Some leaders feel they have been "burned" by delegating. They delegated a task and it was either not done, or done incorrectly, and impacted their reputation. The phrase that "you can delegate authority, but not responsibility," is correct. Great leaders never use the excuse "I told 'Bob' to do it and he didn't, so it is 'Bob's' fault." When my subordinates would try to blame things on their assistant, my response was "Who does your assistant work for? And, if you can't manage your assistant, how can I be confident you can manage the rest of your team?" When you delegate a task, you have to have a follow-up system. A "tickle" file can be very useful. In a tickle file, you assign a follow-up ("tickle") date to the task, normally a few days to a week before the deadline. The person assigned the task is responsible for letting you know the status by the tickle date. You (or preferably your assistant) keeps track, and, if you don't get a status, you ask for one (with a pointed reminder that you shouldn't have to ask). The tickle file can be paper, with the tickle items filed by date, or electronic, using the Task function in Outlook or Gmail. I had task lists for each of my direct reports, and would review them during our weekly one-on-one sessions. I could get a status on each item and answer any questions, and then we could prioritize the tasks to ensure a reasonable, achievable workload. This way, there were no surprises, and we could reset due dates if necessary.
Delegation doesn't stop with tasks. Whenever I was on vacation, I would delegate my authority to one of my direct reports, rotating through my executives. The Food & Beverage General Manager at Epcot "became" the VP in my absence, with full authority to make decisions. I learned this from assignment to London with British Petroleum. Executives, even at very senior levels, would take long vacations of three to five weeks, going to locales without phones or faxes, leaving a subordinate in charge. When I asked the Treasurer of BP about this as he was preparing to go on vacation, he told me he did this on purpose. "If I left for a week, my people could put off all the decisions until I came back. When it gets to two weeks or more without phone contact, they have to make decisions themselves. This builds their confidence and develops stronger leaders."
This delegation strategy was tested when Nancy and I went to the mountains of North Carolina during one summer when I led Epcot. Cell phone coverage was non-existent. We were having a relaxing, wonderful trip, when we returned to our room after dinner and the message light was blinking. As I picked up the receiver, I hoped the message was from the front desk and not from work. Unfortunately, it was the leader that I had left in charge of Epcot, with the terrible news that a four year old boy had died on our Mission: SPACE attraction. As I called him for all the details, my immediate thought was to call off the vacation and return to Epcot. However, he gave me the confidence that he had the situation under control. I also thought that being in charge in a crisis could be a major boost to his development as a leader. I had significant crisis leadership experience from the Navy, 9/11 and other events, and he could benefit from this much more than me. The other leaders on the team would also have to step up and support him in my absence. Primarily for his benefit, I decided to stay on vacation, even though it was incredibly hard to be at the fitness center watching Epcot all over the TV screens wishing I was there. When I returned, he thanked me for the trust I had shown him, and I was very gratified a few years later to see him promoted to a major Vice President position.
Successful delegation frees you and your organization to do far more than you could imagine, and exceed beyond expectations.
• For every task, ask yourself "Do I absolutely have to do this or can someone else do it?"
• Don't rationalize doing everything yourself.
• Create a follow-up system to ensure delegated work is completed.
• Give your people the opportunity to do your role while you are gone, and give them the freedom to make decisions.
Personal success, high morale, strong and capable successors
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