The Power of Delegation & Nurturing Top Teams

This will be my last entry into this chapter on my life and lessons learned in corporate, before we embark into a new chapter that focuses on a sneaky little feeling we probably all know: something feels off and it may be time to leave.

Today’s entry is really near and dear to my heart, has inspired certain approaches in my coaching practice, and truly is a personal philosophy the development of which I am very proud of. So, let’s get into it.

No matter at what level I was, I couldn’t help but notice that the higher I climbed in the corporate matrix organization, the more swamped I felt and the less time I had to actually do things. It felt like there was an ever-increasing deluge of:

  • Cross-enterprise projects, that you don’t necessarily execute, but for which you must show up to represent the interests of your department and team
  • Last minute emergencies
  • Random urgencies that don’t have a clear accountable party assigned to it, so it lands on your desk because you are “the senior person”
  • Human resources everything

The list goes on, but I think you get the gist. The bottom line is that all managers know parts of this. Yet, the scales truly tip towards the above being your daily, and slightly stale, bread and butter when you assume executive leadership positions. More and more we lose the time and rewarding luxury to actually put our own hands to work and produce things, rather than just orchestrate them.

For me, this is where the power of delegation came in. I complained to a fabulous mentor once that I didn’t have enough time, I needed more team, more resources, less admin, less people wanting something from me. Her response was superb and lastingly changed my perspective:

“Vero, I would try to not look at this as a pure numbers game. Rather, as a leader, ask yourself what kind of impact you want to have, what the legacy of the department you are leading at the moment should be, what you want your unique value proposition to be. Then look at everything that is on your plate. Everything is important, but pick those things that speak to your personal ambition and allow yourself to do them with your own hands. Delegate the rest.”

Easier said than done right? There are two key ingredients to delegation that I discovered and want to share with you all.

Trust Is Everything

Image by Hannah Busing

I think you build trust with your team on an interpersonal level by getting to know each other overtime and showing up for them. The other element however is clarity. It was always critical to me that my team knew exactly what I was expecting from them. What they should escalate to me and what I would expect them to resolve themselves. What kind of programmed touchpoints we would have and when. Agreement on what their growth areas were and how I would measure their performance. If you have this clarity and proven that it works over time, you can step away from their day to day. You can stop worrying. You can stop hovering. You can use your own hands to work on things that are aligned with your desired impact and joy.

I’ve always said to my teams:

I am a roadblock remover, rather than a controller that will slow you down by asking for updates every 5 minutes. I want to trust that you will escalate things to me that you cannot resolve yourselves. I am here if you need a tie-breaker, if there is an impasse or obstacle to overcome, for example in a collaboration with another department that doesn’t see things the same way.

This doesn’t happen overnight. Especially with more junior employees that haven’t been in managerial positions yet, you will have to invest more time and explore this balance of over- and under sharing together. It involves letting them fail into either direction, and being ok with that. Clarity and rules are one thing, but the other is giving your people the freedom to build their confidence and intuition around this balance.

On a personal level, this also required a shift in how I experienced rewards. As the head of a department, you have visibility, even for people that don’t know you personally. I would often have someone from another department ring me up and ask me to solve something for them or decide on something for them. Doing that would have been easy, and I would have appeared, on the surface, in a good light and boosted my reputation. A quick win. But I had delegated, and truth be told, was not the most qualified person to respond. It took diligence and rethinking, but my signature response (that garnered a bit of notoriety, truth be told) was:

Have you checked with my team? They have my trust, they’ll sort you out.

An Empowered Learning Organization Is Also Everything

Now, I said there were two key ingredients. One is trust with your team, but the other is trust among your team. I always wanted them to first look to one another for solutions before coming to me. Not out of disinterest or feeling like I had more important things to do, my door was always open. I did it because I wanted to nurture their creative problem solving skills, their independence, their trust in one another.

I found the key to doing this to reside in building systems, especially the system of a learning organization that empowered them to make their own choices. We would always have full staff meetings in which I could help direct this peer-to-peer learning. We would share successes, hurdles, worries, insights, cross-pollinate ideas, make time for laughter and quality time. It put the notion of top teams to the forefront of our thinking, as opposed to top talent. Top talent is always anchored in some marker of celebrity, it sets certain individuals apart from others, creates a fracture in trust. And more often than not, top talent doesn’t stay top talent for long. They get burdened with expectation and ever-increasing workloads until they, often, crash. A top team is like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. Everybody knows that they must be there for one another, trust one another, and master challenges together.

And so I ask you:

Would you feel more at ease taking 2-3 weeks of consecutive time off knowing that you have a team with 1 or 2 top talents, or a team of 10 that all know themselves to be part of a top team enabled by trust? I can tell you from personal experience: it is the latter.

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