As a startup CEO, I have been reflecting on what type of culture we are creating as an organization, and more specifically, how delegation works in our mix. There have been studies published on established, large public companies and how their CEOs spend time, but I’ve found those not to be as pertinent as conversing with other entrepreneurs.
Case in point: A recent CEO peer group discussion was centered around the fact that each of us feels as if we are trekking along at “race pace” while our employees are working at “waddle pace.”
We bantered on these types of questions: Ever tried to delegate what you think is a quick task? Did it come back with poor quality? Did it require endless rounds of discussions because redlines are not the norm for your employee? Did the employee bristle at the level of feedback provided?
Both myself and my business partner were high-performing individual contributors when we were still coming up the ranks in corporate America. As leaders, we had what colleagues have more than once deemed “fanatical” work ethics. Management consultants who grew their careers in the last two decades know that work is done at the pleasure and timeline of the client, and 80-hour weeks and redlines from four layers of leadership are expected.
Now, we have enough self-awareness to recognize that we wanted more balance than that when we started our own venture, but decoupling that mindset so our employees can thrive has proved challenging. On the one hand, we (the partners) continue to keep our own levels of intensity (which are both comfortable and passion-driven for us), but on the other hand, we know that as we experience growth, we have to carve out enough time to take our employees on the journey, with on (and off) ramps. That is, we recognize that delegation is a critical requirement for sustainable growth.
Taking stock of the similar pain points being echoed across the CEOs, I wanted to share two lessons we learned in our peer group.
1. In startups, many tasks tend to be “grey” until you reach critical mass or a certain threshold where it becomes a written process. If you have a time- and quality-critical deliverable, with an end product that you are figuring out as you go, this is perhaps not the right task to delegate to an employee who has never encountered it before; we called this “unconstructive delegation.” If this is an employee’s first attempt at something similar, and the task requires critical thinking and perspective, neither party is going to have a good experience or result.
On the flip side, “constructive delegation” requires a quality-critical result but the timeline has some flexibility, and the end product can be articulated fairly well. A rule of thumb here is to take the length of time this task might take you and apply a two to three times multiplier for an estimate as to how long it is going to take your employee.
Set clear expectations up front with your employee (deliverable standards, share an exemplar, discuss feedback mechanisms (e.g., redlines, not conversations)), as well as your commitment to setting dedicated time aside to coach the employee through any roadblocks they encounter (here is where you need the patience to ask insightful questions, not just provide the solution, and also where the employee has to have the humility to receive the feedback effectively). The “delegation spectrum” varies with different mixes of the time/quality variables, but using these two categories as an initial prompt may help you before you jump into delegating a task.
2. In female-led startups, there also seems to be a gender-role incongruence when it comes to delegating, where women have more negative associations with delegating because of concerns over coming across as being too assertive. The biases some of us had experienced in our previous corporate workplaces, wherein we were labeled “aggressive” when delegating with a direct communication style (a label that impacted performance reviews and stretch opportunities) was difficult to hear. To overcome this, we agreed to reframe our thought process around two things: the organizational implications of our fears hindering the growth of our own respective ventures, and the people-side aspect of limiting employee development if we don’t delegate. This discussion on the intersection of gender and leadership behaviors was particularly interesting since we had all started our own companies to escape these types of labels, but we had not yet shifted our mindset intentionally.
Try deploying these guidelines as you start to think about what and how to delegate and see if it helps. Remember that sometimes you need to meet your employees at their “waddle pace” so they can meet you at your “race pace.”