Wednesday, March 4, 2020
Someone fortunate enough to be lower on their leadership curve asked me for some advice recently.
“Make your job redundant,” I replied.
They looked confused, but I reiterated that unless they’re prepared to delegate tasks and hand responsibility to other people, they’ll never be able to grow as a company or person. Think about it: a good leader needs to run a business or get the business to run itself. How can that happen if the business is running the leader, or putting so much pressure on their time that they can’t come up for air?
There are different reasons that a leader or owner fails to delegate but often it is associated with a fear of investment once a company starts to experience its first growing pains. Every time a business grows, costs increase, and the purse strings get loosened. At first, it feels like the balance is wrong, as though too much is being pumped in and not enough coming out. However, providing that the money is there (cash is king) and the business can sustain the investment, it’s vital that a company can facilitate delegation.
I won’t dispute that it takes nerve and a steady hand because to rent or acquire property and put a team in place takes significant risk. Inevitably, when a new office or department opens up, the costs outweigh the income. And there isn’t really a science as to how long it takes for red to turn into black. I wish there was a formula relating to the size of building, market, number of personnel, value of core products, etc. but there isn’t. It’s a case of looking for trends and volume of leads. As long as the signs point to a profitable entity in the near future, there’s no need to panic.
Withholding control is far more costly that investment. The owner / manager / CEO becomes overburdened and stressed, which leads to poor decisions. Good people leave because they aren’t challenged with new responsibilities. Businesses stagnate because nobody is looking to the next opportunities and challenges. It becomes a reactive not proactive culture. Everything is about dealing with requests and getting to the bottom of an overflowing inbox or list of telephone messages. A leader must steer a company not be dragged behind it.
Importantly, just because an office is receiving lots of enquiries and everyone is running around like headless chickens, it doesn’t mean business is good. Don’t be a busy fool. If a company is growing at 5% annually and ticking over with a 25% profit margin, might it be possible to achieve 20% growth and improve the margin to a more favourable 40%? Could 20% of the customer base be cut away because it’s creating more problems than profit? Is there a niche, sector, region, product, service or something else out there that’s not being explored because everyone, especially the leader, is too busy… being busy?
The other piece of guidance I shared with my aforementioned associate was that nothing stays the same for very long, so change and delegation have got to be constants. It’s never enough to clear your desk, wait for it to fill up, clear it, and repeat the cycle. If the desk is filling up it’s a good sign that delegation has gone badly and needs to be revisited. In that sense, it’s an easy programme to measure.
The more a leader delegates, the faster growth will come and the better at delegating they have to be. But it’s got to be done astutely. Delegation isn’t about setting telephone and email diversions without proper structure. It’s not about stretching the number two, three and four within a company. It’s got to be a cultural programme that means capacity is always spare to target growth. It should never be said at any company that they can’t take an opportunity because they’re too busy, albeit within reason.
Leadership isn’t for everyone
I don’t want to get side-tracked, but I do want to stress the importance of not confusing delegation or promotion to senior positions with a rewards or punishment programme. It is short-sighted to delegate to a troublesome member of staff all of the high maintenance customers. Equally, a person who has efficiently served in a specific role might not be well suited to another. The person who has sold the most slings, for example, may not make the best leader of the sling department. The top shackle salesperson might not have the tools to supervise a new starter. In fact, many leadership and sales skills are at odds with each other.
Mistakes are key to progress
One thing anyone who learns to delegate will have to accept is that people have their own methodologies and have to make mistakes in order to progress. Our de facto headquarters here in Pyle, Wales is a good case study. The team here has made many mistakes and seen a number of false dawns over the years. It would be unreasonable therefore to expect others to proceed without placing a step wrong. There’s a balance to strike. You wouldn’t tell a friend to put one foot in front of the other on a hike along a coastal path, but you would put your arm out to prevent them taking a turn that led off a cliff.
Where possible, leave the person who has been given the delegated task to master it. As I’ve blogged about before, my depot managers must take responsibility for overseeing their operations as though they were their own businesses. That doesn’t mean they can abandon protocol and procedures. We all follow the same high standards and provide the same portfolio of products. The testing equipment is the same and a steel industry customer in Wales can expect the same customer experience as a decision maker on a super sewer site in London.
Mind the step
A threshold a business owner must look out for is when a firm grows beyond a family-owned entity where one person makes all the decisions, to a larger company that has to have clearer reporting lines and delegation even of top-level assignments.
It’s good practice for business owners to maintain regular contact with each and every member of staff but there comes a point in time when that isn’t viable anymore. With, say, 100 people all having their own challenges, ambitions, experiences and questions, it makes more sense for them each to have a point of contact that can devote time and resources to their requirements. What’s the point of one exhausted CEO spending five minutes a month on the phone to everyone? He or she won’t remember everything they’re being told, and it’ll result in staff thinking they’re being ignored. Again, delegation is the key.
I constantly have to remind myself about the importance of delegation. We’ve got fabulous teams and a number of functioning, profitable depots that are respectable profit centres in their own right. But I often get to the end of a day or week and reflect on where I lost my way. I am frequently too hands-on during a project or insistent that too many people report directly to me on matters that prevent me from giving quality leadership and feedback to any.
I have to challenge my decisions sometimes because I’ve invested the company’s money into putting the best people in strategically placed facilities, only to sometimes retain control where delegation would have been the better option.
A rule of thumb I use is that small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should be capable of doubling in size.
If you’ve just turned white at the very thought of it, maybe you need to look at delegation.