By Cheryl Magen
One hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt advised us that “the best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” With all due respect to President Roosevelt, this is easier said than done.
Why delegating is important
A recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that nearly half of all companies surveyed were concerned about their employees’ ability to delegate work – and with good reason. When organizational leaders don’t delegate, they become overworked, stressed and unhappy. But they’re not the only ones affected; failure to delegate properly adversely impacts an entire organization. Because leaders who don’t delegate lack time to spend on “big picture” responsibilities, no one has time to ensure that the mission of their organization is being fulfilled. Further, by insisting on doing everything themselves, these leaders create a bottleneck, which slows down everyone they work with. Worst of all, the organization’s staff lose out on opportunities to gain new skills and experiences. When these sorts of growth opportunities aren’t available, employees feel undervalued and inadequate, and often leave the organization altogether.
Why don’t we delegate?
Despite the importance of delegating, that same Institute for Corporate Productivity study found that only 28% of all the companies surveyed offered any sort of employee training on how to properly delegate. Proper training is key because delegating can be scary! According to the Harvard Business Review, some of the most commonly cited reasons for failure to delegate are:
- Perfectionism: “It’s easier to just do everything myself.”
- Self-enhancement Bias: “My work is better than everyone else’s.”
- Insecurity: “Delegating work will make me less important.”
- Low Self-confidence: “I don’t want to be upstaged by subordinates.”
How to delegate
Having heard these and countless other excuses during my years as a mentor to leadership executives, I developed the “Boomerang” technique of delegation. Imagine a boomerang: when used correctly, a boomerang returns to the person who threw it. A good manager operates on a similar principle. First, the manager throws the boomerang by delegating a specific responsibility to an employee. The boomerang returns to the manager when the employee reports back after the completion of that task. The cycle then continues with the employee being given additional tasks and continuing to boomerang back to the manager for progress reports and additional responsibilities.
I have taught this management technique for a number of years to students at the William Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It is a particularly valuable tool for these graduate students because, as young leaders often just beginning their careers, the Boomerang technique defuses some of the fears associated with delegating work by requiring regular check-ins and keeping leaders consistently apprised of the status of ongoing projects.
Don’t chuck it
You can’t just chuck a boomerang – or odds are it will wind up landing somewhere other than back in your hand. Similarly, in order for the Boomerang technique to be successful, a leader needs to take certain initial steps. Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo, tells managers to “Give people a vision, rules about how to get there and deadlines.” This advice is the basis for the “Four D’s,” which make up the initial steps to Boomerang management:
- Detail. Clearly articulate goals and discuss how the finished product will appear. It is important that your staff understand the “big picture” so that they understand the purpose of their work and become invested in the project.
- Divide. Chunk the project into clearly defined tasks. Breaking goals into manageable tasks helps to empower staff and makes large projects feel less overwhelming.
- Delegate. Enumerate several clear tasks that need to be accomplished. Meet with your staff and discuss who will be completing certain tasks.
- Deadline. Give a short but reasonable deadline to return with the tasks completed. The goal is for the employee to be given adequate time to independently complete whatever task they have been assigned, but not so much time as to be inefficient.
Boomerang like a pro(fessional)
Let’s take a look at a case study in order to see the Boomerang technique in action. Consider the following facts:
The Aleph Agency hosts an annual staff recognition event. Traditionally, this event was a very formal affair with expensive food and polite clapping. In prior years, the CEO had honored only a few employees for their outstanding contributions to Aleph Agency, and while those employees who were honored did feel modestly appreciated, the overwhelming majority of employees who were not mentioned felt unappreciated. Aleph Agency’s CEO Chana has a new vision for this year’s staff recognition event: a more informal gathering with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, and some stand-up comedy for entertainment. CEO Chana wants to make sure that every employee feels appreciated at the event, so her vision also includes presentations by each department head, group awards for each department, a few outstanding individual recognition awards, and gift cards for each employee to take home. CEO Chana asks VP Vered to work on the staff recognition event.
Sending out the boomerang: CEO Chana articulates her vision for the staff recognition event to VP Vered, who agrees that it would be good to try to do something different. Chana then outlines the planning of the event to Vered and assigns Vered the following tasks:
- Ask the other VPs and department heads for their input on the new event.
