LME033 – How I Learned to delegate
I co-founded my first company – it was a high-tech start-up – in 1995. That’s more than 25 years ago.
In that time I had a completely wrong idea of entrepreneurship and leadership. That’s why I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning and only learned over the years what really matters in leadership as well as in entrepreneurship.
The time problem!
My biggest challenge back then was time. Finding time for the important things. I was almost exclusively on the operational side. The day-to-day operations really took me over.
I had the feeling that I always had to keep all the things in the company together, I worked around the clock – often even on weekends.
Everything revolved around the company.
Also at home. Taking a week off, taking a vacation and really switching off – I didn´t really manage to do that. I felt overwhelmed and overworked.
With my first company we had 20 employees, but I always had the feeling that they were working on the wrong things or that they were not doing it correctly, meaning the way I would do it.
I wanted to change this situation but I didn’t know how. I couldn’t even find time to think in silence and focus for example on important strategy issues.
My experience with other managers
In the last few years I worked as a leadership coach for executives and entrepreneurs and I have seen many of them who are in a very similar situation like I was: They work and work all the time, but they are trapped in their operational hamster wheel – sometimes 70-80 hours a week and still find no time for the important things.
Most of them – and I felt the same way – have great difficulty delegating tasks to their employees. It is immediately obvious that this would give them more time but delegating just doesn’t work.
I felt the same way. If I delegated something to my co-workers, it wasn’t done right – not the way I would like it to be. I always had to control and correct them.
Instructing and controling everything
I had the impression that I always had to instruct everything down to the last detail. It was frustrating – and time consuming. But delegating was supposed to buy me time.
Let me describe the situation in which I found myself in these days. Our start-up was all about analysing vibrations of machines.
Similar to how a doctor checks a person’s heartbeat with a stethoscope, we used sensors to analyze the vibrations of machines in order to identify flaws and damage on these machines at an early stage. We developed and sold systems for this, but also performed diagnostics as a service for our customers on site.
Since I worked intensively on this vibration analysis – it was part of my PHD research project years before we founded our company – I was usually the one who carried out these diagnoses for our customers. I was the expert at that time.
I had to delegate.
As our company grew, I had to choose to delegate these diagnostic tasks. After all, it was no longer my job as managing director to stand knee-deep in oil and use sensors to diagnose machines on site. Although I enjoyed it. It was fun. But I had to change from being a technical expert to being a manager. And that was difficult for me. It was difficult to change.
In my opinion in this time: None of my employees seemed good enough to do the analysis as I did.
Only then when I simply didn´t have time anymore to do it, I had to delegate these tasks – whether I wanted to or not.
Because at that time I built up our international sales structure and was therefore traveling abroad a lot. Most of the time I was somewhere in the world, so I couldn’t control everything and everyone anymore.
The changed situation
Now something interesting happened: I wasn’t there – I was somewhere else. I couldn’t give instructions and constantly check-up on my employees.
So, what happened? Sure, in the beginning a lot went wrong. My co-workers did a lot of things differently compared to how I would have done it. They made mistakes which, as I believed at the time, would not have happened to me – but then – after a while, the results got better and better. Two employees even stood out. Their diagnostic results were not only as good but even better than mine. After about a year and a half, they carried out significantly better diagnoses than I did.
That was fascinating.
And through this experience, it has become much easier for me to delegate tasks to others. I know it will likely get worse at first and take longer – but then I have a good chance that the task will not only be done as well as I would do it, but even better.
Starting to delegate is an investment in employee training – it costs time and energy. But it’s worth it.
When you delegate a task to your employee, you put it in their hands. You trust that they will get it done by the agreed date.
Here it is important: If you delegated a task, avoid asking your employee about the progress of their work before the agreed date.
Do not check up on them all the time, but only check the agreed result.
Otherwise you will prevent your employee to take real responsibility for the taks. I know, you probably don’t mean to do so, but this is what happens. Because what you are doing is micromanaging.
For example: If you ask your employee before the agree deadline: “So, how is it going? Will you be ready on time?”
If you delegated the task the right way and you ask this question you show her that you don’t trust her. You don’t trust that she will be finished on time. But wait: She promised you to meet the deadline when you delegated the task, right? S, why do you ask her before the deadline is due?
Don’t get me wrong!
It can be hard to hold back. But this is crucial if you want to build trust in your employees and if you want to help your employees to improve.
By the way: Make sure that you always delegate the tasks depending on the skills of your employees. You can assign a large project to an experienced employee and after 2 months you only control the result. That is ok.
But with someone who is not so experienced, you have to break the project down. You can arrange weekly appointments, so called milestones to monitor the progress of the project. But be careful: Only check at the agreed time, not in between.
The rule for delegation is: Check previously agreed results at the agreed time, but not the process!
Avoid Reverse delegation!
Let me give you another important tip:
Perhaps you´re familiar with the following situation:
Yesterday you delegated an important task to your employee John. He should prepare a project report by next week. Today you are quite stressed and on your way to the next meeting when John approaches you in passing:
“Boss, it’s good to see you. I have a problem. I’m supposed to write the project report. I’ve put something together, but somehow I’m not getting anywhere. You know a lot about XYZ. Could you take a quick look at what I wrote and maybe add a couple of keywords?”
So? How do you react? Mentally you are actually already at that meeting. Yes, you are the expert on Project XYZ, but actually you have neither the time for it nor can you think about that in the moment. You are just thinking:
“How can I get rid of John as quickly as possible?”
So you say:
“OK, give me your notes. I’ll take care of it later. “
And whoosh – just like that there´s one more task on your desk – a task that you actually delegated to your employee, right?
That is called a reverse delegation or upward delegation. If you, as the boss, take on the delegated tasks, you are doing the work that your employees should actually be doing. This is fatal because then you have no time for your actual tasks.
Many bosses suffer from upward delegation.
The question is why? – The answer is:Because they let their employees do this.
So what’s the best way to avoid that? You could just block the conversation by saying:
„John, am I supposed to do your job?“
But that’s not constructive. That’s frustrating and only makes your employees feel like they are not getting any support from you. You definitely want to support your employees if it is necessary.
You make an appointment with your employee to discuss the problem without hurries:
“Sorry John, now is not a good time but we can discuss this in my office in half an hour.”
So what`s happening here? You kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand: You are not controlled by someone else. That is very important. On the other hand, you give your employee enough time to think about his or her problem again. Maybe he or she will come up with the solution without your help. Great!
And if not, you can help your employee during your arranged meeting.