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November 19, 2015 | Dr. Jay Akridge and Dr. John Foltz
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The Art of Delegation

How to accomplish work with and through your employees

The Art of Delegation

Who gets things done just the way you like them? Who does the best job? Who can you always count on to deliver? In answering these questions, deep down, many of us may feel we do things best, we do it right, and no one else can do it better! While that MAY be true — at least for certain activities and tasks — there is some finite limit on what we can accomplish as individuals. And, we may be just a bit biased when it comes to the “quality” of our own work ...

But, as feed and grain firm managers, we are supposed to manage. And, periodically it is useful to remind ourselves just what it means to manage. In the end, management is the process of getting things done with and through people (your employees in this case). Note that this definition of management does not have you doing everything! And, if we are truly honest, with training, experience and their own ingenuity, many of our employees can actually do a much better job at what they do than we can. One of the hallmarks of a great manager is to hire good people, give them the training and resources to accomplish their jobs — and then let them actually do just that!

This is where delegation comes in — there may be no more fundamental management skill. However, even experienced managers can struggle in this area, refusing to let go, fumbling with communications and oversight, and frustrating employees in the process. For new managers, this management fundamental may be especially difficult to implement, as they may be accustomed to doing literally everything themselves — and doing it extremely well. In the end, effective managers simply must learn how to delegate. Delegation will make your business more efficient and likely more profitable — and done effectively, can result in more satisfied employees. In this column, we will investigate the art and practice of effective delegation.

A basic management skill

As mentioned above, delegation may be one of the most fundamental managerial skills. In fact, until one is involved in delegation, likely the only person you are managing is yourself! Most of us were promoted to a “bigger job” because we were very good at the one we had. And, in many cases, that first job was one we could do ourselves. Perhaps even your first promotion put you in a job where if someone did not deliver, you could jump in and fix the problem yourself. But, at some point, for any manager with growing responsibilities, the job gets big enough that “doing it yourself” is both impractical and impossible.

In a real sense, managing is all about building a team. And, if you are going to build a team, your team members absolutely must be engaged in moving the team forward. That means giving the team meaningful work, giving team members enough room to take on that work on their own (or with their own team), and holding them accountable for the outcomes — in other words, it means effective delegation. 

As a result, the more quickly an up-and-coming manager can master the art of delegation, the better. And, the better any manager gets at delegation, the more effective his/her leadership team will be.

If delegation is so important and so fundamental, why do many managers either not delegate or not delegate effectively? There are probably a lot of reasons, but certainly one is the manager believes it will take a lot of up-front effort to bring someone else in, and it will just be quicker if they do the task themselves. In other cases, managers may think they can do a better job than anyone else in the feed and grain business. Some managers may believe the job is trivial, so they’ll lead by example, do the job themselves, and send a message or teach employees “how it is done.” In other cases, the manager may feel their employee(s) will resent being asked to do the job, thinking they should just do the work themselves. Now there are clearly times when a manager is the right person to actually perform a specific task or do a certain job. However, in many cases, the job should be delegated, and the reasons offered above are short-sighted, selfish, and frankly, a bit arrogant. Until a manager can really understand that their role is accomplishing results with and through others, that manager’s upside is severely limited.

Some keys to effective delegation

What are you trying to accomplish? Until the goal is clear in your mind, it cannot be clear to anyone you are delegating too. This does not mean you need to spend a lot of time thinking about how to accomplish something, but you do need to think a lot about what you want accomplished. What does success look like? How will you know when it has been achieved? Are there milestones along the way that might signal that the project is moving toward success or drifting off course? If you have only a vague idea of what you want to see happen, you better be ready to be very open about what actually gets done.

Whom will you delegate to? Sometimes delegation does not work because we give the assignment to the wrong person. It is your job as a manager to make decisions about who has the time, the ability, the motivation, etc. to get something done. Give an assignment to the wrong person, or the wrong team, and you are heading toward disappointment. 

