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Never Do What You Can Delegate

Your job as a team leader is to provide the tools, motivation, and direction the team needs to do the work itself.

It’s a powerful reflex. the first reaction most new leaders have is to take on more work. How else can you be sure your project, the most important assignment you’ve ever had, gets done right? Like all reflexes, the do-it-yourself model is also a substitute for thinking.

“The biggest challenge for people is to let go of their work,” says Learning Point’s Christensen, who has created a set of diagnostic tools called the “Team Success Kit” and trained leaders at companies including PacifiCorp and Tektronix. “You need to start getting solutions from other people. But it’s easier to solve problems yourself because it’s what you’ve always done.”

Todd Conger, 30, fell into that trap soon after he became a team leader at Morton International, the airbag manufacturer based in Brigham City, Utah. Conger had spent two years in a production job. Last September, he became manufacturing process coordinator.

His first instinct was to help out. If he saw his 11-member team slipping behind schedule, he’d jump in and do the work himself. But the more work he did, the less work seemed to get done — and the less motivated his team became. They’d return late from breaks and wait for specific instructions before tackling obvious problems. Why? Conger’s “help” was offending his colleagues.

“I thought I was helping when I’d hurry and pack some parts for them,” he says. “But they thought I was telling them they weren’t working fast enough: ‘Look, I can do it faster than you.'”

Conger learned quickly what every leader learns eventually. Your job is not to do the work your team is supposed to do. Your job is to provide the tools, motivation, and direction the team needs to do the work itself. The lesson is simple, and all too easy to ignore: never do what you can delegate.

“Manage the process, don’t manage the content,” urges Anne Donnellon, a professor at Babson College and author of “Team Talk” (HBS Press, 1996). The real work of a leader involves “agendas and information flows,” she says. “Too many leaders try to control the details of work. They think of themselves as ‘doers,’ which encourages team members to assume less responsibility.”

Managing content as well as process can do more than drain your team’s motivation. It can be downright draining, as Intuit’s Brian Ascher discovered. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to attend to his new responsibilities and keep his hand in the details of software code.

“As project manager I’m responsible for getting the product scoped out, launched, positioned, and targeted,” he says. “My biggest challenge was prioritizing all the things coming at me: What can I say no to? What can I delegate down? What can I delegate up? What needs to be decided today?”

Ascher applied an engineering mind-set to his challenge. He identified the three factors most critical to the success of Quicken for Windows. Then every morning, as he reviewed his To-Do list, he’d decide which action items contributed to those success factors and which didn’t. He worked on those that did and assigned the others to one of his 15 engineers.

“I was spending an excessive amount of time on little things that didn’t relate to my major objectives,” Ascher says. “I had to ask myself: ‘How do I meet the needs of people who want help without spending my own time on it?'”

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