Delegate and get out of the way!
It’s a nice sunny afternoon as I look out over my garden. I may not be a full-fledged garden enthusiast but I do enjoy having a garden and I love the scent of jasmine and a freshly cut lawn. The highlight of the year for me is when my apple and cherry trees bloom. It is a brief but incredibly beautiful time of year. A garden requires quite a bit of care and when I am traveling for my speaking engagements it can be hard to find the time to get everything done. Fortunately, my children have begun to help more and more and they have taken a particular interest in yard work.
Yesterday my fourteen year old son and I spent several hours working in the yard together. While we were working I began to think about how best to delegate to a teenager. The fact that the teenager in question is also my son is not necessarily an advantage when it comes to delegating. When you think about it there is a very special balance of power between a parent and a child. When the child becomes a teenager and begins to test their independence and experiment with creating their own lives many new things occur in the relationship with the parent. But maybe delegating to a teenager isn’t so different from delegating to a colleague at work. Neither really enjoys having someone looking over their shoulders, but it can be difficult for many managers (or parents) to hand over an assignment with the right instructions and information, and let the individual get to work. I noticed how hard it was for me to watch my son and not offer small tips and advice, which likely would have caused more harm than help. Despite my good intentions this kind of “over your shoulder” leadership actually reduces my son’s receptiveness to learning and we would both end up wasting time in unproductive discussions while the foliage in the garden overtook the house.
When I wrote the book “Human Leadership – the 10 Commandments for the (im) perfect leader,” I struggled over whether or not to add a chapter on delegation. I’m pretty sure every leadership book I have ever seen has had a chapter about delegation. I wondered if it was really necessary for me to add one more chapter to the mountain of literature already in print about delegation. In the end, I came to the conclusion that it is probably necessary that every leadership book has a chapter about delegation, until we finally succeed at delegating. Most managers and employees struggle with delegation as much as my son and I did in the garden.
One thing I have discovered about delegation, that we often miss, is that well executed delegation actually reduces the business risk in your organization. Many organizations have had an increasing focus on controlling behavior in the form of governance and compliance. It may seem paradoxical to some people but our effort to manage risk and increase productivity by steering employee’s behaviors through rules and regulations actually reduces productivity and increases the business risk.
When I was a sales manager for Volvo cars, I had the right to make decisions on spending up to 1.5 million dollars. My nearest subordinate employees, who were regional managers, did not have the right to make their own decisions for any amount at all, even though they had sales budgets spanning from 0.5 to 1 billion dollars each. This meant that if a regional manager sat and discussed a sales activity with a dealer, they were forced get any costs for the activity approved by me. This, in turn, meant that I became a bottleneck because I often sat in meetings and was difficult to reach. To solve the problem, I said to my regional managers that as long as they stayed within the confines of my decision-making mandate, I would automatically approve their decisions after the fact. This was not popular with some of the compliance people from Ford, who owned Volvo at the time. I explained to them that if they wanted to minimize the risks they could give my regional managers a realistic decision-making mandate, maybe 300 thousand dollars. In this way, they would reduce risk. Needless to say, they didn’t understand this perspective since a decision-making mandate of zero dollars is much less than 300 thousand dollars. I went to white board in my office and drew a circle with the number 1,500,000 in it. I explained to them that since I was able to take a decision on 1.5 million that I could also make a wrong decision of 1.5 million. Then I drew five circles with the number 300,000 in each circle and explained that if my 5 regional managers were allowed to make their own decisions up to 300 thousand dollars that the risk would decrease because they could only make a wrong decision of 300 thousand. Every one of my five regional managers would have to make a wrong decision, i.e. 5 bad decisions to reach the same level of loss as I would have if I made just one wrong decision. In addition, I argued that we also reduced the risk of making a bad decision since the ones making the decisions would be those with most information and the best understanding of the business issue. The regional managers had more detailed knowledge on a particular sales investment. They were closer to the market and ought to make better decisions. Making those kinds of decisions at my level would increase risk, not decrease it.
The most common argument for delegation is that it contributes to greater involvement of staff promoting a stronger sense of belonging. Over time I have come to the realization that making wise decisions is not my primary task as a leader. My job is to make sure that wise decisions get made and that means more often than not that someone other than me should be making the decisions. The issues facing our organizations are complex and require more competence and brainpower than any one person can possess. So our job as managers and leaders is more about getting the right people in place to address the specific challenges in our business environments and then letting them do their jobs.
Whether you are leading employees at work or just helping your children learn to cook or cut the grass, you might want to remember commandment 2 from my book: Dare to delegate. You are boss to lead others, not to have all the answers.
Tips to become better at delegating:
- Begin by simply delegating more. Gamble a little and let employees take more responsibility for their work. You will be surprised how they grow with the task.
- Be quiet a little more often. Listen more and think more. Practice being a sounding board, not an oracle.
- Don’t put your finger in every pie! Learn to accept that while employees may not do things exactly as you would have done them, that it is not necessarily inferior. It might even better!
- Remember that as a leader you create value in your organization by working through others, not by promoting yourself. (Great leaders create other great leaders.)