Delegation: Some Common Mistakes

Once again this week, that crucial management skill rears its ugly head in several conversations I’ve had with people looking to grow their business. I’m talking of course about delegation ...

One of the earliest pieces of the management literature I was introduced to was the classic Harvard Business Review article by William Oncken Jr. and Donald L Wass. First published in Nov-Dec 1974 and has unsurprisingly been one of their most popular re-prints ever since.

"Management Time: Who's got the Monkey? HBR Nov-Dec 1999!"

It should be mandatory reading for every business owner before they hire their first staff. Then they should re-read it when taking that next crucial step of hiring their first managers.

Before you get engrossed in reading (or re-reading) it, here are some other common issues that pop up when I'm coaching business owners who are grappling with effectively handing over the authority for particular functions, tasks and decisions in their business.

It's quicker to do it myself

Well, of course it is, at least at first. However, you weren't born being able to do these tasks. Chances are you were slower at doing it when you started and made more mistakes. What you really mean is that you haven't the patience or skills to teach this person how to do it. Could you delegate that task too? Do you need to improve your training/coaching skills?

However, it may be that the person just doesn't have the aptitude or motivation to take this one. Was it what you hired them to do? Is the problem really your recruitment and/or promotion process? How are you supporting and rewarding them?

They don't do it the way I do

This one needs some further questioning too. What's different about the way they do it? Does it matter when they get the same results? If it affects other processes in the business do they have the authority and status to gain support from others to do it differently?

It may be that you have to swallow your pride and recognise that others can have ideas too! Your role now is to support that new way of working. Are your standard systems and processes documented should this new way of doing things be included?

If you want something done give it to a busy person

A favourite saying for the faint-hearted leader. It may be true that 'Jenny in accounts' could do it, but it's equally possible that 'Jenny in accounts' is already really busy, but can't say no to the boss. Have you assessed her current situation? Are you really practising an equally relevant saying, of 'flogging a willing horse' and using it as a way out of training or motivating others to be as good as Jenny?

The danger is you overload Jenny until she starts to fail and then it's back on your desk again along with the rest of Jenny's workload.


My favourite example of this comes from my husband talking about his boss who ran a small architectural business. He gives him a drawing to complete, then continuously lean over his shoulder, takes the mouse out of his hand and starts drawing.

All without a word being spoken. Then he'd walk away only to come back and repeat in about 10 minutes. The message here is if you delegate then delegate. If you want changes then discuss and agree. My husband left within the month.

Abdication is not delegation

The opposite of micromanagement is to abdicate completely. "I've given it to Dave so I no longer need to think about it. It's his responsibility, not mine." Not true, as the boss, you can't delegate the ultimate responsibility.

For setting the task, it's boundaries, reporting and support mechanisms. As well as formal support pay attention to what I call 'observation from a distance'. Get tuned into your team so that you pick up clues where the stresses are and who may need your intervention.

The biggest example I've witnessed of this is a Change Consultant brought in to introduce efficiencies in a production line and could not get the support of the Finance department and suddenly couldn't get past the CEO's PA to talk to him about it.

"What should I do instead?"

This question was put to me by a leader who had successfully introduced an effective management team and delegated the running of the business to that team. In a lot of cases, it is the question that underlies all the above. You've freed up your time now, what do you do with it? If the team no longer needs you why are you there?

Some entrepreneurs choose to sell up and move on. They recognise that they've done the bit they enjoy. Others become dysfunctional and engage in what I call 'initiativitis'. They're constantly bringing in the latest bright shiny thing that they read or hear about and distract their team from the core business.

However, for many, after congratulating themselves with a well deserved holiday then their journey moves from being the doer in the business to becoming the full-time leader.

My tips for you is from the aforementioned article: see how many monkeys you have on your back. Then start to notice if you slip into any of the behaviours outlined above!

Addressing them will help you move towards becoming the vehicle to realising your business's true potential: Your vision. Now, making that transition is a subject for a whole blog post in itself.

If you'd like to learn more about referral marketing then do give me a call on 07970 638857 and let's have a chat and see how I can help you.