By Tamara McLendon –
This blog post is coming to you courtesy of Nick Wiley, a staffer who’s been with Longleaf for a while. He’s been with us through all of our growth, has participated in developing new processes, and he’s about to enter his third position in our company, so he’s seen a lot about how we operate.
When I asked the team to shoot me some ideas for blog posts – things that plague us and our customers – he wrote this: “DELEGATE.” In all caps. He must really mean it.
He fleshed it out (in a slightly calmer tone of capitalization) to say that, as he’s making the rounds to talk to prospects and just networking, he often finds himself talking to people who are tasked with managing their company’s IT and yet who have no authority to actually make any decisions about it. It’s frustrating for everyone involved.
These people have had the task of managing their IT infrastructure assigned to them by their bosses, but don’t have the necessary authority or autonomy to actually move the needle on it. If they’re not coasting along with the status quo and they want to actually make improvements, or even solve existing problems, they need to ask for approval. For everything.
There’s no surer way to stifle progress, and reduce employee satisfaction, then forcing your people into that box.
The benefits to delegating effectively can also be found in hard numbers. Thomas Hubbard, a professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and his co-authors studied the influence of delegation on the earnings of lawyers. They found that the median lawyer who delegated properly to associates earned more than 20% more than they would have otherwise, and top lawyers earned at least 50% more.
We don’t know if that finding would apply to other professional services firms, but I’d guess the answer is yes. You, as an individual, only have so many hours in the day, and so much mental energy. It’s a no-brainer that annexing the time and mental space of others would help you do more, and better, in less time.
What do you mean by the word “delegation?”
People usually use the word “delegation” to describe these two different sets of instructions:
1) “Please do this task that I’m responsible for, exactly how and when I tell you to, then come tell me when you’re done. I may or may not explain why.”
2) “I want you to become responsible for this area of focus, with the goal of achieving these specific results. As long as you’re achieving the results we need, and your actions fit our corporate culture, we’re good.”
Yes, they’re both “delegating,” and there are certainly many times when small-scale delegation is desirable and necessary. The second type of delegation, though, where you’re assigning full responsibility to someone else, not just a task, is where there are serious gains to be found.
You get back time and mental energy in your own day to focus on other issues. You reward your employees with autonomy and career-enhancing experiences. You get access to the good ideas of those employees, who might otherwise not have found an opening to share them.
It’s hard to do it, though. It requires you to release control of something that was previously your responsibility, and that you probably have a firm idea of what the right way is. You need to walk the line between just throwing the task at them and micromanaging them.
It also requires you to reliably hold another person accountable for their results, rather than keeping them on such a tight leash that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to make a mistake. That doesn’t happen by accident. You need a process whereby the expectations are very clear, any limitations and guidelines are spelled out and agreed upon, and where you’ll circle back around for that accountability conversation regularly.
The Delegation Process
The goal with delegation is to move your chosen employees through the four stages of competence, which appears to have originated here but is in broad usage in discussions of management and education.
- Unconscious incompetence. At this stage, they don’t know what they don’t know.
- Conscious incompetence. They know they have a lot to learn, but they have a grasp on what knowledge they’re missing.
- Conscious competence. They know they’ve got a handle on it, and they’re making good decisions.
- Unconscious competence. They’ve moved into mastery, and they can use intuition to arrive at the right decisions, even when the facts may be incomplete or conflicting.
As an example, my middle child is at the level of conscious incompetence when it comes to cooking. He can follow recipes well, and he knows when he encounters a technique that he’s not familiar with. He knows enough to stop and ask the necessary questions.
On the other hand, he’s at the level of unconscious incompetence when it comes to doing laundry. It doesn’t occur to him that there are things he doesn’t yet know, and so he plunges head-long into disaster. All his shirts turn pink, and he is shocked – shocked! – that such a thing could even happen.
Depending on your employees’ level of competence, conscious or otherwise, they’ll require more or less from you to set them up for success in the newly delegated area of focus.
The below four steps are the ones we use at Longleaf to step through these levels, and to ensure that we’re deliberately moving from one stage of competence to the next, without rushing. We want to set the employee up for long-term success, and that can take some time.
- Give them the context and a hard target. A wide-ranging conversation about the impact of the task or area of responsibility can help the employee put it into context, which helps them retain it better. They need to know what steps to take, why it’s important, and what the exact results are that you will be holding them accountable to. You want them to eventually get to the point where they can decide on their own steps, and they need to know the reason and the results if they’re going to get there.
- Do it yourself, while they watch. If this is a single task, this can be pretty quick. If you don’t have good documentation, have them take notes as you go, so you can discuss any missing steps or confusion in that moment, and then they’ll have a good write-up to refer to and share afterwards. If it’s a larger project or on-going process, they’ll shadow you for a period of time, again taking good notes and reviewing them with you.
- Watch them do one, while you sit in the background and take notes. Depending on how high the stakes are, you may or may not want to step in to help prevent errors the first few times. The alternative is to batch up your comments and deliver them at the end. Repeat this step until they are getting it right every time.
- Ensure they’re getting the results by actually checking. Don’t teach them how to do it, and then just assume everything is going according to plan. Have a recurring check-in meeting to review results and re-teach rough spots, or check irregularly, but frequently. They need to know that you’re paying attention, and that you are available to help if they hit obstacles.
Tracking What You’ve Delegated
That last part – inspection – is impossible if you don’t have it written down somewhere what you’ve delegated. You don’t remember until you’re walking the dog two weeks later. “What ever happened to that thing I asked Susan to do?”
In my GTD-based system, I have two ways of tracking such things.
If I’ve retained ownership of the project, but I’ve asked for help on one or more steps, I put a Next Action in my “Waiting For” list like this: “SB: Report on project profitability by 10/24? 10/18.” I asked Susan B. to write up the report, to be delivered on or before 10/24, and the date I made the request was 10/18. I now can see very quickly who owes me what, and I can decide if I need to follow up with them. I do this for all outgoing requests, whether they’re internal to my business, or out to clients or vendors.
If I’ve delegated a whole process, it’s likely to a person who reports directly to me, and we have a regular check-in meeting. I would then put a Next Action in my “Agendas” list: “SB: Check in on weekly expense reporting transition.” In the body of the task, I’d paste in the expected results, and any additional information that would help us talk about it. I’d ask if it’s on track, or if there are any obstacles I can help remove.
The bonus of always using employee initials in these sorts of Next Actions is that when we have our check-in meetings or when we just happen to be talking, I can do a quick search to see if there’s anything else I needed to talk to them about. Both of the above Next Actions would pop up if I searched for “SB.”
The goal is to apply the collective brain power and available time of your whole team to the job at hand. If you have the right people and the right delegation process, you’ll get more of the right things done, without losing control of the end result.