Business 101: Effective delegation - SNEWS

Business 101: Effective delegation

Delegation. It sounds simple and most of us assume we have a good understanding of what it means, but it's probably one of the most misunderstood terms used in business.
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Delegation. It sounds simple and most of us assume we have a good understanding of what it means, but it's probably one of the most misunderstood terms used in business.

Let's look at two examples to further delve into the world of managing effective delegation:

1. "Hey, man, can you please take the trash out to the dumpster?"

2. "Hey, man, I'd like you to manage the sale we're having next month."

These two couldn't be more different and that's obvious to all of us. In the first instance where we asked our delegate, Mr. Hayman (aka "Hey, man…), to take out the trash, we aren't faced with any of the issues that we would likely be considering by delegating more important projects:

1. The risk is low to nil. If Hayman dumps the trash on the ground next to the dumpster, it will be a mess, the neighbors may complain and we'll not be pleased, but our business will survive.

2. The opportunities for development for Hayman are negligible, unless his life's goal is to become keeper of trash.

3. Not much training is involved.

4. No one else in the organization needs to be aware of Hayman's task.

5. We'd have to assume we don't need to de-brief Hayman upon completion of dumpster duty.

Technically, asking him to take out the trash is delegation, but it falls more under the heading of "asking a guy to do something."

However, asking Mr. Hayman to manage next month's sales meeting is much more involved and offers us the chance to break down the delegation of the responsibility for running our upcoming sale, clearly a critical project.

Delegation is essential to management. Why?


1. No matter how good we are as managers, our responsibilities will always exceed our personal ability to perform every task.

2. As we grow and scale our businesses, this becomes more critical.

3. Under-delegation produces stress on us, burnout, inefficiency and dependency. We've all seen organizations where the team may be experienced and capable, but the leader can't let go, so the team never develops. Any effective and good business needs a team to develop, otherwise it atrophies and dies. If indeed we are as smart as we think, should we personally be managing the sale, or instead, looking to the future of our business?

What should we delegate?

1. Tasks or projects that will increase skills, experience, confidence, understanding and job satisfaction.

2. Routine tasks you no longer need to manage yourself.

3. Lower priority tasks you no longer have time for.

4. Problems: Others may have a better idea for solutions.

5. Authority, never responsibility. As the leader, we always remain responsible. Look no further than today's news to see that we can all use a large dose of this thinking in our civic life.

When should we delegate?

1. When we recognize an opportunity for staff development. The best managers in the business world are very comfortable having people beneath them who are brighter and more skilled at their areas of responsibility. We've heard expressed the "AA/BC" theory of management and delegation: "A managers will enlist A delegates because they are confident of their own value and they know the organization will prosper. B managers will enlist C delegates out of fear of competition or of being replaced."

2. When we are growing our operations.

3. When we find ourselves doing things that don't leverage our talents.

4. When we need to be absent.

5. During very busy times.

6. In emergencies.

Why do we avoid delegation?

1. Loss of control. Every one of us, despite what we say, is a control freak. We have to be. Business is about control. We suggest that it is possible to delegate and still retain control.

2. Ego. Fear of having Hayman perform better than we could and make us look bad. You'll have to work on this one with your shrink.

3. Lack of faith in our staff's abilities. If this is real, then get a new staff. If not, go back to Dr. Freud.

4. Not enough staff depth.

5. Getting "burned" in the past. Being confused that the problem was delegation itself versus how we executed it.

6. Procrastination, preference, laziness. This will ultimately limit the size and success of your business.

These simple steps will help you delegate effectively:



1. Pinpoint and scope the project. Goals, timelines, desired results.

2. Clearly define the limits and duration of the responsibility you are delegating. "Hayman, I want you to run the sale from beginning to end: Staffing, pricing, layout, opening and closing the store, customer problems, merchandise flow, clean-up and a final de-brief. Once the sale is over, you will return to your regular duties."

3. Choose a delegate. This is an essential decision.Choose based upon the urgency and risk tolerance of the project. Lower risk tasks can be accomplished by less-skilled staff and are good opportunities for growth. "What if this is not done perfectly?" "Will I be okay?" Critical projects with little room for error should go to the best person you have.

4. Make the assignment.

a. Explain the goals, the specifics of the outcome you want, timeline, background, and how the project fits into the overall business. Gaze deeply into your delegate's eyes to make sure you have buy-in and comprehension.

b. Provide details and facts. Be specific: "I want A, B and C exactly this way, but the rest is up to you."

c. Specify the other staff your delegate will need to interface with and in what capacity.

d. Explain this arrangement with those other team members. If you want Hayman to fail, we can assure you skipping this step will do just that. Hayman will have a hell of a time getting support from peers if they perceive him as being uppity.

e. Assure Hayman of your support. "Hayman, I picked you because you are the best person for this job and I have supreme confidence in you."

f. Let Hayman know you are available to help him make decisions or solve problems, so he's not flapping in the breeze.

g. Lay out the incentives that will motivate Hayman:

 i. Personal growth.

ii. Value to the company.

iii. Challenge.

iv. Development of weaker skills.

v. Compensation or promotion.

h. Choose your method of delegation.

 i. Detailed. Use this when the task is complex or where you have very specific standards or desired outcomes or the task is unfamiliar.

ii. Collaborative. Use this when you have capable staff, where the group is unsure of the means to the goal, and where time allows discussion and brainstorming.

iii. End result. Highly experienced staff can take over when they've done the task before and they know the details better than you.


