How You Can Delegate Without Micromanaging

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Julian Birkinshaw

Are you delegating, or just micromanaging?

Dr. Julian Birkinshaw is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship as well as the deputy dean for executive education at the London Business School. He's the author of 15 books. He's ranked in the thinkers 50 list of the world's most influential management thinkers. His new book is Mind Tools for Managers: 100 Ways to be a Better Boss.

I recently interviewed Dr. Birkinshaw for the LEADx Leadership Show, where we discussed the secret to effective delegation. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Why is delegating so important?

Dr. Julian Birkinshaw: Delegating is the heart of being an effective boss because most of us like to be in control. Most of us like this feeling that “I know exactly what's going on.” When my boss asks me, I can answer all the difficult questions. The trouble is that if you would know absolutely everything, that means you're the one doing it. It does not come naturally to us to give work away, to say to a colleague, “Here is an important task. I want you to figure out how to do it.”

Delegating is the heart of the job and yet most of us just don't do it. We don't take the time to structure the project and the work of our subordinates in a way that makes that work interesting and valuable. That's the key because, in order to delegate effectively, you've actually got to take a little bit of time to figure out what it is that you're asking someone to do. You don't just say, “Do this. Do this. Do this.” That's not delegation. That is micromanagement.

Kruse: How should we be delegating a task or a project?

Dr. Birkinshaw: The starting point is dead simple: Put yourself in the shoes of your employee. What is it that gets them out of bed? Why do they come to work? There's lots of very well known research. They want a little bit of freedom. They want the freedom to come up with their own task, their own way of doing things, their own problems to solve. They'd like to have a chance to develop their own skills. They need to have a sense that they are doing something which links to a higher purpose.

All of those things are what you were trying to do; management is getting work done through other people and enabling them to do their best work. And so if you think about it and you try to find ways of taking jobs, breaking them down, making them interesting, you will get untold bounties from your subordinates because they've finally been given a real job to do. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of, as I say, managing them by giving them tiny little tasks to do. If they don't understand those tasks, they can't bring their own creativity to bear in those projects.

Kruse: What's one of your favorite tools in your book?

Dr. Birkinshaw: I like to start with the tools around managing yourself. Making yourself much more aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. You can do that through a personal SWOT analysis. The heart of it is saying, “I've got to this stage in my career where I know pretty well now there are things I'm very good at. And there are things that either I'm not good at or I'm just not that interested in.” And actually drawing up that inventory of things you’re good at, things you love and would want somebody else helping with. Actually, that is the step that you have to take every month or so in order to make sure that you're doing your job well.

Because having done that analysis there's a couple of things you can do, one obviously is genuinely take some courses or whatever to develop your skills. But the other thing you can do is particularly if you're reasonably senior, you can get somebody to actually take some of those jobs from you. I like big picture stuff. I'm not into all the details. I can do a spreadsheet if I have to but that's not what I want to do. I'm in a position where I can hire a really good person to do all of that detail financial analysis because that's a skill that some people have and some people like doing.

Building up that complementary set of skills to help you to essentially give yourself a rounded personality. That's what you should be doing. 

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The right way to look at delegation is through a lens of strengths. It’s tempting to take on all tasks yourself, but its best to take stock of your own strengths and the strengths of your direct reports. You may find that giving out the right task to an interested employee will increase engagement as well as productivity.

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Kevin Kruse
NY Times bestselling author, Inc 500 entrepreneur, and keynote speaker on Wholehearted Leadership and Extreme Productivity. Download 'How Millionaires Plan Their Day: A 1-Page Tool' at http://kevinkruse.leadpages.co/1page/