When I first started managing a team, I was advised to become effective at delegating, removing myself from the details, and to not take on too many problems directly. It was something I never felt comfortable with and I didn’t necessarily aspire to ‘be’ the people giving me this advice. So, I started observing what other managers around me were doing. I was surprised to see entire layers of ‘successful’ middle managers do little more than handle basic administrative tasks and people-management overhead.
As I started getting more senior at Microsoft, I noticed something interesting about leaders at the top – they had a deeper understanding of detail then managers two or three levels beneath them. What was more impressive is they carried that detail across multiple business units.
My conclusion is that the link between successful leaders and attention to detail is about causality. It’s not that the senior leaders I worked with were smart (they were); they were at the top because they understood detail. Great team members are the same – they understand in detail what’s going on, can spot opportunities that others don’t, and therefore become tremendously successful in their job.
The lesson I took away from this is it pays to understand the details of your business or product, no matter how junior or senior you are. Contrary to the advice I was given early on, aspiring leaders should immerse themselves in the detail and avoid heavy delegation at all costs.
While delegation certainly has its place at work, it’s often abused. It’s possible to be a great leader without delegating everything. The best leaders I’ve interacted with let delegation happen naturally by driving accountability, rewarding success, and consistently trimming fat. When it’s clear to a good employee that he or she is on the hook to make something happen, he or she will get it done and ask for anything that’s relevant. A leader might get stuck feeling like they’re overwhelmed with work, needing to pass menial tasks off to their minions, but that’s a signal of a different problem. Your entire organisation is overworked, you’re not effectively driving accountability, or you’re allowing your team to delegate up.
If you feel like you’re stuck in this trap, here are a few strategies I’ve seen work well:
• Regroup: If your business is growing, it’s likely that the way you set up last year is no longer adequate. If you don’t figure it out, not only will you be one of these unfortunate leaders I’m complaining about, but you’ll also be a bottleneck for your team. This is why so many small organisations have a hard time scaling up. They assume they need to start training leaders how to delegate, but that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You might think about resizing the team or clarifying individual responsibilities.
• Reflect: There’s a possibility you’re no longer the right guy/ gal for the job. Your group may have scaled up beyond your means as a leader, or shrunk to the point that you’re expected to be more of a subject matter expert (a job for which, you may no longer be qualified). In both cases, it’s easy to see how you might settle into a role delegating versus doing. Do yourself and your team a favor and get out of the way, find a new role, or re-train yourself to be a more effective individual contributor.
• Address Deficiencies: If part of your organisation is ineffective, while another part takes on every task you put in front of it, don’t delegate the weaker team’s responsibilities to the high performing group. There are so many obvious reasons not to do this. This is classic organisational fat in need of trimming.
I’m sure there are other approaches, but my suggestion is to try something. Delegation has a role in business, but it should happen organically if your team is properly designed. Don’t just assume heavy delegation is a natural part of becoming a more effective leader.
Volume 1 Issue 10