5. Monitor progress. Again, you cannot delegate your ultimate responsibility. The quintessential management delusion: "That knucklehead really fouled this up. I had no idea what was going on." Sound familiar? If you had no idea that "knucklehead" was not performing as hoped or expected, the fault lies squarely at your feet…no way around that one. To assure that becomes a less likely outcome:

a. Build a graphic depiction of the project. Use a Gantt chart or PERT diagram. Use a calendar. Go back and read Dr. Deming on project management. The best ideas from the 1950s are still very much in use today.

b. Use progress reports: Written, verbal, something that keeps you apprised of the status of your project.

c. Meet with your delegate or his/her team at crucial junctures in the operation.

d. Observe like a spy…but DO NOT micromanage.

e. Keep memos, notes, copies of communications, lists.

6. Perform a final review. Skipping this step is common. In the midst of a frenetic schedule, it becomes too easy to think we don't have time. Without a wrap-up of the results of the project, Hayman will have no idea if he did well, he won't develop and, while you may have gotten the job done, you missed out on the most important benefit. Without a review and critique of his project, Hayman will assume you don't know or care what's going on in your business.

a. Use this review to praise Hayman for a job well done.

b. Or, give much-needed feedback about why Hayman went haywire. Be specific about what he needs to improve in his skills.

c. Capture this review for future projects. Most of our projects recur.

When delegation fails or falters

1. Avoid premature rescue. Unless your business is about to go "Splat," step back, breathe and consider letting Hayman figure it out with a little coaching. Is this a learning opportunity? Resorting to, "I guess I'll just have to do this myself" is a knee-jerk reaction that may not be required and one that assuredly will put you right back to square one.

2. Choose a course of action that will maximize both the project's success and the growth and self-confidence of your team.

3. Decide exactly how far you'll let the situation go.

4. Offer suggestions. Recognize what is working.

5. Take on the most difficult aspects yourself.

6. Re-set goals, re-assign key aspects.

7. Minimize the damage.

8. Take over only as a last resort.


Avoid dependency

1. Many people don't want to have responsibility or accountability.

2. When problems arise, hand back the problem. "Hayman, what do you think we should do? I know what to do, but I'm confidant you can figure this out."

3. Don't give answers, ask good questions.


Delegate upward

Unless you are the owner or CEO, likely you have someone above you and when a major decision is faced or when a project takes an unexpected turn, you will need to push a decision "upstairs." Don't hesitate to do this.

1. If the situation exceeds the authority you were given, be clear about that and ask for guidance or expanded authority.

2. If your peers or the departments you need support from are lagging, you may need re-direction from a "higher power."

3. If expenses look like they will exceed budgets, solicit a sign-off for the cost over-run.

4. If you foresee falling short of the original goals of the project, ring the bell!

5. If your project was a whopping success, do your own PR and report your results in detail.


As a gentle reminder, the quickest way to lose the confidence of your superiors, those you would be delegating upward to, is to over-delegate upward simply because you want decisions you can and should be making yourself validated as the correct ones. Remember, authority was delegated to you so those above you could take a few breadcrumbs off their own plate. Let common sense and your own good judgment be the guiding forces here.

Years ago, we were offered this simple but powerful lesson from one of our mentors: "Somebody here needs to start acting like an owner!" This challenge has never left us and has been a guiding principle ever since.

Now, we don't want our staff running amok and signing a lease on a new store without us or selling our business to Rudy down the street, but the real equity in our companies is human: creativity, commitment and confidence.

Taking the time to learn and use these simple and intuitive steps to effective delegation will build strength and security in our teams, allowing us to grow and prosper.


This article is part of a new Business 101 Training series for store management and owners, produced by SNEWS® and authored by Geoff O'Keeffe and Michael Hodgson. Geoff O'Keeffe has held retail senior management positions at Granite Stairway Mountaineering, Adventure 16, Patagonia and PlanetOutdoors.com, as well as having served as president of Lowe Alpine Systems USA and Mountainsmith. He is currently the president of Slumberjack, and lives in the mountains above Boulder, Colo., where he is a fourth-generation resident. SNEWS® co-owner and president Michael Hodgson, in a former life, was a manager for five years with Adventure 16 and the general manager overseeing a team of buyers and store managers for three years at Western Mountaineering. In those roles, he learned the immense value of skilled, well-trained, and very nimble teams to achieve business success.

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