Note that this does not mean going back time after time to the same employee or the same team — just because you know they will get things done (though that is tempting!). Good managers are like great quarterbacks; they are going to spread the ball around, use a lot of receivers, and keep the defense off balance. (Of course, this also keeps all of the receivers engaged because they never know when the ball will come their way!) Really, really good managers know how to give stretch assignments to up-and-comers. They may take a risk with a less experienced employee because they have a sense that the employee is ready and can deliver. Making these kinds of assignments, then coaching the up-and-coming employee to successful completion of the task, is management at its very best. 

Clarity in communication If what you want to accomplish is clear, and you have settled on who will take on the task, then you have to make sure that the person you are delegating to truly understands what you want. Beyond what the goal is for the project, deadlines should be a part of the communication, along with any constraints — budget, time and other resources. Employees simply have to understand the rules of the game they are about to play for you.

The father of one of the authors, a very successful farm supply firm manager and master delegator, used to talk through what he wanted accomplished with employees when he made the assignment. Then, when finished, he would ask the employee to repeat back the list of actions/the task to him: “Tell me what I just told you to do.” 

A few episodes of “let me run through that again — you were not listening” was usually enough for employees to learn that they needed to pay attention the first time through. While this example is simple, you and your employees absolutely must be on the same page when it comes to what is being delegated. You are both heading for disappointment if you expect one thing, and the employee is working on something else.

Finally, note that we are talking about what you want, when you want it, and any constraints on the process — we are not talking about how the employee will actually do the task. That is what the employee is supposed to do — figure out how to get it done! Here, we are reminded of a quote by General George S. Patton: “Never tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Make resources available You need to give some thought to what your employee or team will need to accomplish the task. Do they need some budget? Will they need the support or cooperation of others? Do they need access to data or reports? Will some training be required before they can deliver on the assigned task? If you have picked the right employee or team for the job, make sure you have equipped them to be successful.

Monitor progress Some tasks are so simple and the timeline so short, that it will be clear (quickly) if the employee has accomplished the task or not. In other cases, you need milestones in place and periodic reporting to determine if satisfactory progress is being made and if any kind of intervention is required. The key point here is to catch delegated projects that are drifting early, so that midcourse corrections can be made.

Note that we are not talking about micromanaging. There is a huge difference between managing predetermined milestones at predetermined intervals, and interfering with employees who are working hard to deliver on the assignment. While we have never heard a manager admit to being a micromanager, we see it happen often. In the end, micromanaging erodes trust with employees, wastes managerial time, and in all likelihood leads to a lower quality outcome than had a carefully selected team, equipped with proper resources, been left to do their job.

Celebrate success When the task is complete, and when the goals have been met, some affirmation is in order. Give credit where credit is due. It is well established that few things motivate an employee or a team more than praise for a job well done. This is especially true for praise that is offered “up the line.” We see managers demoralize employees or teams when they claim credit for a project they delegated to others. Usually these managers lack confidence in their own position/ability, and don’t understand that their manager wants them to delegate tasks. By being confident enough to shine a light on an individual or team with a higher up, managers build trust, motivate employees, and set themselves up for another successful delegation.

Reflection/debrief Done right, some reflection on the assignment and a debrief is the important, final step in any (significant) delegated project. What went well? What did not? Why? How could things have gone better? Was the communication clear? Were adequate resources available? Did unexpected things pop up that interfered with the project’s success? Good managers know how to do a debrief without making employees defensive. This is a time for coaching, to reinforce the things that went well, and to discuss how it could have gone better. It takes some trust to have an honest reflection/debrief session with an employee, but once that trust is established, this is a powerful step in making sure a delegated project goes even better next time.

While writing this column, we ran across a quiz for managers which can help you determine how well you delegate. It was pulled together by a group called Mindtools, who have some other useful things for managers in their “tool kit.” The quiz can be found at: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_60.htm.

Upshot

Given the time pressures every feed and grain manager faces, it is tempting to “do it yourself” in many cases, instead of delegating. And, even when delegating, it is easy to not make the time to do it right. But, in the end, managing is truly about effective delegation. Step back and review the last few assignments you have delegated to an individual or a team and compare how you handled the process against our steps for effective delegation. Work on the steps that you missed/did not handle well. Make the time to delegation right — you will grow as a manager, and you will help your employees grow in the process.

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