Professionals understand delegation is beneficial, yet few are compelled to do enough of it. Let's see if some of the thoughts below help create more movement toward delegation behaviors.
In my previous post entitled "The Profitability Problem" I touched on several factors that deserve much deeper discussion. Leverage aka "delegation" is one.
In a comment to that post, David Maister suggested that I skated over the topic of delegation (or leverage)--that I "gave up" and suggested firms just won't get better at this. And he is right, it deserves deeper discussion. I promptly sketched out some thoughts right then and there, but I didn't finish constructing the post until I saw David's post today (which I cite below).
My thoughts fall into 3 major categories:
- delegation & profitability
- delegation & marketing, and
- delegation & personnel retention
A positive person by nature, I am fairly cynical about whether most firms will care to improve much in the area of delegation. This frustrates me immensely though I certainly appreciate how hard it is to delegate high level, important work.
My cynicism comes from observing that so many professionals--people who are highly intelligent and understand advantages of work flow--are STILL not compelled, despite their knowledge of the benefits--to get beyond their work-hoarding behaviors.
Nearly every manager or partner level person I talk to readily admits they do significant amounts of work that their employees should be well-skilled to perform. Most tell me their people need more training. That they cannot be trusted to do it as well as they themselves can or--the killer--as "efficiently" as they can.
The root of this, many will confess if I ask, is related to their own perfectionist and/or micromanaging behaviors. To this I will only say one thing:
How do you feel when people you work for won't entrust you with work that others at your peer level are doing? How long would you stick around?
Again, the majority of professionals I meet tell me they are guilty of this at some level. That is why I would call this a serious crisis of the professions.
I needn't spend much time stating why or how delegation helps improve profits in the long-term. I will remind that some investment time is to be expected when starting any person doing that which they haven't done before. If you happen to bill by the hour, this may show up as a small decrease in the realization %. To that I say "get over it" -- it is a short-term pinch for a long-term payoff.
The number one barrier firms encounter--bigger, even, than poor sales skills--is lack of capacity (at upper levels) for taking on more work.
This very real issue subconsciously or consciously prohibits people from marketing. When they tell me "time" it's because they are too busy working IN the business to work properly ON the business. This can only be fixed by teaching others to do what you do. Period.
Why is this so necessary? Delegation has numerous benefits:
- retain the smartest, most proactive and knowledgeable people (more on this below)
- perform that work at more profitable levels going forward (as per above)
- create "more" teachers throughout the firm so you only have to teach at the beginning, then others can take that over!
- ensure that customers will stick around when partners slow down or retire because others CAN do what only the partner can do presently
- free up partners from the technical responsibilities that prohibit them from properly nurturing client and new business relationships
- avail capacity for more profitable work
For those who HAVE capacity and say that's not a barrier for them, delegation is still crucial. Maybe this observation will be compelling:
I observe that once practitioners enter the "gray hair" phase of their career (35ish and up), many enjoy an easier time being selected by would-be new clients. And that's all well and good.
But once practitioners appear to be within 5-10 years of retirement, getting hired can be considerably more difficult. "Why is that?" they'll ask, quite frustrated and stating, "I have more knowledge and wisdom now than ever before."
Having spoken with many practitioners in that nearing retirement phase (55/60 and up) I observe they are either:
a) suddenly struggling more than ever to land new business or
b) bringing in as much new business as ever, and perhaps even more than before (a precious few are in this category)
The major difference between the "a" and "b" people is this:
"B" people are those who, for many years, have not been the main people doing the work they bring in. In other words, those hiring them know they are hiring an expert with a competent team.
The "a" people are those who don't team-sell or team-serve, they are the practitioners who have primarily been the do-ers. Because they haven't built a team of people under them who perform work at a high-quality level and whom they can trust, they are selling only themselves.
While getting first-hand partner involvement may have appeal to buyers when the professional had many years in practice before him, it poses a large negative when the professional is in the final decade or so of his/her career. Who wants to hire someone who will be retiring soon and has no one around them to take over?
The "a" people become frustrated, bored, and have low billable hours and low origination. It's not a pleasant situation for them and it's a real let-down of a way to end a productive career.
The more profitable and culturally upbeat of firms I've seen have
two three main things going for them:
- Partners and managers perform work oversight (as opposed to detail work). Partners spend a lot of time deepening relationships with customers and referral sources. Managers spend a lot of time teaching those below them, reviewing their work, and providing constructive feedback.
- Young people stick around and are motivated. They aren't bored and don't feel chronically under-appreciated like their peers in other firms.
- They are happier
This creates TWO great results that could be described as the chicken/egg syndrome:
One is that, because the young people stick around and do better and better work as time goes on, the delegators feel confident that their training isn't for naught. The second is that, because the delegators empower them to do interesting and meaningful work, the young people stick around.
Today, David posted "Keeping the Kids" in which he recommends the following needs of young folks and strategies for inspiring them to stick around:
What a young person needs (in addition to a good paycheck) - in fact what he or she MUST have - is the opportunity to work on stretching, challenging interesting things - the chance to build skills.
Without this, they can not develop themselves and have a career - they will be stuck in low added-value jobs. For someone who has not yet "made it", learning and growing is not a "nice-to-have" - it's critical.
If they are not learning new things, they HAVE to move on in order to have a career and get somewhere with their work lives.
So, there's a very simple secret to solve the twin dilemma of how to both hold on to mobile young people AND to justify their ever-escalating salaries. It is this - make sure that they are put to their highest and best use.
To do this requires that the organization has no "under-delegation" - work currently being done by a more senior person that could be done by the more junior person. It means that companies must outperform their competitors in establishing procedures, processes, templates, forms, databanks, knowledge systems and a multitude of other tools to ensure that the (expensive) junior talent can be economically justified by producing ever-increasing high-value output.
I think David hits the nail on the head with this. Be sure to read the rest of his post, as well. It is quite good.
To summarize my thoughts above, I'll recommend some first steps to address under-delegation. The firm has to work on getting better at these things:
- Accepting that people will make mistakes. People MUST make some mistakes in order to learn. Heck, you probably even made a couple when you were learning all that you now know.
- Accepting that time spent teaching (and learning from mistakes) is not a "waste" of time nor is it something that should be held against teachers or learners. It is a critical investment.
- Trusting others and believing in their ability to perform in the long run (see #1)
- Identifying what needs to be taught and creating processes to teach it
- Showing people what resources are available to them to locate information and troubleshoot
- Allowing open conversations in which juniors can ask for help or direction without being made to feel "dumb"
Realize that, for every firm that says "it's a people problem--we don't have the right people with the right skills," there is a firm that has a fundamental management problem that created the situation with the "wrong people with the wrong skills."
Delegation, if done with training and understanding, is a cure for this.