SME - Delegate don't abdicate - Many entrepreneurs know they should delegate some work but have difficulty in deciding what - and to whom Sarah Gracie advises on how to unclutter your desk and motivate your staff.
It is a familiar story for any entrepreneur reaching crisis point: 'I was working from 5am and getting back home after my children had gone to bed - but I still had to examine every letter that left the office, and change something - even if the letter was perfect,' says Paul Bishop, founder of Winning Moves.
Bishop was becoming a control freak. His management training company for senior executives had grown rapidly, passing the £1 million turnover mark within three years.
His diary was crammed, his desk overflowing, and there were never enough hours in the day to complete the many projects he started.
He only realised there was a problem when his employees criticised communication within the company in a staff survey. 'I knew we wouldn't grow further unless I relaxed my grip,' he says. 'I had to learn to empower the people around me.' Bishop acted fast. He forced himself to 'butt out' of group meetings where he was answering questions on behalf of others. He evolved a system whereby top-line goals for the company were set collectively but responsibility for how best to achieve them was delegated to the individuals involved. It worked. Bishop is now getting home to see his kids and he is clearly pleased that his employees are keen to take on more responsibility and improve their skills - and that they appear more motivated.
Many entrepreneurs only pay lip service to the idea of delegation. They exist in a perpetual state of stress and hide behind excuses such as, 'What's the use? I'll only have to do it myself in the end,' or 'I don't have time to explain - it's quicker to do it myself.'
They labour under a misconception. It isn't quicker in the long term and in many cases they are not the only person capable of completing a task. Delegation clears the desk, allowing senior management to concentrate on strategy, and it motivates more junior staff by helping them to explore and develop their potential.
'If you want to be successful in business, your success will be built on the endeavours of others,' says Tony Marchington, founder manager of Oxford Molecular, a service provider to the pharmaceuticals industry which is listed on the Stock Exchange and valued at £50 million. 'You have to employ first-rate people and then give them the freedom to act.'
Marchington is not the first successful entrepreneur to dispense this advice or follow it. Business leaders from John D Rockefeller to Richard Branson have made a point of surrounding themselves with able people and making good use of them.
Coleman du Pont, the US industrialist, early this century was quoted as saying: 'I'm on the lookout for the right kind of men everywhere, anywhere and always. I've found them north and south. I've found them in factories, in banks, in steel mills, even under the ground in coal mines.' Having found them, he would give them lots of responsibility, lots of freedom, and stand well back. 'How, otherwise, could I hold them responsible for results?' he asked, in his building of the DuPont conglomerate that has brought the world everything from nylon to atom bombs.
Unfortunately, theory and practice so often diverge. Most entrepreneurs do not delegate as much as they should and that's often because they just don't know where to start.
Perhaps most importantly, they need to decide what tasks can be delegated, to whom, and how the process should be monitored. An act of delegation phrased, 'Sort this out, would you?' is less likely to succeed than one that includes preliminary consultation, a clear definition of the task and parameters, and a procedure for monitoring its success.
'Delegate, don't abdicate,' is the way management trainer Malcolm VandenBurg of Positive under Pressure puts it. 'You may be able to pass over most of your job to another person but you can't pass over the responsibility for checking it. You cannot delegate accountability.'
The general rule of thumb seems to be to delegate more than you want to, earlier than you need to. Before doing so, determine whether what you are delegating is strategy, process, project, task or activity. The next step is to choose the right person or people to carry out your requirements.
Assess the capabilities, attitudes and skills of your staff and play to their strengths. Don't pass the task to anyone who needs spoon-feeding or hates to be supervised.
If an employee can't do the job, don't give it to them - but, remember, if they don't have the skill, they can always be taught, although they will need more supervision in the initial stages.
Equally, do not delegate just to get rid of the nasty bits of your own job. 'Staff will know exactly what you are doing and they won't be impressed,' says Debra Allcock, who runs management training courses at the Industrial Society. Delegate a task that will enhance an employee's competence and usefulness to the company. This is particularly important where the person is being trained to succeed someone more senior in the company.
An employee won't get it right unless they are briefed properly, as Mrs Beeton was at pains to point out in her seminal work, The Book of Household Management. Although she was writing in the 19th Century, her readers were Victorian ladies running households the size of many of today's small businesses, and what she advocated then remains as true today. 'We would point out an error - and a grave one it is - into which some mistresses fall,' she wrote. 'They do not, when engaging a servant, expressly tell her all the duties which she will be expected to perform. This is an act of omission to be reprehended.'
Beeton's strictures encapsulate a number of important principles for successful delegation: define the task; make it quite clear to the person to whom it is delegated; monitor their performance of it; catch mistakes when they are still small; and offer praise where praise is due.
On monitoring the individual's performance, she suggested: 'When, in a large establishment, a housekeeper is kept, it will be advisable for the mistress to examine her accounts regularly.
Then any increase of expenditure which may be apparent can easily be explained, and the housekeeper will have the satisfaction of knowing whether her efforts to manage her department well and economically have been successful.' Similarly, if employees are to be responsible for their own part of the budget, make this clear and ensure that they are following budgetary procedures that are uniform across the company.
Devising briefs and monitoring procedures are often deterrents to the busy manager. The last thing they feel they have time for is extra paperwork and meetings. But making time can pay dividends, as Michael Staniland and Stephen Jones found out. As senior buyers at Marks & Spencer, they had been steeped in a strict management training regime and they rated delegation highly, having managed stores of up to 200 staff themselves.
