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Delegate (and Execute) for Results

“Delegate for results, not tasks” is a phrase a colleague of mine uses when coaching senior leaders. So often leaders come up through the ranks and think they have mastered delegation, and largely they have. But sometimes leaders, like all of us, need to consider the impact of our actions. For me, delegation is both an art and a practice. The practice is the action of delegating responsibility and authority to individuals and teams and holding them accountable for results. The art is less definable. It comes into play when you consider to whom you can delegate (can they handle it?) and when you delegate (should you be doing it?).

It is in the art that the statement, “Delegate for results, not tasks,” belongs. This statement is a caution to avoid micromanaging. That is, you describe what needs doing, but you do not say how it is to be done. It also gives an endpoint, an outcome, if you will. By focusing on outcome, you get the individual and colleagues thinking not only what they must do, but why they must do it. In other words, you challenge them to think strategically and act tactically.

Delegating for results is something that managers can put into practice.  Here are some suggestions on how to do it.

Study the landscape. Before you think long term, you have to know what’s going on, inside your own village as well as the village next door. That means you immerse yourself in the business so that you know the macrotrends (governmental, economic, societal) as well as the microtrends (competitors, customers) affecting your business. For example, hospital administrators need to know the dynamics of government-proposed health-care solutions, as well as managed care and private care options. They also need to know what patients in their area need as well as what other services hospitals are offering.

Study your people. Know what makes them tick. That means you know how they think and act as well as what motivates them. Watch them in action and how they interact with others. Pay attention to how they get results. That is, do they listen to others, or do they insist on doing everything their own way? When big projects come up, think about who would be best to head the project. Look for people who can balance action with consensus. You also want team leaders who can think on their feet as well as make things happen.

Study the cracks. Problems will occur. When they do, consider in advance what you will do. A good model to keep in mind is that of the general contractor who builds a house. His team executes the architectural plans and he supervises those tasks by keeping a close eye on time, materials, and budget. When the project hits a roadblock, he knows who to call for each specific function—carpentry, masonry, plumbing, or electrical. He is not wielding a hammer or wrench; he’s directing the subcontractor to the task with specific instructions.

Not everyone is ready to delegate for results, not tasks. Some people have not been in a position of authority long enough to know how to think long term. They are thinking and acting tactically. Likewise, not everyone is ready to accept the delegation for results directive. They need to be told what to do and why; they may even need to be told how. These occasions occur in rapidly growing organizations as well as entrepreneurial ventures; in both instances, people are feeling their way through things.

Focusing on Execution
Communications plays an essential role in getting things done. So often, leaders issue mandates and think they are done with it. That’s failure number one. Failure number two is not watching what’s happening on the ground. As the winds were ripping through the Gulf, the president was otherwise engaged. No leader, nor president, can attend to all things—nor should he. That’s why senior leaders need trusted advisors; in the president’s case, his failed him—until it was too late.

So what’s a leader to do? Here are some suggestions.

  • Create a sense of urgency. Pots do not stir themselves. If you want to get things done in a big way, or even a small way, you have to make some noise to attract attention. The news media made Hurricane Katrina urgent. Executives in corporations will have to find their own ways to publicize reasons for change. For example, if you need to improve quality, bring in customers who are suffering from your product’s shortcomings. Health-care providers use patient feedback forms to redesign processes from hospital admittance to post-surgery care and patient discharge. By making the feedback known, and then asking employees to act on it, you create an impetus for action.
  • Keep your ear to the ground. Listen to what people are telling you. Shrewd executives listen before they act, especially when they are new to the company. Listening puts employees on notice that the good ideas from inside the company are welcome. Over time, executives who listen are more in tune with what is really going on in an organization, rather than what they think or are told is going on. By listening, leaders keep their fingers on the heartbeat of an organization.
  • Follow up. Nothing communicates more powerfully than a leader who shows up to see how things are going. For example, CEOs routinely sign off on reorganizations, typically with the aim of reducing costs and improving efficiency. Such moves look good in annual reports, and even on the business pages, but do they really work? Not often. One reason is because those at the top do not always really investigate the outcomes of their actions. Senior leaders act as if the hardest part is signing their name to an initiative, or giving a speech. If that’s the case, is there any wonder that so many transformations are doomed from the start? By contrast, leaders who listen and visit with people on the ground are those folks who make things happen. It’s a simple matter of following up.

The challenge for senior leaders, however, is to develop an organization where “delegation for results” becomes a reality, at least for everyone in middle management and above. Failure to do so can be crippling. A few years ago, a retired middle manager told me why he thought his company had failed in recent years. He attributed the decline to the fact that senior managers were “managing beneath them.” That is, they were not only micromanaging, but supervising tasks of people two and three levels subordinate to them. Aside from the fact that there were too many levels (that’s another problem), the retiree’s point was valid. Autonomy did not exist; employees and managers were taught to wait for orders. As a result, creativity was nonexistent and innovation did not exist. Worse, there was a culture of dependency that arose that kept people from thinking and acting proactively. “Delegating for results not tasks,” is good advice for any manager anywhere. It keeps the manager focused on the long term and people focused on the here and now.

© 2009 John Baldoni.  All rights reserved.  Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from Lead by Example:  50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results by John Baldoni.  Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association, www.amacombooks.org

About the Author(s)

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership consultant and speaker.  He is author of seven books, including his most recent, Lead by Example:  50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results (AMACOM, 2009), from which this article is excerpted.