Here’s how you can succeed at delegating employees

by Robert Glazer
Republished from Ladders July 12, 2018

A few years ago, I started to hear complaints that senior managers were being dragged into weekly client calls — which is not how people in that role should be spending their time. Upon investigation, it turned out that during vacations, lower-level managers were covering their accounts “up” — in other words, asking supervisors to take calls or meetings for them. On the surface this seemed reasonable, but the practice was stretching our directors thin and depriving our associates of major opportunities for growth.

Learning to delegate is one of the toughest challenges facing new managers, and it is a skill that’s critical to making a successful transition from strong individual contributor to team leader.

Successfully delegating everyday tasks frees managers for more strategic, big-picture thinking. But first, you’ve got to get your head out of the weeds.

The most important first step in mastering the skill of delegating is to accept that no task will ever be accomplished exactly the way you would have done it yourself. You have to understand that if your team can produce 85 or 90 percent of what you want without significant involvement from you, that’s a big win.

How do you get there?

Often new managers are reluctant to give employees the real-world experience they need to grow, especially in client-facing roles where mistakes can have consequences with important clients. This is particularly true in a B2B service business. However, as in sports, if players/employees practice and never get real game time, they can’t get better. Eventually, they need that real-world experience.

What’s the solution to this dilemma? “Cover down.”

When our managers covered “up,” they not only created more work for those above them, they also ensured that no one farther down the chain of command gained any real experience running calls or meetings on their own. This proved a problem when the time came for those same managers to find someone to promote.

Few managers had ever thought to “cover down,” i.e., have the junior people on their teams step up for these temporary opportunities. They were too worried about mistakes and about their team members’ lack of experience.

But here is the thing: While covering calls and meetings is a dull obligation for someone in a higher role, it’s an exciting opportunity for someone in a junior position. A lower-level employee is therefore likely to come into that call or meeting over-prepared and ready to make a very positive impression.

Some of the best times to cover down are during vacations, travel, or when multiple meetings conflict.

Use these breaks as opportunities to let some of your up-and-coming team members spread their wings and get some real “reps” — knowing that the extra responsibility is only temporary. The ultimate goal is to grow your people to take on your job so you can have a greater one. You simply have to trust them at some point to go out on their own.

In the case of meetings, begin by letting subordinates listen in on a few client calls, then give them a chance to handle some on their own — while you listen in. Don’t intervene until after the call unless there is a real disaster. Instead, coach them afterward. This is how great sales managers train salespeople, they are willing to let them blow a few sales to learn the ropes. Real-world failure is a powerful teacher.

Finally, try covering down during a vacation. Make sure you debrief when you get back, reviewing what worked and what didn’t. If it’s a call, you can even have your team member record it so that you can go over it in detail when you return.

This “cover-down” strategy has paid off well for us in the long term, as we have found it’s a great way to test out someone in an elevated role for a prolonged period of time, such as during a maternity leave. If the temporary promotion doesn’t work well, you have a natural out. However, in most cases we’ve found the person rises to the occasion. This makes it possible to elevate that team member down the line and shows us who might be ready for more responsibility

So, the next time you are facing a gap due to vacation or leave time, consider pushing someone junior on your team to step up. Over time, you might find that the more you cover down, the more you are able to grow your team and take on new challenges yourself.

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