Mastering Management: How to delegate successfully and manage the managers

This is the first article in a new series called "Mastering Management," where we explore ideas and techniques for improving management, leadership, hiring, and employee productivity in growing businesses.

One of the hardest challenges for many entrepreneurs is learning how to effectively delegate, particularly in an expansion phase where the business and team are rapidly growing. As business owners, we’re often used to rolling up our sleeves and shouldering a big burden of the work ourselves (the “if you want it done right, do it yourself” mantra), but that mentality will hold your company back from its full potential. 

As Google found out from hundreds of hours of research, who is on a team matters far less than how team members interact with one another and structure their work. High performing teams feel psychologically safe with one another, have high levels of dependability, structure and clarity, and individually feel that their work is personally meaningful and impactful. 

As a leader, it is your responsibility to empower your managers and employees to create this dynamic within the company. Not only does this mean learning how to better delegate your own responsibilities, but also teaching your management team how to be better leaders for their respective teams as well. 

Delegation 101

One of the biggest reasons why people don’t delegate is because it requires a lot of upfront work, especially when you feel it would take more time to train someone on how to do something than simply doing it yourself. But it’s important to shake free from this mindset. First, doing the work yourself is likely not the best use of your time. Second and more importantly, by delegating and passing on responsibilities to your employees, you help to develop their skills. Over time, your team learns from the experience and gets better. 

Some tips for successful delegation:

Articulate the outcome through SMART goals. One of the most frustrating things an employee can hear is an unclear and undefined goal. Using the SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic, and Time-bound) helps to set a tangible and achievable goal for your team. So instead of saying, “We need a marketing strategy for the new fall season collection,” you might tell your team, “We have $50,000 to spend on a marketing campaign that needs to generate $2 million in sales for the fall collection during the month of August.”

Don’t define specific tasks, define accountability. Especially when it comes to high level projects, take care not to micromanage by defining every single task that needs to be done (this does not apply to business processes that have to be done in a specific step-by-step manner, such as in a manufacturing plant). Micromanaging takes away autonomy from employees and can shut out the dialogue needed to bring new ideas and feedback to the table. Instead, focus on defining accountability—who will be responsible for what outcome, and what the criteria of success for the project are.

Avoid “upward delegation.” If someone on your team faces an obstacle in their work, don’t allow that person to shift responsibility or decision making back to you. Use it as a learning opportunity to teach them a new skill, or challenge them by asking them thoughtful questions instead of providing answers. “How would you tackle this problem? Have you thought about x? What are the options that we have?” This trains employees to think critically and problem solve for themselves.

Set deadlines and maintain follow up. As a leader, if you delegate tasks but fail to follow up properly, you are only doing half your job. Set timelines from the beginning, along with a schedule of checkpoints along the way to ensure the project stays on track. Most importantly, take the time to review your team’s work and ensure it’s completed to your satisfaction. Accepting sub-par or partially completed work means your team member won't learn to do the job properly, and you create additional work for yourself in having to fix mistakes.

Create a feedback loop that goes in both directions. When team members do well, offer public recognition and praise of their work. This helps to build self-confidence and trust. Likewise, don’t be afraid to offer constructive criticism when needed. Also important is to set up a system that allows team members to provide feedback about your own position as the manager—this is your chance to understand how you can better improve. 

Teaching managers to be better managers

As the head of your company, you are ultimately responsible for managing the managers—and that means being able to identify the talents that make for good managers, as well as cultivating good managers to be great. 

Great managers are rare, but they can be developed with coaching and training. More than just having the skills to do the job, great managers know how to tap into their employees’ abilities and capitalize on them. They know how to delegate successfully and manage projects, and they understand each individual's learning style and can tailor training accordingly. They help their fellow team members improve professionally and develop expertise. They care about their team not just as coworkers but as people, and they outwardly show this empathy.

To improve the quality of managers in your own company, invest in their development. Some ideas: 

  • Set aside a fund that managers can use for professional development, such as attending leadership classes and workshops or joining professional organizations.
  • Provide resources to managers to help them develop skills they need for better delegation and project management; Google for example provides a set of tools that managers can use, including a new manager training course materials and manager feedback survey. 
  • Provide training to help managers become better at key soft skills such as leadership, motivation, coaching, communication, conflict resolution, and networking.
  • Publicly recognize great managers within your team and encourage them to share their experiences and knowledge with other managers; encourage a culture of learning from one another in your company.

An investment in your managers is an investment for your entire workforce. Great managers have happier, more engaged employees that are more productive and less likely to turnover.