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One of the hardest lessons to learn as a leader is the art of delegation. It’s even harder when you’re overloaded and pressed for time because it frequently feels more efficient to do something yourself rather than delegate it and try to steer the results. That assumption may be true for a while, but if your company is growing, sooner or later you’ll need to rely on delegation to ensure your time is being spent on the most high-value work.
When your company is in its infancy you may do practically everything yourself, from spot checking code quality to answering support tickets. If your business grows you’ll eventually need to learn to let go of these tasks and delegate them to trusted members of your team. At times you’ll be grateful to hand them off to focus on higher value work. At other times, you’ll struggle to let go of the control you once had with them.
This is a common challenge with delegation, with one study calling it “self-enhancement bias,” meaning a manager’s perception of work quality becomes more negative the less they are involved in a task. It assumes that your way is the best, when in reality, better practices may exist than you have mastered yourself. For me this bias gradually faded away as I realized the team I was building were all experts in their fields, and that I could learn a lot by shutting up and listening.
If you’ve tried to delegate in the past and weren’t successful, it’s worth trying again. Ultimately, teams fail together and win together. Here are some principles that helped me become a better manager by giving my team the tools they needed to succeed.
Communicate clearly and collaborate on goals
Goal setting is an important skill to master, and articulating those goals clearly to your team is critical if you expect them to be met. What’s even better is inviting your team into the process of creating the goals, using the SMART framework to set goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. This framework gives your team control of their own strategy and the accountability that can only come with owning their own success metrics and timeline. As a leader, you’ll leave the conversation feeling confident in the team’s approach because you’ll have had your chance to weigh in up front, rather than needing to do so on an ongoing basis.
There are two questions to ask when jointly creating goals with employees. The first is “if the employee achieves this goal but nothing else, does it guarantee that I’m happy with their performance?” The second is “If the employee fails at this goal but accomplishes many others does it guarantee that I’m unhappy with their performance?” If the answer to these questions are both “Yes,” you can set expectations of that employee (or team) clearly and give them a simple rule for prioritizing their activities.
An important part of the goal setting conversation is discussing the context or “why” behind goals. You can spend a lot of energy sharing why something is important, but sharing doesn’t imply understanding. You need to ask questions to ensure true understanding. One of the easiest ways to get there is to run the whole planning process collaboratively, combining the bottom-up input from your team with guided adjustments from you. This is where your role as a manager turns from micro-manager into setting and maintaining the direction, aligning multiple teams together, and helping people come up with SMART and impactful goals.
Don’t let your overmanagement interrupt work
Updates are a common pain because they take time away from working – and some managers demand a weekly or daily cadence of status update meetings that are almost certain to kill productivity. Such meetings and reports can take hours each week, and frequently don’t offer the most up-to-date information. A better and less-interruptive way is for leaders to use digital tools to build real-time visibility into the work progress. This usually includes a view into key performance indicators (BI tools) and work progress (work management tools). This requires using cloud solutions that feature real-time collaboration, and a thoughtful implementation to make access convenient.
Being able to come up with good progress indicators, predictors of success, and methodical way to eliminate major risks is a big part of an operational playbook for any successful executive I’ve seen. On-demand visibility into project status will transform an organization from one that’s always putting out fires into one that can see issues coming down the pike and solves them before they get worse
Establish your core values as framework for employees
When you delegate tasks to an individual or team, the values of your company should be a framework for execution. I once read a quote by Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, who said that clearly defined values expedite decision making. “When an issue comes up, we don’t say we’re going to study it for two and a half years,” he said. “We just say, ‘Southwest Airlines doesn’t do that. Maybe somebody else does, but we don’t.’ It greatly facilitates the operation of the company.”
Whether you value low cost, customer service, impact, or growth, having your values clearly defined will help you have confidence in your delegation. When in doubt, employees can fall back on those values to set their goals and execute projects. You can’t supervise everything like a hawk, but you can build a culture where people make decisions that you would endorse.
Give your team the freedom to fail small
If you’ve ever learned to ride a bike, you know that skinning your knees a few times is a part of the process. I think this is a lesson in the workplace as well. Managers need to give employees the framework to work autonomously and fail small, so they can learn from their mistakes and improve in the long term. When you delegate, know going into it that the results may not be what you had in mind – but resist being a helicopter-manager over every step of the task. Instead, give feedback on iterations, while also giving people room to make mistakes so they can internalize their learnings.
Build great teams of talented people, and delegate with confidence
The long and short of it is that leaders will struggle with delegation if they aren’t confident in their people. Likewise, employees who don’t feel valued by their employers won’t feel an abundant need to deliver incredible results on every assignment. Companies must make talent retention and development a priority, because engaged and happy employees can be trusted to go above and beyond to drive complex initiatives with care and attention to detail.
It’s also critical to hire the right people. Experience in a task is ideal, but in emerging fields it can be hard to find the right experience. But if you hire for coachability, eagerness to learn and improve, and a demonstrated ability to conduct research to make great decisions, you’ll find people are adaptable and quite capable of learning on the job. By trusting your team you’ll earn their loyalty, and find they are eager to innovate and come up with brilliant solutions beyond your own capabilities.
July 8, 2019 at 11:00AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs