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Delegating Authority Amid Growth: Dos and Don’ts

on Wednesday, 02.05.2016

Rapid growth in a company is welcome. Still, it brings along two crucial challenges that, if mishandled, can overwhelm the company’s key executives. Those two challenges are hiring and delegating.

Most growing companies are constantly hiring staff and reassigning roles. Hiring needs to be planned and executed methodically. I am aware of numerous bad hiring processes and hires, with devastating results. Many resources outline the most appropriate ways to recruit and hire. The best book I have read on the topic is You’re Not the Person I Hired. The authors highlight all-too-common mistakes made during the hiring process and advise on how to reduce the risk of a poor hire. If you read only one book on growing companies’ hiring strategies, this should be it.

The real test of whether the hired person was appropriate for the role occurs once the individual is in place and responsibilities are delegated to him or her. In this article, I will discuss two types of delegation: vertical delegation and horizontal delegation. Each carries distinct challenges.

Vertical Delegation
Vertical delegation typically results from a company’s growing and its staff being stretched to the point of becoming overwhelmed. The company’s veteran staff members knows how to perform certain tasks but require additional hands – either new hires or delegating to other veteran employees. Most literature on delegation focuses on this delegation, which is vertical: It is done by supervisors to subordinates in a hierarchical relationship. In The One Minute Manager, co-author Kenneth Blanchard discusses the situational-leadership model. It focuses on ways a supervisor delegates great quantities of work to a subordinate. The process involves the supervisor’s assessing specific responsibilities and his/her current capability and aptitude to undertake them; alongside that, the supervisor (a) assesses the subordinate’s ability to assume some of that responsibility, and (b) uses appropriate amounts of direction and support to achieve the outcome and build the delegate’s confidence over time.

Horizontal Delegation
Horizontal delegation is a wholly different challenge. It involves delegation that occurs when the manager lacks key experience, doesn’t know how something should be done and doesn’t fully understand the details required to fulfill the responsibility. This is called horizontal delegation because the supervisor is somewhat on par with the individual and needs to put more trust in the individual than in vertical delegation. In this case, detailed directing and tight supervision is not really workable because the manager really does not enough of an understanding of how the task is to be performed. This situation commonly occurs in growing companies when business leaders understand that, to keep the company on a healthy growth path, an activity needs to be done either qualitatively better or an activity new to the company needs to be performed. Many approaches outlined in the situational-leadership model cannot apply directly to horizontal delegation.

In my experience, two of the most common pitfalls of poor horizontal delegation include:

• Where a task is delegated but the leader still micromanages the person to whom the task was delegated. This goes against the intent of delegation, does not relieve the leader’s burden and does not let the other person use his/her experience and knowledge to own the new responsibility.
• Where the leader gives total independence to the colleague, and totally removes the burden of thinking about the delegated responsibility. This could lead to a lack of coordination between the leader and the colleague. Such internal misalignment that occurs during the company’s active growth can create a situation where the delegate does not fully understand the context of their work and spends time and resources doing something that is not productive. A common occurrence is that the delegate assumes that the way they did something at another company should be copied and done exactly the same way at their current company.

Both pitfalls are cause for concern. Effort needs to be put into achieving a middle ground of providing clear context of the role, combined with a level of freedom. Below are listed some of my guidelines for effective horizontal delegation:

Plan for Success
• Determine if the person is both qualified and competent. If not, pivot and get the responsibility and role fulfilled some another way; otherwise, it has a low probability of success. You may want to provide an opportunity for an internal candidate to stretch, but do not set stretch expectations too high.
• Give 100 percent of the responsibility to one person and make sure that he/she knows it. There might be a tendency for some delegates to redelegate to others, which might be okay, or to delegate back, which is not okay.

Manage Along the Way, but do not Micromanage
• Outline how the person’s new responsibilities will help the company succeed – and the downside of not getting it right. The leader needs to abandon the supervisory role in favor of an evaluating role.
• Clarify the result being sought, put it in writing and get double and triple confirmation that this is understood. However, do not direct the person how to attain the goal, unless asked.
• Set a deadline for what is delegated and write it down.

• The leader might be the primary cause of a poor delegation outcome. If the leader has not mastered horizontal delegation skills, it is not reasonable to blame others. Unfortunately, not spending time to provide adequate context and intent is all too common and the leader needs an open mind to recognize his/her own failing and be willing to take the blame for poor horizontal delegation, and rectify it.
• Set communication intervals for check-ins: initially often, then much less often.
• Not everyone is a peak performer the first time assigned to do something. Accept the fact that even well-qualified, competent people do not get it exactly right, especially the first time in a new environment. Even experienced people have room to develop and build self-confidence. Feedback should be given with the goal of building people up, not knocking them down.

Especially in a growing company, horizontal delegation is necessary to expand the range of activities and acquire talent to take responsibility to fill those roles. Even if done with the best of intentions, it can backfire. Though necessary, do not view delegation as simply a quick fix to unburden a business leader and then have someone else to blame if results are disappointing. Whether referring to vertical delegation or horizontal delegation, business managers and leaders should expect to:
• evaluate the delegate’s competence before delegating the responsibility
• clearly communicate the desired outcome and its impact on the company
• establish evaluation criteria
• understand that success or failure depends on a two-way relationship of mutual respect and trust.