Inconceivable Leadership



“Delegation” – You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Early in my Naval Officer career, we would be told we needed to learn how to delegate if we wanted to be effective leaders. I see that advice again and again in leadership discussions in the business world. But, I feel that many people are confused on what delegation means or how to do it effectively. Delegation is not giving away your work or passing on your responsibility for a task to someone else. It does not imply that you are lazy or don’t want to do “real work.” But, that seems to be the impression many people have.

I have to admit that early on in my career as submarine officer, I did not get it either. I would tend to fall back on the “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself” mantra. I worked harder and harder to make an impact and I admit I loved the feedback from others. “Good job on that project, Bob. How late were you here working last night?” I liked that feeling and it made me work harder and harder. So, I practically started hoarding work. If I got my hands on a project, I did it myself as much as possible. I wasn’t about to hand it off to someone else for them to get the glory. Perhaps I was just immature and self-centered, but I don’t think I am alone.

I have seen similar behavior in the civilian industries I have worked in the last five years. Senior Engineers or even Senior Project Managers want to do as much of the work themselves as they can. Some of that behavior is driven by a poorly designed Key Performance Indicator in professional service organizations – Utilization Rate. People are afraid if they give away work, they won’t have any billable work to do and will not be valuable. I will save the discussion on utilization rate for another article. But I think part of the reason people don’t delegate is they just aren’t sure how to do it right and why it’s so important. My goal for this article is to share what I think are the four key steps to effective delegating and the three huge benefits to the organization when delegation is done right.

Towards the end of my division officer tour in 1995 (first 3 years on a submarine), I started to think I might stick around in this crazy submarine business. So I began paying attention to what the more senior officers were doing and how they were doing it. My Engineer Officer (on a submarine the department head that leads the nuclear propulsion plant and auxiliary engineering equipment is called the Engineer Officer or ENG for short) seemed to be very effective at getting a lot of work done. It was mind boggling. Here he was in charge of this 750-million-dollar nuclear power plant with around 55 men under him and he would be able to go home at 1700 (5 pm for you land lubbers) each night in port or get some actual sleep when we were at sea. He always seemed fresh and relaxed. It was very annoying!

I was exhausted from the amount of work and I only had one of his five divisions. From my inexperienced perspective, he seemed to be always passing on his work to me and other division officers or chief petty officers. Then after giving us the work, he was always trying to teach us how to do it. I remember thinking “you give me your work and then you want to tell me how to do it…maybe you should just do it yourself. You seem to know how.” I just didn’t get what he was doing at the time. The lesson was lost on me.

Three years later after a fun shore duty at Northwestern University NROTC teaching midshipmen, I was now the Engineer Officer on board USS CHICAGO (SSN 721) in Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. We were months behind on a major maintenance overhaul and I had just taken over as the Engineer. I felt overwhelmed. I thought back about my old Engineer on NARWHAL. How did he do it? Oh, yeah. Give the work away. Delegate. {Cue Inigo Montoya “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”}

So I would get tasks from the Executive Officer (XO – second in command) and hand them off to my chief petty officers or division officers. “Here you go. XO said we have to do this.” Piece of cake this delegation thing. I was killing it. Or so I thought.

The XO calls me into his stateroom. “ENG, where is the report for the critical hose inspection program? It was due to me yesterday.” I replied with a beam on face as I was sure he would recognize my leadership genius “XO, I delegated that to Chief Brown.” Like Ralphie on the movie A Christmas Story, I was expecting the XO to start singing my praises, “Well done, Bravo Zulu, Lieutenant Commander Koonce. You are such a great leader, A+++++++++++++++”

But, the XO had a scowl on his face. “ENG, you are responsible for the report. I don’t care who you delegated it to. You better personally get me that report by the end of today or else.” Wait a second. This guy must not understand. I was delegating like a true leader. He must not be a very good leader himself. Poor guy.

I found Chief Brown “Where is the critical hose report I delegated to you? The XO is hot for it.” Chief shrugged “I don’t know. I delegated it to Petty Officer Smith. You didn’t tell me when you wanted it done. When does the XO want it?”

Chief Brown and I scrambled to find Petty Officer Smith and we got the report done around midnight that night. The XO gave me some feedback on the report and we talked about my great delegation skills. “ENG, you can’t just hand something off. That’s not delegation. That’s abdication.” Over the next few years, through many more efforts in delegation and many patient bosses and mentors, I learned more about how to effectively delegate and how critical successful delegation is to an organization’s success. Hopefully, my lessons learned will help someone else just learning about Leadership. So let’s take a look at proper delegation.

Four Steps of Delegation:

Delegation comes down to four key steps. First, clearly communicate the desired outcome. Second, you must provide a deadline. Third, you need to follow up on the progress to make sure it’s being done as you desired. Finally, you must critique the outcome with the “delegatee” to make sure your people learn from the experience. Skip any of these steps and you will not only not get what you want, you will have wasted everyone’s time. Practiced over and again, these steps will become second nature, but new leaders must deliberately step through this process until it becomes a habit.

Let’s dive in a little more:

Step 1: Communicate the desired outcome.

The most difficult and important step is to clearly communicate from the start the desired outcome of the task. Usually you are busy and in a hurry. After all, it’s why you need to delegate, right? But, a rushed assignment that is not clear will rarely result in a product that you desire. It will result in frustration for both of you. Determine the importance of the task and if it’s a complex project or critical task, take the time to write down your desired outcome. Putting the task in writing helps you to clarify for yourself what it is you desire. Sometimes during this step, I found that I didn’t clearly know what I wanted. What a disaster it would have been for me to delegate before I even clearly determined what I wanted to accomplish. I can’t begin to count the number of times as a young manager I would give a verbal task in a hurried manner and when presented the end product I would have the audacity to be upset that the outcome was not what I had in mind at all. Everyone is frustrated at that point and most importantly, time and resources are wasted. Define the task in writing, deliver it verbally if you desire, but always have a clear and specific vision of the expected outcome.

