Editor’s Note: Each week, Fast Company presents an advice column by Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay. Webb offers candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I started a company and it really took off, so I had to hire people quickly, but I never really learned how to be manager. It doesn’t come naturally, and I fear this is holding me—and my startup—back.
—Founder of services company
First, congrats on growing and scaling your business. Your issue is one that many founders face, and it gives us an opportunity to discuss one of the most important ingredients for a leader’s success: the art of delegation.
When you are very small and employ only two to three people, everyone has to pitch in, divide the tasks, and do the work. Even at that stage, it’s likely that someone will take the lead on each initiative. Delegation has naturally started to emerge. But when you start growing beyond that, you will have to delegate more—and do it systematically and effectively. Effectively is the operative word here.
Too often, I’ve heard someone who has been given a task say “I delegated that to X” and think that they’re done. Not the case! Years ago, I had an amazing manager working for me who I could always count on to deliver what I wanted on time and on budget. Unfortunately, he was known as a micromanager, which made life difficult for the teams working for him. We had to help him develop his “effective delegation” muscle, which we went to work on, and we assumed things would improve. Not long after, we had a “bet-the-company” project that we were running, and that manager (and his teams) played a major role. I stopped by to ask him how it was going, and he said very proudly, “I don’t know, I’ve delegated it to the team—aren’t you happy with me?” I wasn’t.
Over years of managing teams, I have learned that effective delegation means that you know that the task/project will get done with the results that you expect. At the outset, this means that you have to:
- Assess the capability and willingness of the team to do the task. Often, people will volunteer for a cool assignment, but can/will they really do it?
- Communicate what success looks like to the people you are delegating to. What is the timeline, quality, etc.?
- Ensure they know that if they encounter problems, you are there to guide them. Overall, you are still accountable for the results. Delegation is not abdication.
- Establish checkpoints to monitor progress so you don’t get any nasty surprises at the end.
- When the team delivers, celebrate their success.
The more confidence you have in a team or person, the less structure you need to make delegation work. However, if you haven’t taught your team to fish, then it is often a recipe for disaster.
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing teams accomplish more than they (or you) thought possible, with minimum input or guidance from you. It frees up tremendous cycles for you to innovate or to lead in other areas.