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November 23, 2017

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Bruce Spotleson: Effective delegation is key to management

There’s a management lesson in the Osama Bin Laden mission.

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Bruce Spotleson

VEGAS INC coverage

People often say that business is war, and in recent years, there have been plenty of popular books and articles playing to this analogy.

The premise for most is that some basic military processes aren’t that different from business operations. Generals strategize, hatch a plan, and then give the orders to implement it. From there, the next level of officers announces team assignments.

In a well-managed military operation—the recent Bin Laden mission in Pakistan probably serving as an example—all the people in the field know their role and the part it plays in the overall mission. They know what is expected of them and when.

But in civilian life, many business leaders find the process doesn’t always go so smoothly. It may be relatively easy to strategize, but something always seems to go wrong in implementation, hindering success.

This breakdown represents a common organizational problem, and one of the concerns most frequently expressed by newer managers. They feel that they ask, assign and delegate repeatedly, but nothing seems to happen, and assignments don’t get completed.

What results is not good for anyone’s job security: The manager isn’t getting the job done and doesn’t even know why. Soon, top management may begin to ask why things aren’t moving forward, and when that happens in today’s world, a change in leadership may be in the wind.

Managers are workers who accomplish predetermined objectives through other workers—that is, by delegating. So from a long-term career perspective, it would seem important to learn how to effectively delegate. And, despite the tendency to place blame elsewhere, it is the manager who must do the learning.

When you delegate, you’re basically entrusting a subordinate with a specific task. To be effective, a manager must recognize that this is not a loose process, but actually sort of formal, even similar to the process used with a contract. There are terms and conditions, expectations and schedules, and as with any contract, two parties must agree on a few things.

To begin, the manager and subordinate must acknowledge what specifically is being assigned. This sounds pretty basic, but it’s startling how many important assignments are handed out during hallway conversations, with the details forgotten by the time both parties get back to their respective desks.

Once the setting is right, the manager and subordinate must first agree on what exactly it is that’s being requested, avoiding ambiguous or vague terms. Clarity is critical, and it can help to have the subordinate reflect back what he or she thinks the assignment is.

Next, the subordinate must be advised of the specific results management is seeking. Does the assigning manager want a statistical analysis or a recommendation based on it? And should it be provided confidentially in a Word document or presented publicly in a PowerPoint?

Once both parties understand the scope and the ultimate goal, a schedule or timeline must be developed. In today’s business world, we all seem to want everything done right now. But unless the manager is removing other duties and interruptions from the subordinate’s daily tasks, he or she must try to be realistic as to when an assignment can be completed.

Next, it’s time to determine whether any special authority is needed to carry out the assignment, especially if the subordinate is being asked to do something that’s not a regular part of the job.

It may be that the manager has to grant temporary privileges, or tell the accounting department about the assignment, or write a memo authorizing access to normally confidential data. When such details and follow-through are lacking, delays are inevitable.

It’s essential for the delegating manager and subordinate to have a clear understanding as to how success will be measured. Without this, there can be little control, and feedback will not have nearly as much meaning.

Finally, the superior and subordinate must agree to accept his or her part of the “contract” and to live up to it.

Even after an assignment is delegated, the manager retains the responsibility to check on progress, which helps avoid awkward surprises later on. Memos are a good way to remind, inform or clarify, and if any confusion arises, it may be best to put things in writing.

In wartime or in business, assignments get carried out properly when leaders practice effective delegation. It’s likely that all the folks involved in the successful effort to take out Osama Bin Laden understood the process.

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