Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

Delegation 101

Delegation 101

When I was first put in charge of a small engineering team, I loved being the problem solver.

My team would come to me with all the hairy issues and ask my opinion, and I would gladly offer my sage wisdom as an experienced engineer and leader.

This worked fine for a while, but after a few months of having my team to come to me with every difficult decision, I realized that I had created a monster.

Monster of poor delegation

Nobody wanted to make tough calls. I had trained 5 intelligent, capable, independent engineers to bring every big decision to me before moving forward. Our velocity slowed to a crawl as I realized that I had made a huge mistake for the long-term health of my team.

I was struggling to keep up with all the questions and I felt like I couldn’t take a day off or the team would be completely immobilized. So, I worked longer, harder, and wrote more than I ever had before to make sure my team was constantly unblocked.

Short Term vs. Long Term Leadership

I can’t remember who finally told me this, but one of my mentors at the time was very straight with me:

“Why are you coming up with all the solutions? They’re smart, why don’t you make them bring you the answers?”

In hindsight, this seems so obvious. By always offering my opinion on every topic, I had given my team the impression that I knew it all, and since they naturally wanted to please me, they’d let me make all the tough calls for them. They looked good for bringing up issues, and I got to stroke my own ego by solving all the problems.

But, I had made a huge mistake for the long-run.

In the short-term, my choice to fix all the problems myself worked well. It ensured that we were consistent and unified in our approach, but it also came with a long-term cost. My team didn’t feel confident or empowered to bring solutions to the table. They were rewarded only for bringing problems up, and not for actually solving them.

Stop Giving Everyone Answers to the Test

The best teachers don’t give out free answers on the test. They give students the tools they need to find the right answers.

In the same way, the best managers delegate by giving their employees the tools and frameworks they need to answer their own questions.

One trick I’ve learned on this front is to never answer questions directly. For example, someone on my team recently asked me how they should respond to a client regarding a quality concern they had.

“I don’t know, that’s tough. How would you respond?” Was my answer.

Now, this employee gets a free shot to craft a response to me and explain their rationale. When they came back with a response, I immediately approved it and we moved on. I told them that they had a really good response and said that next time, they are free to just send it without my approval.

From now on, this employee is empowered to make decisions about client communication, and I’m now free from reviewing every email that goes back to a disgruntled client.

But, You Have to Allow Mistakes

“Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?” – Thomas John Watson Sr., IBM

The other key part of effective delegation is allowing people to mess up.

Let’s say that the next time this employee responds to a client, they make the situation worse. Maybe they get confused and tell them the wrong thing, or they don’t fully address their issue.

Eventually, I’ll find out about the mistake, and now I have two options:

  1. I admonish the employee and tighten up the reigns. “Next time, ask me before you lose us anymore business!”
  2. I ask the employee what went wrong? Is there anything they can do to salvage it? Could we update something in our process or documentation to avoid this mistake in the future?

Option 1 dis-empowers the employee and puts me back in the decision-maker seat. This person is never going to respond to an email without my clearance again, and now I’m stuck reviewing emails all day instead of running my business.

Option 2 empowers the employee to figure out the root cause of the issue. It puts them in control of the situation and the possible solution. They can also suggest improvements to our process that might help others avoid making the same mistake, which would be a huge benefit to the company.

People learn the most in their careers from mistakes. How you as a leader respond to those mistakes shapes what your employees will take with them into the future.

Most entrepreneurs I know struggle with delegation. If you do or if you’ve figured out other tricks to help you do it better, I’d love to hear them. Send me your thoughts on Twitter.

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