Letting go

Now more than ever, as corporate downsizing is growing in response – or in reaction – to the economic downturn, the more senior your position the more critical it is that you delegate effectively.

You aren’t getting paid just to work on tasks, but to develop your staff members and to plan strategy.

You need to delegate well, not just to off-load those tasks, but to nurture the growth of the people you supervise. If they aren’t empowered with increasing responsibilities, they’re stuck where they are. And if you’re holding onto those responsibilities, you’re stuck as well.

I’m pretty sure you know all that. So what arouses my curiosity is why more leaders are not comfortable with delegating. Why so many guard their tasks like my son used to guard his cereal bowl, pulling it close to his chest and then making a fence around it with his arms. (Believe me, I was always curious about that as well. No one was about to dip into his bowl and fish out a couple of Cheerios.)

Some clients are stingy about delegating because they believe they can do everything better themselves. They’re probably right in many cases. I encourage them to move into accepting "well enough" as a standard while subordinates are learning – and to foster that learning with great teaching.

Other leaders tell me they just don’t have time for that teaching. Usually, effectively handing over tasks will save time in the future, though it does take an investment of time up front to plan and deliver the training and to follow up periodically. Many times I hear this complaint from employees: "He just laid it on my desk and said do it by Wednesday. I have no idea where to start."

If delegating a responsibility means growing an employee and freeing your time for strategic thinking, it is well worth the up-front investment. A side-benefit is the opportunity to enrich your relationship with that staff member during all the conversations integral to good training.

Some hold back on delegating because of a fear they’ll lose control or power. They could do with some coaching on self-esteem and team building. Control is pretty much an illusion anyway and that illusion can give way to the authentic pride and pleasure that come with meeting extraordinary goals together with your employees.

If you overcome these blocks to delegating, how do you go about it? I think so much of effective delegating emerges from really knowing the people on your staff. Early on, as the employee is being oriented to you and the organization, learn as much as you can about his or her career goals. What makes an employee feel fully engaged on the job? What do they want to learn? What are their strengths?

Be clear – with yourself and your employees – about the outcome you’re after. How does it tie to goals of the organization and the priorities for the year? Specifically, what are your expectations? How will results be measured? Why is it important at all? How does it relate to other parts of the organization? What deadlines are involved and why?

Be as open and thorough as you can possibly be – that will save you time and frustration in the future. Stay close without hovering. Have a conversation about the sort of feedback that works best for both of you, in form and frequency. When that is established, put in the calendar when and where you’ll review progress on the task. A review might be a five-minute stand-up meeting. The employee will probably not be entirely comfortable with the new responsibility (that is a part of growth) and you want to make sure you encourage conversations along the way, and are available to offer clarity and support.

Communicate to all appropriate people that you have handed over the project, and that direct communication to the staff member now in charge is welcome and appropriate. "Tom will be the point person for the re-tooling project."

Don’t keep part of the task for yourself, so people come to you instead of Tom. It is often the tendency of colleagues and customers to seek out the highest-ranking person they can find if they have a concern. If you absorb all of those conversations and spoon-feed them back to the employee to whom you’ve given responsibility, it diminishes his role, his growth and his trust in you and the organization. On top of that, it eats up your time. Cookies for your ego maybe, but not the stuff of true leadership.

Most of us have some memory of teaching a kid to ride a bike. It takes time and is often frustrating for the child and the adult. I don’t think, though, that you ever said, "Here, let me ride the bike. I’m really good at it and you, well you might fall."

We hear a lot about risk these days. Delegating involves some risk, and I invite you to take that risk on a regular basis. 

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