When to Stop Delegating and Just Make Stuff Happen

Last Updated May 10, 2011 3:06 PM EDT

We just lost $45,000. Not all at once... it took 10 days, but lost it we did.

Why?

Because I wanted to let my people handle the problem. Even though they are new to their roles and new to these types of problems, I took the "learning opportunity" approach rather than taking a different path of leadership. So, as they worked hard without anything getting better, I wrung my hands and asked to be "kept in the loop." I followed up daily and over the course of 10 days of sustained observation, we lost a bunch of money.

Hold on, now... aren't we supposed to delegate to our people? Aren't they supposed to make mistakes and learn from them? There is always a tendency to think, "If I do everything for my people and make every decision, I won't have time to do my job and they won't grow." (Don't forget the exasperated and haggard tone of voice as you read the previous quote...) There are hundreds of books on leadership and management that extol the virtues of supportive cultures, delegation, and hands-off styles. These are often written by academics, culture consultants, and former HR professionals... collectively, I refer to them as "hacks."

When is that advice wrong? When is it time as a leader to step in?

Simple rule: When you identify the problem, follow the rule of three -- divide your plan of attack into three measurable phases: traction, improvement, and solution. Your phases can be measured in hours, half days, 24-hour windows, or longer depending upon the problem's urgency and severity.

For example: In our case, we needed to get a marketing plan for a new product launched. We had a project plan that was clear. Like most project plans, there is a domino effect if you miss the first critical deadline, it trickles through the rest of the plan. I should have stepped in once we recognized that we had a problem. In this case, we should have met and given the team:

  • 24 hours for traction
  • 48 hours for improvement
  • 72 hours to come up with a fix.
If change had not occurred at each of these trigger points, (24, 48, and 72 hours), as prescribed, then I should have stepped in.

What do you do when you step in?
1) Get all of the people in the same room. Do it standing up, the meeting will be shorter and so will the bullshit. The meeting is a problem-solving session -- not an opportunity to blame nor a "teachable moment." Teach after you have fixed the problem.

2) Get all of the information that you can. The rule of thumb is that it takes three questions to get to the really important information. Take the time and ask the hard questions. Keep everyone to the facts. In our example, we had all sorts of opinions as to what our technology provider might have been thinking, what we could have done differently, and even how important we were as a customer to this provider. None of this was of any value. Stick to the facts. As a friend of mine once told me, "Facts are our friends, even when they are unfriendly."
3) Get the team to create options. Push to get the pros and cons. This is where the learning happens. It takes some patience. Once you as the CEO step into the conversation, the room temperature goes up. People start playing a little CYA and get defensive. This often causes either/or options at the extremes, such as "We can either abandon the whole program or spend five times the money." These are not well thought-out options; they are emotional outbursts. Look for three solid and viable choices to be created by your team.

4) Make the decision. At this point the role of the team is over; it's time for leadership. You make the call, explain why, set the plan, and assign the roles.

5) Stay in the driver's seat until it is fixed. Another mentor from early in my career, Troy, served as a great example of this approach when handling critical client issues. He would call a meeting every morning at 6:30am and again at 5:30pm in the evening on just the problem until the problem was solved. It was a required meeting for his executives and their direct reports. This changed people's focus and created teamwork like crazy -- everyone wanted to stop the meetings!

Clearly, I did not follow my own advice on this occasion. The fault is mine. I stepped out of a critical role of leadership, which is making s**t happen when it is not.

Do you have suggestions on how to effectively jump in and kick-start your team when they're stalling? Leave them in the comments or over on my LinkedIn group.

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