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Home Best Practices The first rule of management is delegation. Don’t try and do everything yourself because you can’t.

The first rule of management is delegation. Don’t try and do everything yourself because you can’t.

Entrepreneurs often have a tough time delegating effectively.  After all, the company is their baby. They gave it life and steered it through its formative years.  They know how to press all the important buttons and pull all the essential levers better than anyone else.  But if they continue to refuse access to those buttons and levers for anyone but themselves, they will be unable to build the sort of team they need to grow their enterprise.  Instead, they will be stuck with some errand boys (and girls) who will do what they’re told and nothing more . . . just “gofers” who won’t exhibit any initiative or creativity.  If you suspect you’re guilty of hoarding all the fun stuff for yourself and realize your “gofers” won’t help your company reach its potential, please continue reading below for some thoughts on effective delegation.

“The first rule of management is delegation. Don’t try and do everything yourself because you can’t.”             ~ Anthea Turner

As noted in our opening remarks, sometimes the problem with delegating is simply that the owner/entrepreneur won’t let go.  But sometimes the obstacles to effective delegation are more insidious and less obvious . . . particularly if the company’s culture enshrines the owner’s right to make all the decisions and to keep a finger in every pie.  One of our favorite quotes (although from an unknown source) is, “The great challenge for any entrepreneur is how to delegate so effectively that once you have gotten a monkey off your back, your employees don’t return it to you . . . with instructions for its care and feeding.”

In an article written for the Harvard Business Review entitled “Who’s Got the Monkey?” William Oncken and Donald Wass contend that assigned tasks (“monkeys”) often end up full circle, back in the lap of the manager who assigned them in the first place.  And it’s not that the employee is trying to pull a fast one.  The monkey can leap from the employee’s back onto the manager’s back without either one intending for that to happen or even realizing that it had happened.

Consider this example.

A company is preparing to launch a new product.  The owner has asked Bill, his sales manager, to draft a sales plan for the new product.  A few days later, Bill and the owner bump into each other at the water cooler and Bill says, “Hey Boss!  I’m about halfway through that sales plan you asked me to prepare, but before I go any further, I wonder if you would look over what I’ve done so far to make sure I’m on the right track.”  The owner responds, “Sure.  Just put it on my desk and I’ll look it over as soon as I get a chance.”  And presto, the sales plan monkey slipped from Bill’s back onto the owner’s back without either of them even noticing.

To understand whose back the monkey is on, all you have to do is understand who must take the next step to move the assignment along.  In this case, when Bill met the owner at the water cooler, the sales plan monkey was squarely on Bill’s back.  But as soon as the owner agreed to review the half-completed plan, the monkey became his.  Why?  Because the next step is now the owner’s responsibility.  Bill can’t do anything more with the sales plan until the owner completes his review.  As soon as the review is complete, the monkey will be returned to Bill, but until that happens, the monkey will stay with the owner.

If this were just an isolated incident, it wouldn’t be any big deal.  But it probably isn’t.  This owner probably has other managers just like Bill.  And just like Bill, these other managers will try to park their monkeys on the owner’s back if he lets them.  As a result, the owner can become so mired in his subordinates’ monkeys that he has a hard time discharging his own responsibilities.  Worse, he becomes a bottleneck where projects stack up until he can return all these monkeys to their proper owners.

The secret to good delegating skills is to make sure that whatever a subordinate is working on, the next step to be taken stays solidly with him or her, not with you.  When your subordinate asks for help, you can coach, advise, mentor, teach, instruct, or do anything else to offer your support . . . stopping short of taking responsibility for the next step.  In rare cases, a subordinate may have legitimate need for your personal intervention.  When that happens, accept the monkey (grudgingly), but then do what you must do as quickly as possible and return the little critter to its rightful owner.

As the quote above from Anthea Turner suggests, you can’t do everything yourself, and if you try, you will only succeed in slowing your company’s growth to a snail’s pace.  The more you insist that your subordinates find solutions to their problems that don’t require direct action from you, the more they will grow and the more they will be helpful in moving the company forward.

The Oncken/Wass article, “Who’s Got the Monkey” is a good read and explores the subject of delegation much more thoroughly than we’ve been able to do here.  Below is a link to the full article.

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