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"You can delegate authority. You cannot delegate responsibility."
Statesman and former senator Byron Dorgan

What's one task that gets harder as you move up the corporate ladder? Delegating. As you assume more power, and responsibility, you feel proportionately more pressure to get results. While some leaders respond by hoarding work, others swing to the other end of the spectrum. They dump work on their subordinates with nothing more than the hollow directive, "Get it done." To paraphrase management expert Marshall Goldsmith, your say-so won't make it so. If this is how you "delegate," get used to subpar results - or try a new approach.

The Delegating Trap

Say you're expecting a delivery at your home. You tell the driver, "My name's Ed and I live in Atlanta. Make sure you deliver my package on time."

Forget "on time". How realistic is it that the driver will be able to deliver at all? Not very - and yet leaders often expect their people to do the equivalent. In "Don't Just Check the Box," Goldsmith recounts a meeting with the CEO of a large tech firm, who was discouraged because his people didn't understand the company's mission and direction. He'd emailed a memo, but no one seemed to be doing anything.

As Goldsmith said, "I thought he was kidding... Making people understand the company's mission doesn't happen by fiat." In fact, not much of anything gets done that way. The CEO didn't know who read the memo, who understood it, who actually bought into it, and who even remembered it. He simply expected people to live and breathe the mission because he said so.

The CEO checked the box; he issued a directive, and walked away with the belief that "people heard him, understood him, believed him, and then executed." In our busy days and rush to tackle a full to-do list, this happens frequently. It's an easy trap to fall into; fortunately, it's also easy to avoid.

To Do: Learn How to Delegate

Goldsmith recommends that the first item on your to-do list is to learn how to delegate more effectively. Don't assume that something will be done, on time or as expected. Make sure it is by:

  • Knowing your people. Identify their strengths and weaknesses. Know to whom you can delegate tasks and how much direction they require. Start by delegating tasks that align with their strengths.
  • Get it in writing. This can eliminate the "I didn't know" trap. Give explicit instructions and deadlines. Make sure the individual is clear on what you expect.
  • Following up. The importance of follow-up cannot be overstated. When you delegate a task, schedule a follow-up conversation, and remember to check in, ask questions, gauge their understanding, and provide necessary support and resources.

If you simply "check the box" and walk away, you're bound to be disappointed. And your people will inevitably grow discouraged and disengaged. You're delegating a task, not your responsibility to ensure that it is completed successfully.


Larry Hart

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