Ken Stearns is a grandfather, father, midwestern boy, writer, speaker, photographer, and lyrist. As he winds down his decades-long insurance career, the influence of his travels, experiences, exposure to cultures, religions, and music is beginning to emerge. Ken continues to write with several projects in the works, and he enjoys photography and writes music.
Last week, we talked about the "Tom Yum Team Building: Balance Your Approach", the first of Ken's Rules. Now it's time for Rule #2.
We all have had that boss, the one who touched everything. Formal or informal in management style, he made sure that no decision, large or small, avoided his approval. And consequently, his team members made sure to cover their backs. Never go that far with your decision making. It’s risky.
In micromanaged organizations, decisions are often harder to make across various teams and their different management styles, differences that create uneven work. At times, the organization feels paused, and it’s far worse than a typical bottleneck.
A bottleneck is a symptom that affects a process with steps that are standard and well known, and in that process there is a spot that for some reason holds up the entire chain. Its impact is usually only in that stream of work. Sometimes it goes unnoticed, or it’s masked or ignored, but usually its effect to the organization can be managed.
The critical situation of a senior leader in an organization who doesn’t leverage delegation is far more damaging. It’s not a linear bottleneck. It can be department wide or companywide, and the effects can be like institutional gangrene. The entire side of that organization can become dead tissue, infecting the rest of the organization’s performance, unable to respond fast enough to market changes.
The implications reach farther than just the one person who’s making or touching all decisions. As they exert control as a manager and a leader and embed themselves into the company’s process, people around them and those who report to them begin to turn off their critical thinking — after all, they’ve learned that all critical thinking is done in one place. With no delegation, the only work that’s left is functional, robotic. People become careless and even unaccountable when mistakes happen, and as the manager struggles, these behaviors double down. Organizations begin to miss big opportunities, miss big project deliverables. Their focus becomes more myopic, so they spend their time targeting and correcting only day-to-day errors.
Delegation, however, creates a scenario that is the exact opposite, and it’s one of the most important skill sets to have in leading a business. In fact, your staff’s execution capabilities should actually exceed your ability to create impactful work, giving you more time to focus on relationships, planning, and strategy.
Delegation creates a “course correction” environment, not a mistakes environment. Decisions move quickly. And decision making that’s knowledge-based lends itself to fewer mistakes, and when mistakes come, they are small and recognized quickly by the teams that are closest to the original decision. Decisions and corrections are then rewarded for their speed and frequency. Team momentum is developed, and synergies begin to emerge.
Meanwhile, the focus and the energy of the leadership are spent on articulating the company’s vision, constantly communicating True North and enabling their teams to do more. That’s the beauty of delegation.
The impact on management is exponential, not 1x or linear. Dropping the leverage point one level can make a massive difference on your teams’ capabilities and their execution. What I mean is literally taking the responsibility of as many decisions as possible down a level. This eases the leverage that’s required at more senior levels and transfers it to several more individuals one level down.
If you are someone with job or skill domain knowledge, you should be finding ways to delegate your work. Of course, there can be legal or signatory responsibilities that cannot be delegated. But the rest should be done in close collaboration or oversight through your teams.
As a leader, your responsibility is to build teams that are capable of this level of support and execution. And keep in mind that team productivity cannot grow linear with the business; they must grow exponentially and with an impact. Therefore, the work they do must increase in complexity or productivity. How to achieve this is the challenge — and it’s the reason most leaders never achieve the things they want in good times and also struggle desperately in tough times.
Transitioning from the roles of doing to managing to leading is one of the most complex human development transitions there is. Each role has its unique attributes to becoming successful. In order to become successful in each one, the value of the strengths that got you to where you are now are reduced, and you’re forced to develop new skills and talents.
This is a common-sense approach to acquiring a skill as a leader: learn how to do something, teach someone else how to do it, transfer the responsibility to that someone, and then go in search of another higher-value piece of work on which to focus.
- Do a new skill with help
- Do the skill by myself
- Show someone how to do the skill
- Help someone do the skill well
- Transfer the responsibility to that someone
- Do a new skill with help (level up)
By following and then repeating these six steps, you’ll increase your own effectiveness and contribution to the company by multiplying the execution through others who are less experienced, skilled, or knowledgeable. Delegation takes on the challenges of transferring a skill or knowledge to someone downline and pulling from your managers above new and impactful work that you can execute.
Delegation thus releases bottlenecks and allows things to move more quickly through an organization, with many more chances for course corrections that are fast and light to the touch. Bigger decisions are easier and more accurately made as the people in execution roles understand more and more about their function, see the direction their leadership is taking, and become an active part in driving toward True North.
Leverage the enormous value of your teams. Delegate, delegate, delegate.
Rule #3 coming up on Friday!