“Nobody is going to delegate a lot of power to a secretary that they can’t control.”
– Michael Bloomberg
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Author’s note: the characters mentioned in this post have been modified.
My colorful working experience has shown me the one quality that separates good managers from outstanding leaders: the ability to delegate.
Just like any other skill, delegation could be learned, developed, mastered, and as the millenials would say it: SLAYED…! And just like any other skill, some execute it with grace and confidence while for others it’s just plain painful, ending up to be totally disastrous for both the delegate and the principal.
As the Delegate
My experience as a delegate is as rich as my professional history. Of course, I benefitted so much from working with excellent supervisors; but I also learned a lot from those who were (still are?) wanting an open mind.
Or the un-delegate?
This is a tale that depicts the exact opposite of delegation… Before landing on my dream job, I did a stopover in a department where I never really thought I’d work in. During one period I was assigned to collaborate with Michael, a person who was supposed to bring in the much-awaited change in one of the department’s operations. Unfortunately, the promised changes did not include a more equitable distribution of responsibilities. Michael amassed the more important and stimulating tasks for himself while leaving me with the more mechanical ones. Just imagine what was left for the poor intern to do…
As it would not be fair for the readers to bear with the details of this experience, let me instead go back to Michael Bloomberg’s quotation: “Nobody is going to delegate a lot of power to a secretary that they can’t control.” For the first time since I started blogging, I posted a quotation because I do not agree with it. I believe that the phrases “to delegate” and “can control” cannot really be seen in the same sentence (it pained me as much as a wrong grammar does). In my opinion, if one distributes responsibility but still wants to be in control then that’s not delegating- that’s commanding.
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Sadly, this was what happened to me with my Michael: from him I simply received orders but not instructions. Obviously the produced output was far from excellent. My work drew disapproval of course, but I did not get any constructive criticism from him either. These events only fed the idea that I was not to be trusted with that kind of work. It even came to the point where my work ethics which I so valued and upheld were questioned behind my back. Mistrust, grudge and constant displeasure hung over the department for a long time. True, the job was getting done; but kindness, empathy and all traces of goodness were slowly being gnawed by exhaustion and anxiety. Michael ended up in the hospital and soon after he came back, I left.
Perhaps the reader has already sensed it, but I was not really confident about myself and the way I was doing the job. So aside from the tangible facts supporting the theory that I don’t work well, if you add my very visible insecurities and low self-esteem, you’d just wonder how I got hired. Now the most important lesson I learned here is I should have been more confident. I should have been more confident that I knew what I was doing and I should have been more confident to contend the criticisms– at least those that were directed at my qualifications, my need to be properly trained and my capacity to take on bigger responsibilities. At the end of the day, one can only control one’s own decisions. If one declines to even do that, well, there’s no one else to be blamed right?
Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken the time to tell Michael that delegation is not just a tool to help teams get the job done. The interactions shared in the process of delegation allow for relationships to be built and for the team to be strengthened. It’s true that delegating is more tiring than giving orders: while the principal has to invest time developing the delegate, the latter has to learn, practice and DELIVER.
It might be obvious why it would seem more attractive to simply give orders. But I’ve seen strong and united teams, and the one thing they have in common is that their leaders invested on their capacity-building and on their empowerment. Certainly, it goes without saying that these leaders are also very capable communicators- they inform the team of what needs to be done in terms of measurable objectives, why it needs to be done, exactly when it has to be done and who are the most qualified to do which tasks. Last but not the least, these leaders LISTEN. They listen to the team’s feedback, their input on resource availabilities, training needs and existing limitations.
Going back on track
Almost a year after that incident, I landed on THE job I’ve always longed for. Nostalgia aside, one of the reasons it was my most ideal job so far is because of the empowerment I gained under the supervision of the department’s former director, Ivan.
The department was newly created at the time. This meant that every procedure, methodology and protocol had to be put in place starting from scratch. Because of this, Ivan and I agreed that I should have time to review literature about our work, think about what kind of training I would need or reflect on how to best present our partial results. I had to raise concrete suggestions on how I plan to organize myself and since he saw that I had things under control, he conceded. I was able to deliver most of my proposals but it was during the completion of the third task where I truly felt “Super Karessa”: the Power Point template I designed was approved to be used for the department’s presentations internally and externally.
