Successful Delegation

Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.

– Ronald Reagan

Delegation is many times fraught with difficulty. Last month I talked about “releasing” control to your most trusted and dependable subordinates in order to move your departments toward self-reliant success. This is the highest form of delegation.  Delegation comes in many forms however.

Simply defined, delegation is assigning work to others. Depending on the work, the simple definition can tend to be not so simple. Some managers are good at it. Others struggle. The reasons for the struggles are wide and varied:

·       Lack of trust

·       Urgency and deadlines

·       Matching the proper skill set to the selected task

·       Failure by management to fully explain the project

·       Failure by the subordinate to fully grasp the concept being explained

·       Improperly trained staff

·       Lack of tools to properly process and complete the work

·       Lack of SOP to guide the process when obstacles are encountered

The biggest failure in delegation however happens when a properly delegated task is re-visited, altered, or otherwise retained by the delegator. It’s impossible to hand off an assignment, if you refuse to let go of it. Many times the tendency to over-manage a delegated task has to do with the first item on the list…a lack of trust that your assignee will “get it right”. Other times the compulsion to meddle is driven by new ideas and the desire to change things “on the fly”. Making changes “midstream” however, usually makes the project impossible to complete on time, and with any semblance of continuity.

One day I was speaking with our technical director at our dealership. This employee was my right-hand man for delegation activities when it came to technical issues. He shared a story with me once about delegation that fits nicely here:

“Before coming to my current employer, I worked for a small company that did light manufacturing, sales and training. The owner of the company is a great guy and good friend to this day. It was however sometimes very difficult to work with him.  We had projects to complete and goals to reach and we had the technical and financial resources to do these things.  I would get involved with a project, get it 90% complete just in time for the owner to step in and make a change, effectively wiping out all (or a significant portion) of the work I had done.  Moving forward, I would be almost done with the new changes and he would come up with some other idea.

What was worse, was that after he threw a wrench into things, he would move on to something else and not make himself available to answer any questions or provide any further input. At first I questioned my own abilities; I thought that he kept slowing things down because I wasn’t doing my job well enough. Others in the industry were always complimenting me, even offering me jobs from time to time. So, while I could always improve, the problem couldn’t be completely with me.

This manger was creative and talented but didn’t necessarily manage projects well, especially when the project required other people to be involved in the process. We all could have gotten a lot more done if he’d just set some specific goals, assigned them to someone, and waited for the results without getting unnecessarily involved.

I believe that we lost out on some good business ventures with larger, very prestigious companies because of this kind of inefficiency. Because of constant delays, we could never manage to deliver on time. Luckily this business is still going strong but in a different, perhaps smaller way. I may be wrong but I believe in delegation; tell someone what you want, and provide a suitable time frame for completion. If they don’t deliver and the requests were reasonable, find somebody else to do it. Constantly meddling just stifles things, and the result never has the quality you had originally envisioned”.

This story defines what I would refer to as “delegation abuse”.  It highlights just how important proper delegation is. This was a case of the management selecting the right person for the task, but indecision, perfectionism, and possibly lack of trust impeded the process. In the end, it diluted the efforts of a qualified and motivated employee.

Many managers struggle with this type of interference because of they cannot imagine anyone on the team being able to do the job as well as them. The personal risk to their ego presents an obstacle that is difficult for them to conquer.

As leaders, it’s important to not only admit, but moreover embrace that just because we have been chosen for a leadership position, does not mean that we “automatically” have been imbued with knowledge from on high, and are now in a position of being superior in every way to our subordinates. Being a leader has nothing to do with being superior. During my tenure in this industry, I have led many people who were superior to me in education, technical prowess, computer skills, accounting and a host of other ways. Being a leader is understanding and capitalizing on the idea that every team member has skills and abilities that are requisite for success.  When you carry this posture, the participants on the team feel needed, and valued. This calls up a desire within all of them to willingly apply their unique abilities for the benefit of the project. They no longer view delegation as management’s way to deflect burdensome work “down the line”. Sadly, this is how delegation is viewed in far too many organizations.

Delegation is a management tool that carries with it the danger of being improperly used, or over-used. The best delegators make it look like an art form. To be adept at delegation managers must take great care in choosing what they delegate, and to whom. If a manager delegates a complex task to an individual that is not capable or trained in performing the work, then the natural human response of the manager would be to “meddle” in the execution of the task. Matching the people who have the right education, skills and experience to your most important tasks is required if you want delegation to work in ways that make the team stronger.

As a leader of multiple aftermarket departments, I have observed service managers that were approached on a regular basis with employees saying:

·       Can’t we just send him (untrained technician) to do the repair since he’s already in the area?

·       Can’t she (file clerk) just file those warranties so we can catch up?

·       And there’s even the enthusiastic but underqualified team member trying to convince the boss:  “I can handle it”, only to fail, disappoint a customer, and feel disenfranchised and frustrated in the end.

This highlights the need not only to understand and enact proper delegation, but also to TEACH proper delegation inside your company. Crew foremen, dispatchers, service writers and project managers are employees whose entire pathway to success depends on their ability to skillfully assess the need, and consider the knowledge and ability of the participants, before assigning tasks.

Delegation cannot be properly executed by just throwing assignments out to your subordinates and expecting things to get accomplished. Does it make sense to delegate rebuilding a transmission to an entry level apprentice? Of course not. A manager must understand that his subordinates all have different personalities, skill levels, tolerances, habits, ideals, and backgrounds, and that all those things have the tendency to change as time goes by.

The best way to teach delegation, is to be transparent in your own use of it. When delegating important tasks, explain WHY you selected the person who will be performing the work. Take the opportunity to recognize their unique qualifications. This may not be appropriate for every assignment, but when done properly, this not only “connects the dots” for the employee, but it also sets up an expectation of excellence, that many employees will take seriously.

When you train someone on a new process, explain that the reason for the training is so that they can be a resource for the team. Once trained, let them know that they will be called on to perform delegated tasks using the new skills being taught. Do this purposefully, and your subordinates will start to understand the power of delegation and what it can mean for them, the customers they serve, and the company they work for.


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