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Leader Board

Real delegation requires something unexpected

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Chan Song was on the 18th hole at a course in Winnipeg, Canada, last summer when he faced one of those decisions that can torture a golfer. He was on the Canadian PGA Tour, a minor league of sorts for the US tour, and the fairway in front of him curved hard left. Chan figured he should play it safe, shoot down the middle, and then chip to the green.

“Nah, you have to birdie this. Go for it,” his caddie said, urging Song to use his driver and try to bend his shot left and land in front of the green.

Caddies don’t just carry around a pro-golfer’s bag. They spend hours doing course research so they can suggest which club to use on each shot. Song grabbed his driverand took a swing. The shot sailed left, too left, and into rough grass. It took him an extra two shots to get to the green. He was knocked out of the tournament and the chance to prove his way onto the US tour.

But instead of firing the guy, Song said he would follow the caddie’s advice again. “With the caddie-player relationship, you have to trust each other. It’s a partnership,” Song said. 

Song’s willingness to delegate critical decisions to his caddie — and run with them — is both a hallmark of effective leaders and something few managers embrace easily. Delegation comes down to trust; it takes faith in subordinates to hand off critical tasks that could impact your own success.

But that isn’t so easy. Hard-working Type-A thinkers figure the work got them promoted, so they keep doing their old tasks even after the promotion.

“We’re naturally programmed to repeat the action that we’re rewarded for,” said Keith Murnighan, professor of risk management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

In his book Do Nothing!: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader, Murnighan points to people like a former student named Dave. When Dave called to tell Murnighan about his promotion to head of his IT department, Murnighan offered his former student advice: “Stop doing IT.”

But Dave, like most of us, could not stop himself. He was, well, that annoying IT guy, grabbing keyboards from his employees to show them the way he had handle tasks. Dave soon lost his best programmer, who complained on his way out about micromanaging. The good news: Dave learned his lesson. The bad news: most managers learn to delegate by royally messing it up first.

“That shock to the system creates a ball and chain that forces managers to realize they need to start delegating,” Murnighan said.

Once you have that gutter ball out of the way, don’t figure you are home free, said Jim Concelman, a management consultant with Development Dimensions International.

Bad managers often unload unwanted tasks on subordinates and keep more interesting and challenging projects for themselves. Real delegation is about handing down plumb assignments and then letting employees figure out how to complete them, with just a few nudges and check-ins. 

“It’s not only allocating work, but it’s mentoring and coming up with tasks the employees can feel like they’re owning,” Concelman said.

That is exactly what you wanted when you were that underling. So why, oh why, is this so hard? Lack of trust, said Matthew Pearsall, assistant professor of organizational behavoir at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. But that lack of trust presents another problem: you cannot do it all, at least not well. At some point you must rely on your team to get the work done. And this trait is most valuable to develop for successful leadership early on in your management career.

What is the solution? Remember that old saying about teaching someone to fish so they’ll never go hungry? A master delegator teaches others to do tasks well. The trick is to stop giving in to that need to accomplish things yourself. Yes, you have to be ready to offer instruction or fix things when they go south. But being a coach, and not a slugger, is what you signed up for when you took that promotion.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about trust and that willingness to be vulnerable,” Pearsall said.

Smart delegation by leaders is a global issue, Pearsall said. These days, MBA training in most countries has been institutionalized and standardized, so workplaces from Eastern Europe to Seattle largely run the same.

Asia remains the main exception. There, managers rely on what researchers call “power distance”, meaning it is generally accepted that bosses have supremacy over the people who report to them. Before you think that sounds great, consider this: Power distance means managers rarely give employees the leeway to make decisions. That shuts down creativity — or worse.

Consider an example Malcolm Gladwell offers in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell writes that Korean Air had more crashes than other airlines because junior pilots were afraid to speak up and question decisions by senior pilots.

The caddie-golfer relationship is an example of all that goes right with effective delegation — even when the outcome sometimes goes wrong, said Pearsall. After all, there is no guarantee that the boss — or the pro golfer — will handle the task just-right, either.

Finding someone you trust to make those decisions is not always easy. Chris Granger, an instructor at Grande Oaks Golf Academy in Davie, Florida, tells his students to research their caddies and know going in that the caddie has the knowledge of the game and the research to make the right decisions.

“You have to have someone you really trust,” Granger  said. “Anytime you’re not certain about your caddie’s decision-making, you’re not going to be confident, and then you’re not going to be successful.”

It’s not so different in the business world.

At the end of the day, it’s all about trust and that willingness to be vulnerable. — Matthew Pearsall