I’ll admit that when I first started as a founder, I had a propensity to micromanage.
Back when my business was just a handful of people, I was hands-on to a fault—down to dictating where the buttons would go on the website. As the company grew, I read some management books, got enlightened, and realized I needed to zoom out; from now on, I’d set the goals, and the team would figure out how to achieve them. There was just one problem: This approach turned out to be too hands-off. I’d end up swooping back in at the end of a project, only to be disappointed with the results. It wasn’t the team that was disappointing, it was my leadership style.
As frustrating as it’s been to ride this pendulum, I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone. Achieving the right leadership balance—learning to delegate without abdicating, learning to support without steamrolling—is a challenge leaders at all levels struggle with.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn’t help matters. With the added complexity of remote work, managers struggled with delegation more than ever; with 90% of leadership complaints in a recent study centering on absentee leadership. As we return to the office, getting this balance right remains as challenging as ever. There’s no simple solution, but here are some hard-won lessons I’d like to share from my own experience of learning how (and how not to) delegate.
Agree on the problem first
There’s an old Dilbert cartoon that I still think about, where Dilbert’s boss asks him how he’s doing on his unspoken objectives: “The goals in my mind that I’ve never mentioned.”
Good delegation requires clarity above all. Before anything, you and your team need to clearly understand and agree on the problem being solved, as well as agree on what success looks like. This is different, and more fundamental, than establishing KPIs, goals, or OKRs (although it embraces elements of all of this).
Here’s an example from my world of online-course creation: We started by identifying the top three problems that people using our platform face in creating and selling their online courses. At the highest level, we then set metrics for success on each of the three problems to know when we were making progress.
Then, we reframed this definition of success for successive layers of teams within the organization. For one team, for example, success might mean a 50% increase in the number of course creators who complete the first stage of onboarding.
What’s key is that everyone, regardless of where they sit in the org chart, has a concrete idea of a specific, attainable target. How they get there is up to them. This is perhaps one of the most critical lessons on delegation that I’ve learned: Success depends on telling people where to go, but not what route to take to get there.
Assess your team’s “task maturity”
Once you’ve identified a problem and what success looks like, it’s time for an honest assessment of the capabilities of the team members involved. This step (which is so easy to skip) is the real key to knowing what level of oversight or coaching to provide.
The key here is recognizing that your management level must change, depending on the ability of each team member for the specific task at hand. For something that’s new to them, you may need to lean in more and be more hands-on, even for a typically exceptional team member.
This is the concept of “task-relevant maturity,” coined by the former chairman and CEO of Intel, Andrew Grove, in his book High Output Management. In a nutshell, it means acknowledging that skill (education and training) and will (readiness for responsibility and achievement orientation) are not necessarily always balanced, and will vary for the same individual depending on the task.
For instance, the person you’re getting to design a new website may be an A-player on your team. But as talented as they are at design, have they ever focused on conversion-rate optimization? Will you be setting them up for success if you just let them take a swing at it alone? Being realistic and specific about ability levels allows leaders to extend autonomy in a calibrated way, to empower people without allowing them to flounder.
Keep an open door
The difference between delegation and abdication, though, ultimately comes down to not how the project starts, or ends, but how leaders offer support in the middle. The worst-case scenario is to discover your team has been silently struggling, without the right channels for support and encouragement. And avoiding this requires keeping an open door, so you can keep a pulse on your employees’ concerns.
Moreover, the key is to frame these check-ins as a resource—not an obligation—and as a way to empower your team members to get the help they need. Ideally, it’s not an occasion for you to grill them; instead, it’s a chance for them to make use of you. This is encapsulated in the servant-leader management style, or a leader who understands and serves the team’s needs, not the other way around. Further, don’t neglect a need to stay transparent. It’s helpful to have a shared place where people track their progress, both in terms of milestones and metrics, so that you can check in quickly and easily throughout the project. This can be an in-depth metrics dashboard, or something as simple as a shared document.
The power of this framework for delegating is that it should transcend a company’s size. Therefore, the power of knowing when to delegate—and when not to—applies regardless of whether you’re a new startup or a growing enterprise.
Greg Smith is the founder and CEO of Thinkific, a digital platform for creating and selling online courses.