LeadershipReflectionOctober 27, 20144Are You Really Delegating?

Having a hard time delegating? Some things to think about...

I’ve noticed late­ly that lots of senior exec­u­tives believe they’re del­e­gat­ing ful­ly when they’re real­ly not.  Full del­e­ga­tion means that you’ve trans­ferred the respon­si­bil­i­ty for achiev­ing an out­come to anoth­er per­son, and because you have faith in their abil­i­ty to ful­fill that respon­si­bil­i­ty, you actu­al­ly let go of it.

“Let go of it” means you don’t think about whether or not they’re doing it, you don’t pester them with ques­tions on a dai­ly basis, you don’t give direc­tion to their peo­ple about how to do it, you don’t sec­ond-guess their deci­sions about it, you don’t leap in and start doing parts of it with­out ask­ing, and you don’t “stand in for them” — take phone calls with their part­ners, share progress reports with the orga­ni­za­tion, etc. — unless they ask you to do so.

I’m con­vinced that par­tial del­e­ga­tion is to blame for a lot of the inef­fi­cien­cy and bad feel­ing in most orga­ni­za­tions. The execs who don’t ful­ly del­e­gate become bot­tle­necks for action — too many deci­sions have to go through them, and even if they work 24/7, it’s impos­si­ble for them to keep up with demands they’ve cre­at­ed for them­selves.  And for those who work for them, it’s a tru­ly demor­al­iz­ing bait-and-switch.  They believe their boss has giv­en them respon­si­bil­i­ty for part of the work, and they — proud­ly and with a sense of their own capa­bil­i­ty — begin to do it…only to find that their boss isn’t real­ly allow­ing them to do it.  They most often end up feel­ing frus­trat­ed, embar­rassed, and pow­er­less.  And those who work for them can get con­fused and feel caught in the mid­dle: should they fol­low their boss’ direc­tion, or the (often con­flict­ing) direc­tion they’re get­ting from their boss’ boss?

If you’re read­ing this and see­ing your­self in it, how can you get bet­ter at del­e­gat­ing?  If you and I were sit­ing togeth­er in a room, I’d teach you our del­e­ga­tion mod­el, and we’d prac­tice, using a real sit­u­a­tion of your choos­ing. But since that’s not hap­pen­ing, here are a few ideas that could help:

- Only del­e­gate those things you’re real­ly will­ing to del­e­gate.  Often, I notice that exec­u­tives try to del­e­gate projects or respon­si­bil­i­ties that they’re not real­ly will­ing to stop doing.  For instance, a num­ber of years ago I coached an exec who had been in charge of a year­ly client event in Europe for many years.  She tried to hand it off to some­one else, but kept jump­ing back in.  As I observed this, I point­ed it out to her — and she final­ly real­ized that it was the high­light of her year, and she did­n’t real­ly want to let go of it. She end­ed up tak­ing it back, and del­e­gat­ing oth­er parts of her job to which she was less attached.

- Make sure you have con­fi­dence in the del­e­ga­tee.  Quite often, when I ask execs why they’re not let­ting some­one do some­thing that they’ve sup­pos­ed­ly del­e­gat­ed to him or her, they tell me they’re not sure the per­son will do it well. My response: either make sure they have the skills and expe­ri­ence to do the thing before you del­e­gate it — and if they don’t, and no one else who works for you does, and you don’t feel you can coach them in the areas that are new to them…hire bet­ter peo­ple.  I’m seri­ous.  If no one who works for you is capa­ble of tak­ing on key respon­si­bil­i­ties and doing them to a stan­dard that’s accept­able to you, then you need to build a stronger team.

- Have real­is­tic expec­ta­tions.  Many execs who don’t del­e­gate well tell me it’s because they don’t believe any­one on their team will do things the way they do them.  That’s prob­a­bly true — every­one does things dif­fer­ent­ly.  But in order to del­e­gate ful­ly, you have to make a dis­tinc­tion between “doing things well” and “doing things the way I would do them.”  Some­one who works for you may com­plete a respon­si­bil­i­ty very dif­fer­ent­ly than you would — rely more on oth­ers or work more inde­pen­dent­ly; use a dif­fer­ent orga­niz­ing approach; be more lin­ear or less, etc. etc.  But as long as that per­son gets the need­ed out­come and does­n’t hurt key rela­tion­ships — it does­n’t matter.

- Be tru­ly will­ing to share cred­it. Lead­ers who del­e­gate well are com­fort­able say­ing, “So-and-so did that — she and her team deserve all the cred­it.” If you have a hard time doing this, you’ll have a hard time del­e­gat­ing. If you can do it, though, you’re open­ing up your future and theirs in a pow­er­ful way. When you can ful­ly acknowl­edge — to your­self and out loud — that oth­ers on your team are com­plet­ing impor­tant parts of the work inde­pen­dent­ly, that’s when you’ll be free to take on high­er order work or a big­ger job, and your folks will be free to grow and achieve their poten­tial, as well.

Del­e­gat­ing ful­ly is good for you, for those who work for you, and for your orga­ni­za­tion. I’d love to hear how you’re doing it, and what’s hap­pen­ing as a result… 


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