The Power of Many: The Art and Importance of Delegation

Posted on April 20, 2012

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Jim Grohman “But, but, but, I am responsible! You told me I am accountable.” Yes, you are.

For some reason the same conversation happens in clusters. This is the one I am having lately. It got me thinking about the conventional wisdom: “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” The fact is, when it comes to leadership and managing teams, blindly following that path can be a recipe for disaster. And while it might sound strange, the way to get things done right is often by letting someone else take the reins.

The fact is delegation does not come naturally to many smart managers. By the time they reach a leadership position, their instincts and talents have been reinforced (after all, they didn’t get where they are by being ineffectual as individuals), which tells them that they are, in fact, “the right one for the job.” Most managers have also deeply internalized the notion that time is money, and when you take the time to explain and teach and then wait while another person gets the job done, well … “I should have just taken care of it myself.”

The double whammy against delegation is the idea of accountability. Leaders (or anyone with any sense, for that matter) are averse to “taking the rap” for something done poorly by someone else — especially if they believe they could have gotten it done right on their own. All in all, from a risk-reward standpoint, delegation on its surface seems to be a dangerous game.

But dangers can be mitigated by a strong ante. If you want to (indeed, need to) have a wider impact, spreading out the workload out is essential. To do this you must do a good job of 1) wisely picking what you choose to spend your time on (our CEO, Jeff Shuck, wrote about this in Where Should I Focus?) and 2) choosing the right individuals to leverage in order to exponentially impact whomever and whatever you need to impact. To both points, there is indeed risk. I myself don’t like idea that in order to move forward I have to deal with the uncertainty of turning things over to others. But, we should all consider the benefits of effective delegation, except for the few crucial areas that truly determine success or failure. Because when the truly hard problems do emerge, your job is to have the time and energy to solve those problems.  That is why you are the boss.

Another big plus is that turning coordination and tasks over to your staff is really a form of training and development. You do the people you work with a great service by forcing them to take on more in terms of project management. In many cases, they have too much to do so they in turn learn how to pick the right people for the right jobs and thus lean how to delegate themselves, increasing your group’s effectiveness and impact. 

A critical offshoot to this added value of giving people around you opportunities to lead and execute, is that it’s the best way to increase internal team satisfaction and trust. If you don’t delegate, you create a glass ceiling for your people. Conversely, by offering ownership to others, you get more buy-in and commitment. In the long run, this is essential to your group’s — and their projects’— success.

Choosing what not to do is an important as choosing what to do. There will come a time when if you’re not realistic and fail to learn to delegate effectively, it’s going to be too late — and success will become more elusive to you as you rise up through the organization. As for the risks, remember that it’s best to fail fast, learn quickly and move on. Moreover, if you worry about being responsible for what others do, I have news for you: if you’re a leader, you already are. Good delegation is a crucial part of good leadership.

Finally, there’s this trite but honest question: What if a bus hits you tomorrow? Or less dramatically, what if you want to pursue opportunities somewhere else? What then? Every leader’s job is making himself or herself replaceable by sharing knowledge. Otherwise you have the machine with the irreplaceable part. That’s no good and that’s no fun. So go out there and teach. Dive deep into the critical areas but have a bias to trust and let go. The work, your people and you will be better for it.

“Jim’s Tools of the Trade” blog posts are featured monthly. Vice President, Operations Jim Grohman provides our project teams and managers, as well as our IT group and customer service specialists, leadership and guidance to ensure flawless delivery. A former Major with the United States Marine Corps, Jim is a member of the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is certified as a PMI Project Management Professional.

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