Monday, March 22, 2010

First Time - Part 19: Delegating

This is part 19 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

One of the interesting apparent contradictions in leadership is that effective leaders are those who learn how to delegate. It is fair to say that only those who are very good at delegating have any chance of becoming highly effective leaders.

Which leads to two simple questions: how do you learn to delegate? And what things should you never delegate?

Delegating, like most of leadership, is art-form, that is, you have to practice it ‘in the field.’ This is particularly true of delegating. You will only become good at delegating by doing it a great deal.

But, there are two fears associated with delegation: the first is simply that you are going to give the task to ‘Joe’ and he’s not going to do it right and you will be blamed. The second and more insidious is the opposite, that you will give the task to Joe and he will perform it so well that your boss will think he no longer needs you.

As for the first, the truth is you have to delegate. If you have five people who work for you, and they each are putting in just 30 real hours of work per week, that amounts to 150 hours of real work: you can’t do that yourself. You must delegate some work. Can you perform certain high priority tasks yourself instead of delegating? Certainly. But your job is to lead and manage, to provide oversight. If you have even a marginally competent boss, every time you keep a task for yourself will raise a question as to whether you really are ready to lead.

As for the second fear, that the boss will believe you are no longer needed because ‘Joe’ did such a great job, such a boss is not even marginally competent. You are in a lousy position and it has nothing to do with delegating or not delegating. So you should focus on becoming a better leader (maybe your boss’s boss will notice (the subject of a later discussion)) and on taking care of your people.

How and what do you delegate? A simple solution is to try to delegate everything. Is there someone who works for you who is qualified to address each task and is that task fairly within their job description? If so, delegate all those tasks. You will perform the role of ensuring that standards are met. And recognizing who actually performed the work.

This will not come easily in most cases. (There are some exceptions to this: a production line with clearly assigned jobs and standard tasks can be nearly self-tending. However, as soon as non-standard tasks are assigned, you will find yourself with the same problem of delegating tasks.) So, a simple way to mark how much to delegate is this: delegate until you get an uneasy feeling in your stomach, then delegate a bit more.

This will be a moving mark, and you will learn to delegate more as your experience grows. You will also be ‘bitten on the backside’ more then once, as you delegate some task to someone and then they fail to perform to the necessary standards and you miss a deadline. The lesson learned is not: blame ‘Joe.’ The lesson learned is that you either delegated to the wrong guy, or you didn’t provide the right guidance, training and oversight. You may not have delegated the necessary authority so that ‘Joe’ could actually carry out the assigned task. Those are all your shortcomings. Learn from the event and move on.

Delegating authority is a difficult thing to do; no one feels comfortable doing it at first. After all, you are letting someone speak for you. You are letting go of the thing – authority - that was just handed to you. But it is the only way to get things done. But you can’t delegate a task without delegating the authority to execute the task. Swallow hard, then delegate.

That being said, there is a limit to delegation. Beyond the obvious case where your boss pulls you aside and says ‘I need you personally to do this for me,’ the limit to delegation is simply put: ‘delegate tasks, delegate authority to carry out the tasks, but never delegate responsibility.’ When something goes wrong, when the job isn’t completed on time, when it’s not done properly, you shoulder the blame. You are still responsible for oversight.

The old saw that the leader takes blame but never credit is as true today as when it was first offered. So, delegate tasks and authorities, provide oversight and guidance, accept the blame for any shortcoming, and when there is success – and there will be – remember to praise those who really did the work. The rest will take care of itself – and your boss will notice and take care of you.


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