In my career, and as the president and founder of PAN Communications, a public relations firm that is nearing its 20th anniversary, I’ve seen many instances of delegation--after all, PR is a business of delegation. Our purpose is to work in small teams to inspire journalists to write and guide CEOs of corporations on how and when to share their key messages with their industry and the public.
At PAN, we recently went through a major launch for one of our clients. The company was well known in the industry, with a 20-year history, and they asked us to help launch a major product into the market and change its name. We spent months planning for the launch, but as we’ve learned to anticipate, unforeseen issues came up, and additional work had to get done. We knew that the only way to manage these fire drills was to have clearly defined roles and ownership.
One of our senior associates, who has a proven track record of media success, was asked to step above his role on the team to not only manage media relations but also closely manage the more junior team members to ensure goals were met, the value of the team’s work was communicated, and we were a step ahead of the client.
In this case, delegation allowed the team leaders--an account manager and a vice president--to focus on critical, internal aspects of the launch, including message development and media training and preparation. All of these elements were crucial to the success of the launch, but without delegating the management of the account, the senior staff would have been completely overwhelmed. The benefit of the increased workload is that it provided the senior associate the opportunity to shine in a new light, and show managers how capable he was in managing junior staff and owning a large slice of a program. In the end, the team worked cohesively and the client was extremely happy with the results.
When done well, as in the previous example, delegation creates success for everyone involved in the project. It’s the skillset that can make or break a company. When delegation is incorrectly executed, it’s not just disruptive to team members; it creates a ripple effect throughout the company.
Delegation Down and Up
In practice, there are two main ways to delegate--and an effective manager needs to be aware of how to execute and inspire both methods. There is the type of delegation where an employee is delegated to, and the type where managers or executives are delegated up from an employee.
The former is the most commonly thought of approach to delegation. Managers across all industries will use delegation as a method of distributing the team work and training junior staff on the business. As part of my role as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University, I train students who are about to enter the workforce on what to expect and to be aware of how they manage their time at their first job. When you start out, you are always delegated to, but it’s important to prioritize and feel empowered to delegate up to management as well.
That leads me to the second approach to delegation, which managers need to not only be receptive to but also able to bestow the skillset onto their employees. Delegating tasks upward can be challenging for junior employees and it’s important that they feel it’s a safe option when their workload becomes overwhelming, and that they have a voice on their teams.
One tip I give students is to make sure that they have a voice and are managing the expectations of their teammates. The most important questions an entry-level staffer at any job should know, and repeat often is, “And when do you need it by?”
If they receive a response that’s unrealistic given their workload, they then have an opportunity to negotiate a new deadline, or delegate the task back up.
Another tip I share with students is to always create a to-do list. This will help them prioritize items that need to be completed that day, versus those that can be passed on to other people. If an employee has accepted a task, it’s important that they don’t leave until it’s finished, its status is communicated or it has been delegated to another person with more time to complete it.
Delegation without Disruption
Recently, a newly promoted account manager was having trouble letting go and delegating things to the team. This employee was used to owning these tasks; in fact, the mastery of them was what earned the promotion. However, now that it was time to pass the proverbial baton, the manager grew concerned that the account--now on the shoulders of more junior staff members--would fail without his continued upkeep.
One of our vice presidents was perplexed about how to help this manager make the transition to senior associate, so the VP took an unorthodox approach: To help this person learn the importance of delegation, the VP started overwhelming the account manager with work; truly loading the plate up to the point where it was impossible to complete tasks. She wanted to demonstrate how difficult it is to complete the entire client’s work without delegating to the team.
While this caused some initial stress on the new account manager, it also proved a valuable lesson: in order to lead, account managers need to delegate and trust their staff to get the job done. If a manager feels that they are the only person that can get the job done, or that they do it best, they won’t be able to delegate efficiently, and they will create a stalemate or, worse, disruption.
With a handful of vice presidents, all vying to grow their own business, it can get pretty competitive at PAN. More often than not, this leads to a little banter and some extra motivation, but during a busy time, it can also overwhelm.
Recently, one of our vice presidents insisted that they respond to a request for a proposal or RFP because they had represented a competitor in the space. Given their expertise, it made sense for them to lead the project. However, due to unforeseen client demands, this VP became consumed with serving the client and didn't get to the assignment in a timely manner.
When the deadline came up, work still needed to be done. It created disruption to the management team. At the very last minute all hands were on deck, not just those of the VPs, to focus on the new business. This pulled staff away from their work, stalling projects from the top down. Through the collaborative effort and some last-minute delegation, we got the RFP out the door but it caused unnecessary disruption within the organization.
Delegation at the last moment not only creates a stalemate but a disruptive ripple effect throughout the organization that I like to call a “tailspin.” It generally leaves a large chunk of work to the last moment, causing everyone involved to stop what they are working on and assess the situation. Instead of a task being delegated to one capable person over time, it then gets split into multiple slices for many team members to own. Each person is pulled away from the proactive work they were focused on, and it defers completion of those projects, causing a ripple of delays throughout the organization.
In order to prevent the tailspin from happening and set staff up to best handle disruption, I advise our vice presidents and staff practice proactive expectation setting. This comes in the form of setting meetings to discuss the project at the outset so the team can see what tasks are coming their way. This also provides an opportunity to delegate roles and ownership within the program, share the tools that the group can leverage for success, including collaborative documents, and set other expectations, including check-ins dates, milestones and progress.