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Delegation & The 12 Items Or Less Line: How Leaders Manage the Economy Between Resources and Responsibilities

It was at the tender age of 16 when my mother stopped buying me food.

Cue the violins.

It must have happened on the heels of some adolescence-fueled tantrum, when she told me that it was time I learned about responsibility.  If I, a typical teenage girl with a typical smart-a** mouth, was going to posture like a woman, I needed to behave like one, contribute like one, and manage money like one. While my mother’s sponsorship of the dreaded activity would continue, with that, the chore of grocery shopping became mine.

I immediately struck my favorite pose: indignant fists on hips. After she told me to get my hands off my imagination with the same “smart-a**-ity” I had apparently inherited, she handed me some cash, a list of things we needed, a few rules, and one great big incentive. The do’s and don’ts were minimal. I had to stay within the budget, and I couldn’t scrimp on certain brands she liked. Beyond that, as long as I bought everything on the list – including her beloved Dawn and Charmin – I could keep whatever money I saved.

After my first time at bat, I ended up owing her money. As I gave her the cash, I was sure she’d look upon her only child with compassion and hand it back to me. “You’ll do better next time,” she smiled, keeping the cash. “I believe in you.” But I didn’t want a pep talk. I wanted my five bucks back. Not one red cent was forthcoming. As she turned to leave me with my empty open hand held fruitlessly in the air, she said, “Perhaps you should check out the sales.” Then: “And while you’re at it – coupons.” I begrudgingly heard her loud and clear – and applied her coaching. Over the next few weeks, I pocketed more and more evidence of my learning, which instantaneously evaporated during blissful trips to the mall with mom. The economy of mature womanhood notwithstanding, a girl can never have enough shoes – but from that day to this, I’ve rarely paid full freight.

When It Comes to Delegation, What Separates a Knock-Off from The Real Thing?

Please don’t tell my mother, but as I look back on it, hers was a nearly perfect model of delegation. Like my mom, people managers are real folks, living in the real world where there are limited resources with which to manage limitless responsibilities. How you manage the economy between resources and responsibilities distinguishes the Bargain-Bin amateurs and Off-Brand managers from Top Shelf leaders of people.

Top Shelf Leaders

Like smart shoppers, Top Shelf leaders look for 2-for-1 specials and buy-one-get-one-free opportunities. Their people are not the means to fulfill responsibilities; their people are among their responsibilities in relationship to tasks. By developing one, the other is completed. Accomplishment and control are shared. Leaders manage the outcome, while allowing the employee to manage the pathway, which puts everyone where they need to be to get what they came for: a completed task if you’re the manager, and an opportunity to win if you’re the employee.

Bargain-Bin Amateurs

The Bargain Bin Amateur doesn’t delegate at all. A people manager who is doing everything is doing something wrong. Confusing accomplishment with busy-ness is a sign of the Amateur’s underuse of resources. Many individual contributor-to-supervision promotions are the result of effective doing. But post-promotion, the job is different. Now it isn’t about doing; now the job is about duplicating effectiveness across your team. Amateurs also misappropriate time, complaining that they might as well do it themselves rather than teach it to an employee.  Failure to delegate is a pay now or pay later proposition; either way, you’re going to pay. Time not spent developing an employee to take ownership of a task is time that the Amateur is doomed to do the task herself.  Perhaps it’s justice, as the employee is robbed of a chance to do more and be more than they currently are. But worst of all, Amateurs misappropriate themselves as a strategic resource. Why be boss of the applesauce when delegating can free you up to manage the more impactful and strategic problems you were hired to deal with?

Off-Brand Managers

Like off-brand products, Off-Brand Managers are just slightly off the real thing. In the world of commodities, this typically results in you losing in quality what you initially gained in savings. But in the world of managing, the failure often involves planning and positioning. The Off-Brand Manager clears their desk of busywork. But a bit more strategic thought would have resulted in that busywork becoming so much more for the right employee. Off-Brand hands off tasks, but in the absence of coaching and follow-up, these fail to be teachable moments for employees in search of development. Absent the right positioning, what Off-Brand gives away is likely to strike the employee as just more work as opposed to a workout intended to build their muscle to the next level.

6 Ways to Climb to Top Shelf

Upgrading your delegation game is easy. Think about:

1.    Who is best served by learning this task? One manager’s busywork could be the right employee’s benefit. Development never has to be exotic to be effective. It just needs to be new to the employee and relevant to the business directives.

2.    What are the expectations and parameters? Be clear about what you want the employee to learn – and do as they learn. Remain firm about what matters, and be flexible in those places where the employee can learn more by managing their way autonomously.

3.    Why is the task important? If the work has no significance, neither you nor the employee should be doing it. But if it genuinely matters, tie that significance to strategic business objectives to make what may be just work to you, but is development for the employee, valuable.

4.    How will you help the employee improve? Initiate delegation through training, but support the delegation by coaching the employee along the way. Offer suggestions, tips, and ways to course-correct. A great leader I know used to say: It’s okay to let an employee skin their knees; but never let them skin their nose. Don’t be afraid of pain, because it can be a highly effective teacher. Let an employee stumble if it creates a teachable moment from which they can recover, offering a lesson within a lesson.

5.    What will you reinforce? When delegating a new and advanced task, expect engagement, not perfection. Engagement, even in initial failure, is a great sign of the employee’s coachability. That means success is likely to follow with patience and support. What gets recognized gets repeated. Recognize and coach small wins until they evolve over time into bigger ones.

6.    What 2-for-1 Specials are available? Who says you have to be the one doing the developing? What if Employee A’s development plan includes learning to supervise? Delegate developing Employee B to Employee A.  Help encourage success by assigning Employee A someone who truly needs coaching and has proven coachable.   When you meet with Employee A to discuss her action plan, you will be learning about Employee B in the process. Hence, 2-for-1.

Whether it’s groceries or business, Top Shelf leaders, like good parents, know they’re not just selling the doing of just another routine task. They are selling the valuable commodities of skill and confidence. When delegation is planned, positioned, and priced just right, it’s you paying it forward and that always pays for itself.