Delegation is an art; the more deftly you handle it, the better your team will operate. That's the going theory, anyway -- but is a dependency on delegation actually preventing you from building the strongest team possible?
Delegating helps clear things off leaders' plates. By offloading less nuanced tasks, you make room for more critical items. The problem, however, is that micromanagement can creep into your delegating. If you tell your team what to do, not where to go, you'll never empower them to develop their own judgment and take ownership.
Too many overwhelmed leaders make the mistake of offering step-by-step instructions to team members to "be done." That sends an unconscious message that you don't trust employees to develop their own methods to get results. Over time, they'll fail to do anything without your approval.
Direct, don't delegate.
Directing isn't synonymous with commanding; it means giving people a goal to pursue. Think of it this way: Would you rather have a team of critical thinkers who understand what you're trying to build or a team of builders who follow a strict blueprint? I once worked with a group of employees who waited for me to signal their every move, and it ended up saving me no time at all.
The latter isn't as effective. This is reflected in studies of schoolchildren: American students ranked 27th out of 34 countries in a 2012 OECD study in math. Their biggest struggle: questions requiring real-world applications. They succeeded with questions that required them to use memorized equations, but they grappled with questions asking them to think critically.
Companies that want to grow fast have to take another tack. Spend time thinking about the direction you want to move in. Will you know "good" when you see it? What about "great"? How can you change the status quo or do something unexpected?
Share this direction with your teammates; they'll be able to think strategically and develop their own approach. Task them with finding ways to test their ideas. If they get stuck, keep an open door to walk them through the critical-thinking process. Ask questions to get them to see how they can reach their goal. People who pave the path they're walking are more committed to following through.
Encourage employees to "figure it out."
The more successful your teammates are at tackling complex problems, the stronger they'll feel -- and your performance will reflect this. I spoke with Mark Gallagher, founder and CEO of GForce Life Sciences, No. 8 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list, about helping employees think for themselves.
"We call it the figure-it-out factor," Gallagher said. His team will get requests for crazy orders -- purple squirrels, he calls them -- looking for a skill set the team hasn't even heard of. But he says the staff on rotation view it as a problem-solving challenge: "They're very technologically savvy, unlike me," he said. "...Everyone will be scratching their head, going, 'What is that?' And then we just go, 'Figure it out; go figure it out!' And then they do: They go figure it out."
Despite some being recent graduates, these employees wrangle unknowns because they're empowered to find a way forward. There's no "right" answer; they can make mistakes on their way to success.
Develop employees who are "all in."
When your employees show up with everything they have, you get to see the magic of their thinking. I talked about developing employees who are "all in" with Justin Bakes, the co-founder and CEO of Forward Financing, which provides small business owners with financial access to expand their businesses and was No. 404 on the 2018 Inc. 5000 list.
Bakes said leaders want employees who look to make an impact with their work. "If they don't want to be there, if they don't want to run to work, you're getting 80, 90 percent out of them right there," Bakes said. "We need more than 100 percent, and you get that only when people will want to be there."
Bakes' leadership team hires people who are passionate, then creates an environment that helps the company get 120 percent of their effort. One way he does this is by breaking down company goals and tying each role to them. "From the front desk to the most specialized roles, the team is focused on specific goals that most significantly impact the business," he said. That empowers team members: They know the goals and the numbers attached and can raise issues impeding them from reaching those goals.
Delegation sounds efficient, and it is -- in the short term. If you want a team that can propel your company over the long term, invest in critical thinking. By giving team members a direction and letting them determine the best way to get there, you both gain independence -- and likely a much better way of doing things.