How to Delegate and How to Maximize Staff Productivity

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By Neal Coonerty

Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz

The following is the text of a presentation made by Neal Coonerty, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, as part of ABA's all-day educational programming on Thursday, May 29, at BookExpo America.

Let's review the problem.

Perfectionist. Can't delegate. Compulsive. Control freak. Pathological micromanager. It's an entrepreneurial condition that goes by many names, but it's also an affliction that keeps you from expanding your business and enjoying its success. If you want to have ultimate control, then open a one-man hot-dog stand.

You may be a great bookseller, but maybe right now you aren't enjoying it as much anymore, and your store is beginning to feel out of control. As your business becomes more complex, it should become clear that you can no longer micromanage -- a trait that your staff already finds very irritating.

Running a business isn't a job -- it's a dozen or more jobs. When you hand off jobs, it means you will have more time and energy to focus on what it is you do best, and want to do most, which will translate into increased success in your business.

The top 10 usual reasons (also known as "excuses") not to delegate

1. I could do it better myself.
2. I don't know if I can trust her to do it.
3. He isn't qualified to do it.
4. She doesn't want any added responsibilities.
5. I don't have the time to show anyone how to do it.
6. There is no one else to delegate to.
7. He already has enough to do.
8. I don't want to give up this task because I like doing it.
9. I'm the only person who knows how to do this.
10. She messed up last time, so I'm not giving her anything else to do.

Learning to delegate is a skill that is critically important to developing and maintaining a strong business and to creating a sense among each member of your staff that they are an important part of a team. Delegating means sharing the workload, but it also means sharing the fun and satisfaction that come from accomplishing something that others appreciate.

Consequences of poor delegating

1. Leaders become burnt out.
2. If leaders leave the business, no one has the experience to carry on.
3. Group morale is low and staff become frustrated and feel powerless.
4. Information and decision-making are not shared by the group.
5. Skills and information are concentrated in a few people.
6. New members of the staff can't find ways to contribute to the team.

What to delegate

1. Don't delegate what you can eliminate. If you shouldn't be doing an activity, then perhaps no one should be doing it.
2. Delegate things that are not part of your core competency. In small business, these may include accounting, Web site design, deliveries, hardware upkeep, software help, graphic design, legal issues, and human resource functions such as payroll. Hire to cover your weakness, don't try to do everything yourself because, more than likely, you will do it poorly.
3. Delegate routine activities, even though you don't want to: routine activities such as fact-finding assignments, collection of data for reports, photocopying, printing and collating, and data entry. You need to focus your time and your skills, so get someone else to handle these activities.
4. Talk to your staff members. Find out their competencies. Sometimes all skills do not come out in an interview. It is critical that you know some of the key, hidden skills of your staff. You do not want to frustrate yourself and your staff by trying to fit a perfect round peg into a square hole.
5. Some things you can't delegate: performance reviews, discipline, firing, and long-term strategy for your business.

Delegate, don't abdicate. Someone else can do the task, but you are still responsible for the completion of it and for managing the delegation process.

Realize that if you do not delegate, your staff my self-censor themselves when it comes to initiative: If it's not appreciated or wanted, why offer.

Delegation process

1. Create a plan to delegate. Don't give out assignments haphazardly.
2. Invest short-term time in training to gain a long-term increase in productivity. (Don't undermine your delegating process by shortchanging the training needed: "See, I knew no one could do it as well as I can. He failed so it proves I'm the person for the job.")
3. Realize that others may end up doing a better job than you can or may find new ways to complete a task.

Delegation instructions

1. Delegate the objective, not the procedure. Outline the desired result, not the methodology.
2. Ask for a progress report at certain times. Don't wait until something goes wrong or a deadline is passed before you check in on the job. Set up interim deadlines to see how things are going.
3. Delegate to the right person. Don't always give tasks to the strongest, most experienced, or first available person. Spread delegation around.
4. Obtain feedback from staff to ensure they feel they're being treated appropriately. A simple "How's it going with that new project?" might be all that's needed.
5. Be sure to delegate the authority along with the responsibility. Don't make people come back to you with too many minor approvals.
6. Trust people to do well and don't look over their shoulders.
7. When you finish giving instructions, the last thing to ask is "What else do you need to get started?" They'll tell you.
8. Be prepared to trade short-term errors for long-term results.
9. Give praise and feedback at the end of the project, and give additional responsibilities.
10. Once again, give praise and feedback at the end of the project. Don't forget the "thank you."

How to organize for delegating

1. Plan. It is generally true that people will be more committed to working on projects that they had some input in developing. Therefore, it is important to bring people in at the first stages of an idea, rather than at the moment that something needs to be done. You might even want to consider forming a committee, if the task warrants it, to define the tasks and deadlines.
2. Assign responsibilities. This is the stage we usually associate with delegating. If the planning has been done well, there should be few problems finding people willing to take on the necessary responsibilities. Be enthusiastic. Delegate important tasks as well as less important ones. People are more likely to be willing to do the grunt work if they have a chance to contribute to the decision-making. Try to make every task a learning experience. It might be better to ask, "Who would like to learn to make flyers for the next event?" in order to open up jobs for new people. Be clear about your expectations and get a commitment: Explain clearly what needs to happen and by when; you may then negotiate the timeline or specific parts of the assignment, but be sure you come up with an agreement that you both can commit to.
3. Follow-up. Your role doesn't end when all the jobs are assigned. Provide training, if necessary. Be accessible, in case of questions. Be encouraging; express your confidence in their abilities, encourage creativity and be tolerant of risk-taking and mistakes. Hold staff members accountable; remind them of their commitment and, if they cannot fulfill their obligation, ask them to suggest a solution that will get the job done. Finally, congratulate them; be sure to sincerely thank them for jobs well done.

One owner of a business wisely said, "The day I realized my employees could do their jobs better than I could, I finally began to figure out my real role in the business." Management's number-one function is to find the most talented, motivated, caring people available, and then get the hell out of their way.

[Author's note: While many of these pointers on how to delegate come from my own experience, I also got lots of help for this article from several different online sources. If you want more information, do a google search on "how to delegate."]

Neal Coonerty is the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California, an ABA Board member, and the immediate past president of the association.