you do it. Delegate your tasks, and make them stick—or kill your personal productivity, your team’s productivity, and your organization’s productivity.


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