Step 2: Provide a deadline.

It’s important to set a deadline for your delegated task. Without a deadline, the project leader and team lack a sense of priority or urgency in their work. If the delegated task is large or complex it may be difficult to gage the time it will take, but at a minimum you need to provide a deadline for a preliminary report or first milestone of the project. Even the simplest tasks require a timeline attached. Don’t leave it up to the other person to determine when you need it. I remember many times during a rush in preparation for an important meeting or presentation that I assumed that my requested copies were being made immediately so I could rush off to my meeting. But because I failed to say “I need these right now!” the person I asked to do a task prioritized my request after their lunch break. I was left running around making copies utilizing valuable time I didn’t have to spare. My mistake. Even for low priority things, I always give a deadline. You owe that to the person being tasked so they can prioritize their time. Remember that your delegated task is rarely the only the thing that person has on his or her mind to get done. Delegate right by setting a deadline.

Step 3: Follow up to ensure it is being done and to guide if needed.

You cannot afford to wait until a delegated task is due to find out you did not communicate the task well and then start over. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, several checks may be required. These follow ups come in many forms including periodic briefs, status reports in writing, oral updates or even eyes on target. Your choice of checking on the progress is based on the risk involved if the project fails and the complexity of the work. It also depends on your personal preferences. If you can quickly ask a few questions to ascertain the status of the project, then that may suffice. However, if the risk involved and the complexity warrants it, you may need a status brief to a group of experts to ensure critical thinking is being applied before the project goes down the wrong path and precious resources go down the drain. This is also the time you use to guide, mentor and train the person you delegated to. The amount of guidance is based on their experience and the complexity of the task of course. But, don’t waste the valuable opportunity to pass on your knowledge and experience to others.

Step 4: Provide feedback on the effort so your people will grow.

When a project is finally completed we have a tendency to say a quick “thanks” and move on to the next crisis. Take the time to critique the delegated task, the progress reports along the way, the communication between you and the worker, and finally the project’s deliverable. Did we hit the target we were aiming for? Were we efficient with our time and resources? The importance of this step is in the efficiencies gained. Assuming you are working with someone you will delegate further projects to in the future, the time you invest in feedback on this task will be leveraged into less effort in the future. Don’t short change this step, it will pay dividends.

Okay, so that’s how to delegate better. But, why? What are the benefits? This seems like it will take more of my time when I can just do things faster and better myself. Well, here are three benefits. I am sure there are more.

Three Benefits of Effective Delegation:

Benefit #1: Training the next generation. I have talked about this in other articles, but it is imperative for the life of your organization that you pass on your knowledge, skills, and experience to others. Delegating is great way to do this. By properly delegating, you can break off important parts of your project or the entire project, for that matter, and delegate it to someone who aspires to learn. I recently had a young engineer come to me wanting to know how he could become a project manager. I guess he thought he needed to be enrolled in some class or get some training approved by the corporation.

Well, I just assigned him as Assistant Project Manager and started delegating small tasks to him. By using the process above and guiding him, he started learning more and more and grew his skills in project management. Everyone wins. The client gets a lower overall billing rate as I delegate tasks to a more junior engineer but I guide him to make sure the deliverable quality stays high. The company I work for gets a more skilled and experienced workforce without the cost of “training.” The younger worker gets valuable skills and experience. And, I get more free time to do other things. Win, win, win and win.

Benefit #2: You become more valuable. This seems to be a big misconception by so many. If I give away my work or not do any “real work” myself, won’t I be less valuable to my company? On the contrary, effective “decelerators” are extremely valuable, not less valuable. Delegation in this manner is really just the manifestation of Leadership. Getting things done through other people. Teaching other people. Coaching other people. By doing this, you multiply yourself through others. Not everyone wants to be a leader. I get that. Perhaps you like doing the engineering work and you are really good at it. I can appreciate that. But, if you are in a leadership role such as Project Manager or Section Manager or Plant Manager, you don’t get the luxury of doing the work yourself anymore. Your role is to lead and to lead effectively you must delegate effectively.

Benefit #3: Higher Morale and a Leadership Legacy. This is somewhat tied to Benefit #1, but by delegating effectively you will improve morale and leave a legacy of leadership. Young people want more opportunities to have an impact on their organization. When you hoard the work or only give away crappy administrative tasks, you miss the opportunity to engage a younger worker and build their commitment to you and the organization. When you challenge a young worker by delegating to them an important piece of your project, you are creating a sense of ownership in that person. This is now their project, too. They have a vested interest in its success. Yes, it may be a little bit more work for you at first to delegate to them, especially when it’s something they have never done. You will have to coach them as described above. And, you will still own it. But, in my experience, the result is worth the investment.

So in the end, this not about getting the work done. It’s about your legacy. In my opinion, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a younger generation step up and follow in your footsteps. I pushed my team hard when I was Captain of USS KEY WEST (SSN 722), but here we are eight years later and two Executive Officers have become Captains, two Department Heads have become Executive Officers and on their way to Captain, and at least two junior officers became Department Heads and are on to Executive Officer soon. Many, many sailors have become Chief Petty Officers and several Chiefs have become Chiefs of the Boat. This is why proper delegation matters. The legacy goes on. What legacy are you leaving?

Leadership through Delegation? Inconceivable!