More Dad Than Dictator: Why Delegation Is a Crucial Part of Leader Development

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When Maria had knee surgery, she realized she needed to improve as a leader. The key? Delegation. She had built up her business up from a one-woman firm into a company with five locations and nearly 100 employees. However, as she explained, “I still made most decisions myself. I was intimately involved in every business decision and I made sure that I dealt personally with every client concern. I thought my high-touch management style was what made my business great, until I had complications from surgery and spent six weeks at home on the couch. That’s when I discovered that my company couldn’t run without me. It was a disaster.”

Maria was still acting like she was running a small business even though her company had grown. She needed to learn to see herself as more of a leader and less of a lackey in order to help her business succeed. And to do that, she had to learn how to delegate.

Re-Assessing Your Role

When Maria started her business, she was a jack-of-all-trades: human resources, marketing, accounting, administrative, and support staff all rolled into one. However, even as she hired others, she still saw herself as needing to do it all. Before she could begin to delegate, she needed to figure out what parts of her role were essential, and which parts could be trusted to employees.

Leaders often find themselves in Maria’s situation. Delegation is hard, especially when you’re deeply attached to your business. Letting go of that absolute control can be a challenge. The key is to approach delegation as a parent, offering support and guidance along the way, rather than as a dictator, scrutinizing tasks from on high. Your goal should be to create a functional, self-directed organization that works without constant oversight because everyone has similar goals. It can be hard to let go of that dictatorial grip on your organization’s day-to-day tasks, but just as a parent has to learn to trust his daughter to mow the lawn unsupervised after showing her how to use the mower, you have to be able to trust your employees to take care of current projects and needs so that you can focus on long-range goals and growing your business.

You need to delegate more if:

  • You find yourself bogged down by routine tasks.
  • You’re constantly making decisions for other people.
  • Your email inbox is so full of requests for help that you literally can’t reply to them all.
  • You’re checking in on big projects more than once a week.
  • Employees can’t solve client issues without talking to you first.
  • You find yourself focusing on the details of how tasks are done rather then on if they are done.
  • You’re so indispensable that your sleep, health, and relationships suffer.

Most leaders can do a quick assessment and find one or two places where they could delegate more. But if you’re like Maria, you may have to do a total overhaul of your delegation strategy.

From Micromanagement to True Leadership

You can’t transform yourself from a micromanager to a good leader overnight, but many leaders can make the transition over a six-month period. The key is to set clear goals for yourself and your staff, offer support, and be ready to gradually hand over responsibility.

In Maria’s case, she realized that one way she could ease her workload and help her employees grow was by delegating project management tasks to other people. While she would still set the direction for a project and the ultimate deadlines and goals, she could trust others to manage the day-to-day decision making, smaller milestones, and interim reports to the client. She used the following process to complete the transition:

Step 1:  Meet with key employees and identify people who could take a new role. If you’ve been micromanaging, you probably don’t know all of the strengths and talents that your employees possess. Meet with likely prospects and find out if they have the skills needed for a broader role in the company. For instance, if you’re going to hand off project management duties, you need someone who is self-directed, organized, and a good communicator.

If you want to hand off some of your report-writing, choose a good writer with an understanding of the material. You probably have a number of employees who would love to have more challenging and engaging work. This is your chance to find them.

Step 2: Work with the designated employees on a project, gradually handing off more responsibility to them. If this is your first foray into delegation, your employees may not know what you need and expect. Work with them to teach them how to do your job, and then gradually give them more and more control over their new job function until they’re working independently.

Step 3: Compose guidelines with clear goals, advice, and expectations, but leave room for individual working styles. You want to make sure that work is still completed on time and to your specifications, but that doesn’t mean that your employees will work in exactly the same way that you did. Different people can follow different paths to the same end product. Ask for competence, not clones.

Step 4: Initially, check in daily, then weekly, then only at designated milestones as you see that employees are dealing with the hand-off well. In the beginning, frequent check-ins can help you catch errors and tweak protocols. However, the point of delegation is to lighten your load, not to give you a new one. As you see that your employees have grasped a task, check in less often.

Step 5: At the six month mark, evaluate progress. What’s gone well? Where do you need more input? Sometimes, delegation goes smoothly on the first try. At other times, you may have picked the wrong person for the job, or may have handed off a job that really does require your unique expertise and input. Don’t be afraid to change your plans if they’re not working. Just make sure you’re focused on results, not on needing to be needed.

Step 6: Pick another task you’d like to delegate and repeat the process. Once you’ve successfully delegated one task, it becomes easier to delegate the next one. Continue delegating tasks until you’ve found a balance where your company is functioning smoothly and your time is devoted to meaningful tasks that only you can do.

Bumps in the Road

Delegating doesn’t always go smoothly. For instance, initially Maria tried to hand off project management duties to a long-time employee who was competent at her current job but not suited to the management role. Later on, Maria had to re-evaluate and give the job to another employee whose skill set was a better match.

What should you do if your delegation attempts seem to fail? Take some time to analyze the problem and discover what went wrong.

If you’ve made a mistake in delegating, be honest with yourself and the employee. Apologize for putting them in an impossible position. Determine if it’s a personality issue or a “needs more support and training” issue. If the answer is more training, provide the help they need. Otherwise, let them return to their old position. Then, try again, keeping in mind what you’ve learned about needed skills and talents.

If you can’t find a good fit for the role in-house, consider bringing someone in from outside. You may need to create a new job description and hire a new person specifically for that task. For instance, you’d hire an accountant to do your taxes rather than tapping a random internal employee. Jobs like writing, graphic design, or social media management may also require a specialized skill set.

If you can’t find anyone who can complete the task, you need to determine if the problem is that the task is one that only you can do or if your requirements for it are off. For instance, you may have a specialized skill set, but you may also have unrealistic expectations. You don’t need someone who will do exactly what you would, just someone who will do a good job.

How Maria Learned to Delegate and Earned Her First Vacation in Years

As Maria shifted off some of her project management strategies to others, she learned important lessons about herself and her employees. It turned out many of her staff members had been yearning for more autonomy. When she shifted responsibility, the quality of their work went up and she discovered that they could actually take on more clients than they had before.

Maria also surprised herself. She says, “Delegating has changed my workload. I’m more free to focus on building our profile as a business, attracting new clients, and plans for the future. I have time to be involved in community organizations and to act as a mentor. I’m even planning a vacation for this summer. I’m still essential—I set the direction for the firm and help people understand what we’re doing and why. But delegating has actually made it easier to communicate those goals, and I’m enjoying my role more than ever before.”

It’s crucial to be able to identify areas where delegation could improve your workflow, and clearly articulate those goals to your team, but finding your voice as a leader is a process that develops over time and requires practice. Even the most naturally capable managers can benefit from an objective coach to help them develop their skill. At Applied Vision Works, our coaches work with you to develop a unique program to accentuate your leadership strengths and cultivate a positive organizational culture within your company. Contact us today to learn more about our team building and leadership development programs.

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