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The single most critical leadership skill in growing companies is delegation. The absence of this skill in the CEO or at the executive team level causes more companies to get “stuck” than any other behavior. In a startup, being a hands-on executive is a useful characteristic, but once the number of people in a company grows, organizational complexity grows too. In order to take your company to the next level of growth, you must become a skillful delegator. The good news, a leader doesn't need to be born with delegation skills; these can be learned through practice. It does, however, require commitment and an effective process.
The reason so many executives avoid delegating is because it can feel like a loss of control. Most executives legitimately believe they can do something faster and better than their subordinates. The problem is that as a leader, your job isn’t to do things, but rather to do things through other people while simultaneously developing those people. While "doing it yourself" can be expedient, in the end it will hold your company back. This stifling trait is often used merely as an excuse for not practicing solid leadership behavior.
The four keys to effective delegation are:
Pinpoint - Make sure at the very start that the person you are delegating to clearly understands what the goal is. As leaders, we think we have defined something clearly - and even if we do ask the individual if they understand, far too often the person replies that they “get it” - even when they don’t. This is a formula for failure. You must ensure clear understanding between both parties about exactly what the person is to accomplish, the timeframe, feedback required, etc. Great leaders know that even after they have explained a task there’s one more key question to ask: “Can you please repeat back to me what I have just asked you to do?”
Feedback - When you delegate, you do so based on the person’s proven ability to handle a task and not everyone gets the same length leash. Plus, to reduce risk and maintain control, you’ll need to collect regular feedback. The frequency and amount of feedback should also be different from person to person depending on their experience level. For example, for a very experienced and proven individual, you might ask them to stick their head in your office every three weeks and give you a one minute update on how they are doing. But for a new or less experienced individual ask for a five minute sit-down report every Friday morning. In either case, you should never be satisfied with letting things progress without being able to keep your finger on what’s happening. The person you have delegated to needs to “own” the responsibility to provide feedback to you.
Risk Tolerance - People need to clearly understand your risk tolerance for the goal they’re working on. They need to understand what kind of things you want and need to hear about, and what’s just “noise” – or things you don’t need to know about. For those familiar with quality control charts, this is about establishing the boundaries up front. In a typical quality control chart, the boundaries might be ± 2 standard deviations, i.e. anything within those boundaries is noise, but anything outside this is an outlier and important to know about ASAP.
Recognition - When people take on an assignment and do it well, we should publicly recognize what they have done. Remember, the job of leaders is to develop people, and delegating goals is a growth opportunity that helps do that.
The only truly fatal behavior regarding delegation is taking something back and doing it yourself. The usual reason for doing this is because expectations weren’t pinpointed at the start, leaving you anxious or irritated about the time it’s taking to complete a task. Taking something back creates terrible feedback, telling the individual that, “If the boss gives me something to do and I don’t do it, he’ll take it back and do it himself anyway.” You can never take it back, so it makes step #1, Pinpointing even more critical.
Stop Giving Answers
Too often, leaders feel that based on their experience and knowledge, they should know all the answers and provide them to their subordinates. This allows subordinates to shirk their responsibilities and in effect, delegate issues upward to their boss! One of the best ways to grow people and improve accountability is by using the seven most powerful words a leader can use, “I don’t know; what do you think?”, even when you do know the answer. Your subordinates need to understand that it’s their job to look at issues, develop alternative solutions, evaluate those solutions and make recommendations for actions. If the boss is going to provide all the answers, why does he need subordinates?
One of the most critical parts of a leader’s job is growing people and his organization through delegation. The leader who always wants to be hands-on doing things will ultimately become a roadblock to the rest of his organization, inhibiting growth. By doing rather than delegating, the next level of managers will never become prepared for greater responsibility.
By following a process and having the discipline NOT to be an “answer man”, a leader can become very skilled at delegation - and more valuable to his organization.
About the Author
From fledgling startups to massive corporate entities, Executive Leadership & Corporate Management Advisor, Jim Alampi, has spent 30 years helping companies overcome barriers to business growth. He is the Founder of Alampi & Associates, a Detroit-based executive leadership firm whose client list includes Deloitte, Exxon Mobile, IBM, Chemical Week Magazine, Vistage (the largest CEO peer group in the world), RE/MAX and others. Jim Alampi has served as a high level executive for several global companies and is the author of “Great to Excellent; It's the Execution!” (2013).
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