“The surest way for an executive to kill himself is to refuse to learn how, and when, and to whom to delegate work,” said James Cash Penney, founder of the J.C. Penney retail chain.

When you grow, you have to know when to let go.  You have to know when to delegate down so you can rise up.  The inability to delegate properly is the main reason that executives fail.  I’ve learned that people will seldom let you down if they understand that your destiny is in their hands, and vice versa.

Delegating is a key management skill.  But managers often mistake delegation for passing off work.  Failing to effectively delegate wastes your time as well as the company’s time and resources.

Personal experience starting and running Mackay Envelope Company, now MackayMitchell Envelope Company, taught me this.  There came a day when we had grown to the point where I had to hire a person under me to run the company day to day, while I scanned the horizon, studying our industry and the company’s future direction.

The reason?  You don’t want to be micro-managing and end up macro-mangling.  The captain’s place is on the bridge and not knee deep in the bilge.  As the person steering an enterprise, you keep your head high and your vision unobstructed so you can study the big responsibilities, while maintaining authority and control.  Many aspects of this art can’t be taught.  Pulling it off successfully can’t be analyzed or quantified.  But it can be qualified.  If you don’t get quality people, you’re doomed.

Robert Townsend in his book, Further Up the Organization, wrote:  “Leaders delegate whole important jobs.  Non-leaders make all final decisions themselves.”

Learning to delegate often requires a detour outside your comfort zone.  How do you start delegating successfully?

  • Don’t look for perfection.  Your objective is to get the job done, not create a masterpiece.  Establish a standard of quality and a fair timeframe for reaching it.  Once you establish the expectations, let your staff decide how to carry out the project.
  • Provide complete job instructions.  Make sure your employee has all the information needed to complete the job.  Confirm that he/she understands – and accepts – the requirements.
  • Stop believing you’re the only one who can do the job properly.  Just because an employee does things differently, doesn’t mean they won’t do the job right or as well.  If you establish expectations of the end goal and the standards to follow, then methodology shouldn’t be an issue.  An important and often overlooked part of delegation is that it helps develop employees for advancement and creates a better work environment.
  • Focus on teaching skills.  Delegating doesn’t mean passing off work you don’t enjoy, but letting your employees stretch their skills and judgment.  As you hand over greater responsibility, it’s important to understand that learning new skills sometimes includes making mistakes.  Don’t punish employees who make a good faith effort to do things right.
  • Check on progress.  Let the employee do the work, but check in periodically on progress.  Don’t look over employees’ shoulders or watch their every move.  When you outline the expectations in the beginning, make sure you build in checkpoints for follow up.
  • Say thank you to the people who have accepted the responsibility.  Make sure employees know that their efforts are recognized and appreciated.

A new hotel employee was asked to clean the elevators and report back to the supervisor when the task was completed.  When the employee failed to appear at the end of the day the supervisor assumed that like many others, he had simply not liked the job and left.  But then after four days the supervisor bumped into the new employee.  He was cleaning in one of the elevators.

“You surely haven’t been cleaning these elevators for four days, have you?” asked the supervisor, accusingly.

“Yes sir,” said the employee.  “This is a big job, and I’ve not finished yet.  Do you realize there are over forty of them, two on each floor, and sometimes they are not even there.”
Mackay’s Moral:  The most successful managers aim at making themselves unnecessary to their staff.  

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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