- Suggest at least 3 different venues for the event and check on the prices of those venues.
- Check Aleph Agency’s calendar and propose possible dates for the event.
- Ask Aleph Agency’s CFO for the amount budgeted for this year’s event, and for the amount actually spent on last year’s event.
Chana asks Vered to report back in a week after he completes these tasks.
In this scenario, Chana has just sent out the boomerang for the first time. By starting with small steps, particularly at the beginning, Chana can ensure that Vered is not overwhelmed by the scope of the project.
The boomerang returns: Vered comes back in a week and reports in to Chana. Most of the senior management team was positive about trying something new, however there was disagreement about whether spouses and partners should be expected to attend the event. Vered found 4 different suitable venues and presented Chana with a spreadsheet of prices for space, food and drink. Vered looked at the calendar and found two possible Sunday evenings for the event in the spring if spouses were included; he also found two weekday evenings that could work if the event was employees-only. Vered reported that the total spent on the event last year was $8,500, but that this year, because of the recession, only $7,000 had been budgeted for the event.
Here, Vered has completed the tasks he was given and reported back to Chana; thus the boomerang has returned to her. By checking in on a frequent basis, Chana can correct any missteps or miscommunications early in the project, thereby ensuring that the final event is successful and true to her vision.
Sending the boomerang out again: CEO Chana reviews VP Vered’s work and thanks him for his hard work on the staff recognition event so far (providing positive reinforcement is key!). Chana then asks Vered to complete the following tasks:
- Compose a questionnaire to be sent out to the entire company polling the employees on whether they would prefer to come to a Sunday evening event with spouses/significant others, or an event held on a weekday evening that was limited to Aleph Agency employees.
- Call some similarly-sized companies in the area and ask about their staff recognition events. Ask about the typical gift that was given to the staff.
- Compile a list of suggestions for a 5-person committee to work on the details of the staff recognition event.
Chana asks Vered to send the questionnaire to her Personal Assistant, Polly, by the next day, and complete the other tasks by the end of the week. They schedule a follow-up meeting for the following Monday.
Having successfully completed the first round of tasks, Chana sends the boomerang out of a second time, delegating slightly more complex work to Vered while still maintaining stewardship of the event. By reviewing and complimenting Vered’s work on a frequent basis, Chana can provide a sense of rapid accomplishment and success.
The boomerang returns again: The following Monday, Chana and Vered meet to discuss his progress. Chana had already tweaked the language of the questionnaire that Vered composed, and then Personal Assistant Polly sent the questionnaire out to all of Aleph Agency’s employees. Vered presented the results of his calls with similar companies, reporting that two of the companies had no recognition events but were intrigued by the idea. The other three companies that Vered contacts had annual recognition events similar to what Aleph Agency had held in the past, with a few employees being recognized with $1,000 bonuses. One of those companies reported that these bonuses did cause some tension, but also helped to promote some healthy competition. Chana agreed with 4 of the 5 names that Vered proposed to work on the staff recognition event committee; she switched one name in order to ensure that all levels of Aleph Agency would be represented.
Here, Vered has once again successfully completed all the tasks he was given and reported back to Chana.
Throwing the boomerang farther: Having successfully used the boomerang technique to delegate these previous tasks, CEO Chana can now feel more comfortable handing off increasing levels of responsibility to VP Vered, while checking in less frequently. Moving forward, Chana should give Vered larger tasks (e.g. preparing a budget, developing non-monetary awards that could be donated from various sources, working with the event committee, etc.) while continuing to check in via weekly emails. The goal is for Chana to ultimately be able to leave the project in the hands of Vered and the event committee, while having the recognition event retain her imprint.
The boomerang technique allows leaders to delegate work, while retaining stewardship of large projects, thus ultimately allowing organizations to accomplish as much as possible. Because employees are overseen more heavily at the beginning of a project, any errors or miscommunications can be cleared up early, ensuring of a successful final product, while creating a positive learning experience for the employees involved. So, when the opportunity arises, stop holding on to every piece of a project – try letting go of some responsibility and allowing your staff to boomerang back to you instead.
Cheryl Magen is a career consultant who provides support to executives, educators and clergy in organizational strategies and leadership techniques. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, where she provides career coaching to students and alumni.