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Delegate your work, not your business

(MoneyWatch) Delegating is one of the oldest management principles around. But experts have pushed the concept so hard that it often seems like the best leaders delegate literally everything. In my career I've met more than a few managers who do just that -- they hand off or dump so much on others that the delegators lose touch with too much of what's going on in their business.

In one memorable moment years ago, I sat in the office of a senior executive who was on the phone with his boss, making up answers to questions as he went along, because his minions were handling everything and he was clueless about the world outside his big office. I happened to know his answers were BS, and when I looked at him incredulously, he winked at me as if to say, "Do I know how to work this guy, or what?"

Managers who stay too close to people and their projects are often thought of as unproductive and inefficient, micromanaging, old-school. But it's important to know the difference between handing-off and being hands-off. Yes, a good leader must delegate -- appropriately, thoughtfully and effectively -- in order to be effective, but a great leader delegates without ever taking her finger off the pulse of the business; in other words, she never puts others between her and the things that make the company tick. Most importantly:

Employees: The most important element of your business -- period. Without good people, you have no good products, no happy customers and for that matter, probably no job. Know them (preferably by name), respect them, build them up and don't manage from on high. In other words, don't delegate away your connection with the human engine of your business.

Customers: You don't have to answer the support desk phone or go on field sales calls (though it helps) to stay appropriately close to the people who pay your bills. The same executive who bamboozled his boss in front of me asked to "have someone run me a report" to keep on his desk so he'd always know who the company's top 10 customers were (because again, he had people to manage all those relationships). If you run a business-to-business company -- of any size -- and can't name your top 10 customers in your sleep, something is very wrong

Products: I've met managers and executives -- though almost never small business owners -- at trade shows and elsewhere who were so clueless about their own products that they'd walk me over to a sales rep and listen to the demo with me, with just as much curiosity. Again, you don't have to work on the assembly line (though it helps) to be close to what it is you're selling. Some of the most legendary CEOs of some of the biggest and most successful companies -- people whose delegation trickles down through thousands of others -- can still talk to you all day about their products. If they're not too busy to stay on top of it, neither are you.

Numbers: You may have a top-notch CFO, a team of accountants and a well-oiled operations team, but if you manage a business, it doesn't matter who else knows the key numbers, you need to as well. Sales, gross margin, profit/loss, inventory, whatever the critical stats are in your enterprise, they should always be in your head. If you have to make a phone call or send an email to find out "how you're doing" for the month, that's not delegating -- that's you not being on top of your business. In fairness, yes, you can delegate someone to report the numbers to you every day, week or month. But you shouldn't just be memorizing numbers that are fed to you; you should be truly tuned-in to your company's performance.

As with many things, the larger your business, the harder it may be to stay close to the nitty-gritty. But whether your company employs 10 people or a thousand, remember that you are one of them (even if you own the place... especially if you own the place).

So no matter how many people you have to do your bidding, you can't hand it all off. If you've delegated away so much that you've lost touch with the heart and soul of the business -- its people, products and performance -- you've handed off the most important tools you need to lead.

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