Letter from the Chairman: Delegation is Hard But Fulfilling

Dear Fellow Leader:

In this inaugural issue of the “Letter from the Chairman”, I wanted to share some advice that was given to me many years ago by a CEO whose success in building his business I admired. The advice was simple and succinct, “If you want to be a successful leader, learn to delegate authority effectively. If you don’t learn this skill, your business will only grow so much as YOU can make all the important decisions that the business requires.” I’ve tried to absorb the wisdom. I’ve learned through my own mistakes and watching the successes and failures of others that delegation of authority can be made successful by taking several specific actions:

  1. Surround yourself with people you trust
  2. Expand trust as it’s earned
  3. As trust increases, manage results, not activities
  4. Find other things for you to focus on
  5. Put parameters on your involvement with subordinates
  6. In post mortems, focus on the decision process, not the mistakes

Let’s put a little meat on each of those bones.

Surround yourself with people you trust. You’ll never delegate authority to people you can’t put your faith in. Make sure that’s a part of the evaluation of people you have report directly to you. “Will I be able to trust them” should be a key part of the hiring or promotion equation for any person who might at some point report to you. Yes, you want them to be smart and have the right profile for the job, but if you have a difficult time trusting the person you charge with making decisions of import, you’ll never let them make those decisions to begin with.

Expand trust as it’s earned. When you have a direct report who you feel you can trust, gradually give them more and more responsibility and watch what they do with it. Early on, watch both the results and the execution. Follow what happens. Note that if you find yourself questioning how the individual executes work, challenge yourself with the questions, “Is my way really critical, or is the way they did it actually just fine (albeit different)?” The more trust you give, the more the business can grow beyond you. When your subordinates expand the business as a result of their good decision-making, give them more trust and let them decide more. Always look to expand subordinates’ capacity to decide – loosening reins as success is achieved.

As trust increases, manage results, not activities. As trust is expanded, keep yourself out of the weeds of how your subordinates accomplish their goals. Give them the space and time necessary to deliver the results that were desired. Getting involved in how people do what they do is taking back trust you’ve already given which has been justifiably earned.

Find other things on which to focus. It’s hard enough to delegate authority that has been yours. Then you must beware of finding yourself without enough to fill your time. Boredom playing at your brain isn’t a good accompaniment to delegation. If you’re planning on delegating authority to others, you’ve got to find other things for yourself to do to keep yourself from being compelled, out of boredom, to meddle. Give yourself goals, objectives, tasks, duties, something, anything to keep yourself busy outside of the realm in which you wish to delegate. If nothing else, take more vacations.

Put parameters on your involvement. Know that when you become involved in the decisions of your subordinates, you automatically have a stake in their outcomes (especially if you’re a high A). If, or when, subordinates bring you into strategic or substantive discussions about their areas of responsibility and you involve yourself, it will be your tendency to stay involved in how those decisions play out until they’ve run their course. Is that what you want? Is that what your subordinate wants? Either fence yourself off from getting involved after the decision has been made (a very hard thing to do); or, warn your subordinate whenever they ask for your help with something like, “Do you really want to ask for my help here? You do know that means I’ll be more involved than either of us want beyond my response…” Taking a Socratic approach in these discussions (questioning the thought process and helping guide rather than making decisions when guidance is required) also helps you stay out of your subordinates’ business.

When things go wrong, focus on the decision process, not mistakes. Delegation means mistakes will be made. You’ve made them and I’ve made them too. If people aren’t making mistakes, they’re not learning enough. When mistakes happen focus on, “What can we learn from this?” Conduct a post-mortem with your subordinate, but from a Socratic perspective. Have your subordinate walk you through the process of what happened asking questions like, “If you had it to do over again, would you still have come to that conclusion?” Help them discover how they could have done things differently. Many times you’ll find that they did the best they could at the time and things just didn’t go right. If you want them to succeed, create a scenario where the criticism will come from them. When it does, they’ll grow more than if the criticism comes from you.

Each step of growth you encourage and achieve with your subordinate means there is concomitant growth for you and your business. Their development allows further development for you.

True delegation is hard. You’ve built the business to where it is. Giving someone else a part of it to run is a scary endeavor. Seeing them eventually running their part successfully is one of the more fulfilling aspects of life. For me, it’s had the same impact as watching a child become a successful adult. Being successful at helping foster either is hard work. The results can be extremely gratifying. They have been for me.

I hope this has been helpful.

Bob Wilson

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