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What I would like to highlight with this experience is the fact that by being confident that I can deliver, my former boss sensed how determined I was to assist him in constructing a new department. This gave him assurance when he asked me to work more closely with our intern so I could transfer some of my duties to him. He said that this would allow me to focus more on tasks that are within my expertise. I was head over heels with happiness. It was my turn to delegate!
Delegation- it’s like the gift that keeps on giving!
As the Principal
The most important task I have had to delegate so far is that of caring for my son. It is also by far, the most difficult to pass on to someone else. After all, raising my son is the most interesting and meaningful project I’ve ever undertaken.
Shock therapy rarely works for me so I had to gradually prepare myself (and my son!). The first person with whom I left him alone (not counting my husband) was my mother. I must have left her a very long list of instructions which I must have repeated 10 times over. And to think that I was gone for only 3 hours! just enough time for a bottle and a nap for a 2-month old baby. The second time was when I left him with my mother in law. It was during the night so the only instruction we left her was to not get him out of the crib unless he cries a lot. I went to have a beer with my husband; we were gone for about 5 hours. The third time, my baby was 3 months old and I left him with a babysitter to run errands and have lunch with a friend. That day, the only instructions I left were the amounts of milk my baby had to drink at certain schedules. By that time, I was already used to being apart from him that I didn’t feel any anxiety (I missed him, though! I was looking at pictures of him on my phone for several minutes.).
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As time went by I started hiring other babysitters and instead of leaving specific instructions, I would just say the time intervals between his meals and naps. I figured that the people I’m employing have a lot of experience with babies and so they must also have their own style of doing things. The best babysitters I’ve worked with would ask me specific questions about health concerns, playtime activities, etc… I still find it very hard to trust a stranger but I just let my instincts guide me and of course I am also very sensitive to the baby’s state by the time I came back. As of now, neither my instinct nor my baby’s “feedback” have failed me.
I really am trying to insist that delegation is a skill that can be practiced. Although my personal example seems funny compared to the decisions most managers take, the point is that practice leads to perfection (we may never get to the perfected state, but close enough is good enough!). A Stanford University professor couldn’t have said it better, “Your most important task as a leader is to teach people how to think and ask the right questions so that the world doesn’t go to hell if you take a day off.”
This is still an ongoing process for me and everyday, I am being taught that: 1) almost anything can be learned, even something as abstract as “trusting”, 2) my way is not the only way to do things and 3) humility and kindness could also empower people to do their job the best that they could.
It all boils down to CONFIDENCE
They say that delegation is a two-way street. But before anyone of us goes down that road, it may be a good idea to take a journey inside oneself to find confidence: by gathering strength from our capacities and by allowing our defects to keep our feet on the ground. Without knowing our strengths, we can never believe in ourselves. And without knowing our defects, we run the risk of being reckless.
Self-assurance is the key to effectively delegate and to being competent in undertaking the delegated tasks.
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Some people might argue that they are not insecure about handing over responsibility, they are just perfectionists. To this, I counter-argue by saying that if a person is truly a “perfectionist” (understood as someone who seeks perfection in the outcome of their endeavours), he would do anything that needs to be done so that the results will present the desired quality- even if it means not doing everything by himself.
Others might reason out that they don’t feel 100% sure about completing the task given to them because it’s the first time they’ll do it, or they do not know how to do it, or maybe they have failed in the past doing the same thing… It’s hard to solve someone else’s insecurity issues, it is for them to fight their own battles. But let me share a saying that we have in the Philippines that states, “If you really want something to be done, you find ways to do it. If you don’t, you look for excuses not to do it.”
Thank you dear reader, for allowing me to share this experience. This post was special to me because it gave me the space to share a skill I am currently putting into practice even while being unemployed.
- “The 12 Rules of Successful Delegation” by Richard Lannon, available at: http://www.legacybowes.com/latest-blog-posts/entry/the-12-rules-of-successful-delegation.html
- “Why Aren’t You Delegating?” by Amy Gallo, available at: https://hbr.org/2012/07/why-arent-you-delegating