In 1990, they left M&S to form their own recruitment business, Focus Management Consultants, but found that learning how to delegate in someone else's business was an entirely different matter from delegating in their own.
'Building a business is like having a child,' says Jones. 'Beforehand, you know exactly how a child should be brought up, but when it's born, you often turn into the parent from hell.'
Jones' first acts of delegation were painful and he compares them to finding a child-minder. 'You don't trust anyone. You're pacing up and down on the other side of the wall wondering what they're saying. And you're on tenterhooks, waiting for the phone to ring, saying you have lost a major client.'
Fortunately, the pressure of continued growth forced Jones and Staniland to come to terms with the problem. They knew, too, that able staff, who had joined because they wanted responsibility within a small dynamic company, would leave if that didn't happen. So the two men asked themselves what goals, projects, activities or tasks could be delegated. They analysed who was best suited to carry them out and what support and level of authority they would need to do so effectively. They devised a monitoring procedure, which included weekly, monthly and annual progress meetings. For the rest of the time, staff were on their own.
Throughout, their guiding principle was to begin by delegating processes that were not business-critical. As Staniland explains: 'You don't want to bet the business on your first act of delegation. It is important that it goes well and is a positive experience for all concerned.'
And a positive experience, it has certainly been, so much so that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. 'We are wondering why our staff are not showing even more initiative and taking on even more projects,' says Staniland, who took no holidays during the first three years of the business but is planning several this year.
This emotional tussle is typical of companies in the process of making the transition from a founder-entrepreneur management structure to one that is based on a wider professional team.
It is understandable that founders, who have often experienced considerable hardship in the early years of the business, will find habits of self-reliance, or reliance on a trusted few, hard to break. But confidence in oneself and others is the trait that seems to distinguish highly successful business leaders.
Those delegated to need sufficient authority to make relevant decisions based on events as they happen. They need to be able to develop their judgment. As du Pont said: 'How do you expect to develop the best in a man if you don't give him the chance to develop his judgment?' At Balaklava, during the Crimean War, the Light Brigade's commander, Lord Cardigan, had no choice but blindly to follow a command from military HQ that had been carelessly worded and which Cardigan misinterpreted. The result: 400 cavalrymen rode to their death, charging down a narrow valley on which the Russian guns were trained, instead of attacking another battery that was leaving the field in a disorderly rout. Cardigan suppressed his initiative and followed an over-restrictive brief, with fatal results.
Allowing people freedom to develop their own judgment also means allowing them the freedom to make mistakes. There is always a balance to be struck between being over-protective and suppressing initiative, and being available with advice and support without interfering too much.
'It's my experience that people get very irritated if you don't trust them,' says Marchington. 'You have to let them get on with it and not watch every detail. When it's done, you turn up the corner of the carpet. If all the detail is in place, you don't need to look any further.'
Even if mistakes occur, good managers are judged as much by their ability to manage them as by their successes. 'Try not to point the finger,' says Allcock at the Industrial Society. 'Look at a failed act of delegation as a learning opportunity. It may well be that the fault lies with your briefing process.'
Or with your communications. Marchington points out: 'The bigger a company becomes, the bigger the volume of information that has to be exchanged to make decisions effective. Delegation goes hand in hand with communication.'
It is more important to find solutions than scapegoats. Robert Heller, in his book Successful Delegation, cites the example of a garden furniture manufacturer which turned a high percentage of customer complaints to good advantage. Instead of berating the customer services manager, who was reporting a higher incidence of complaints, it made further inquiries and found that worn-out machinery in the factory was responsible for product defects. The company was losing more in returned goods than it would cost to repair the machinery.
It repaired the machinery.
Leading by example can inspire trust, loyalty and confidence in your employees. As Mrs Beeton said: 'When a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed.
On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who ... invariably partake somewhat of their mistress's character, will surely become sluggards.'
Measure the success of delegation by clearly quantifiable criteria and recognise and reward individual achievements. Where appropriate, hand over a job formally in a job description if the delegation has been successful.
In that way, entrepreneurs will find they have more time in their diaries for the tasks that matter.
'The secret of a successful life is to spend your time up to the age of 30 learning how to do something, your time to 40 doing it, and the time after that managing other people who do it,' says Marchington. He should know.
GOOD DELEGATION GUIDE
Do delegate more than you want to, and earlier than you need to
Don't delegate your core competences or clients until your staff are properly briefed and trained
Do clarify the nature of the task and the level of budgetary and other responsibilities
Don't delegate statutory responsibility or discipline
Do tell others what has been delegated and to whom, to ensure staff collaboration
Don't abdicate responsibility for a goal or task once it has been delegated or over-control or ignore a function
Do delegate to develop the skills and competence of core staff
Don't employ people who need to be spoon-fed or hate supervision
Do show faith in and support the one delegated to, even if others don't
Don't delegate carelessly or inappropriately
Do change your staff if you can't delegate to them
Don't assume every employee can accept the same level of responsibility
Do avoid a culture of blame when things go wrong
Don't delegate verbally until you have a good understanding of your staff
Do measure the success of the delegation by quantifiable criteria
Don't delegate the unpleasant parts of your own job
Do give praise for work well done.