Letting go — How to tap the explosive power of delegation

CIO Asif Ahmad believes good managers aren’t the ones who can do it all.

Rather, the most effective managers are the ones know how to pick which tasks to do themselves and which to hand off to staffers. “Otherwise, the work will never get done,” says Ahmad, vice president and CIO at Duke University Health System.

Delegating is easier said than done, however, particularly for new IT managers who may be used to being judged on their technical expertise and individual contributions. Everything changes once you get bumped up to management ranks. There, you’re judged by how well you help your team perform.

Delegating is one way to develop your team’s skills and ensure that work gets done on time, says former CIO Gail F. Farnsley, now a visiting professor at Purdue University’s College of Technology. Another added benefit: delegating can help groom employees to move up in the ranks and fill in when needs arise.

But it’s an acquired skill that doesn’t come easily. Naomi Karten, principal of Karten Associates, a training and consulting firm in Randolph, Mass., says when she was first offered a management position in IT, she wasn’t sure she wanted it because she realized that she would have to get satisfaction through the successes of others. “It takes some letting go,” she admits.

Successful delegation is a thoughtful, multistep discipline that requires careful assessment, communication and support. With practice, it can become more intuitive — if you take the time to learn it properly from the outset.

“People think it’s very natural: You just tell people what to do. But that’s not true. There’s a process,” says former IT executive Eric P. Bloom, president and founder of Manager Mechanics LLC, a management training firm in Ashland, Mass.

We asked seasoned IT managers, consultants and management coaches to share the processes they’ve used to successfully delegate and develop happy teams of tech workers. Here’s what they had to say.

Determine your duties

To make the shift from technical expert to skillful manager, IT professionals need to start with a clear sense of what’s expected of them, says Farnsley.

It’s important to understand what duties, particularly the high-visibility ones, your boss expects you to handle yourself — and which ones he doesn’t expect you to handle. Look at the metrics your boss uses to judge your performance. If you’re expected to develop strategy, for example, then diving in to help fix a program bug — even one in code that you yourself wrote — is no longer part of your job description, however painful it might be to let it go.

“You tend to get into all the urgent things, but they’re not all important,” Farnsley says.

Managers who can’t let go run the risk of burning themselves out and, potentially, bringing their team down with them. Management consultant Erik Van Slyke recalls one IT vice president he worked with who was charged with bringing new technology into an HR company.

Her team, which included the vendor’s people as well as her own technical staff, was responsible for developing a project plan. As project manager, the vice president should have assigned specific tasks to specific staffers, says Van Slyke, a founding partner of Solleva Group LLC, a Princeton, N.J.-based consultancy. But she failed to properly delegate, and in the end she devised on her own a plan that pleased no one.

“She failed because she thought her job was to be the most proficient technically,” he says. “She should have assessed what capability she had and what others brought to the table, and then handed off some of the tasks.”

Know your team’s skills

As supervisor of IT desktop support at The Jackson Laboratory, Roy Atkinson needs to make sure that the 1,553 laptops and desktops used by the company’s 1,400 employees are up and running. That’s challenging enough, but the Bar Harbor, Maine, genetics research organization uses both PCs and Macs and its workers also have varied and sometimes highly complex software requirements.

That means Atkinson needs to delegate assignments among his four-person team. His first step is to assess each team member’s skills and then determine who has the right combination of hardware and software skills, and PC vs. Mac experience, to match with each assignment.

“It’s really about knowing the skill sets of the people on my team and being able to point them at specific tasks that fit their skill sets or something that will [push] them to the next level,” he explains.

If a researcher has a grant deadline approaching and urgently needs to have his Mac fixed, for instance, Atkinson says he’ll hand off the assignment to a worker with Mac skills who’s readily available. But if there’s a long-term project, he says he’ll consider someone who needs to learn more about the task at hand or the area of the organization impacted by the project, bolstered by “a good safety net of people to work with or ask for help.”

Assign stretch projects

Indeed, delegating isn’t just about offloading menial tasks or balancing the workload throughout the department; ideally, it should help develop your workers’ specific skills, Farnsley says. So when you assess your staff’s abilities, identify which projects could help them stretch in the areas that they need to develop.

For example, she once managed a young worker with great communication and interpersonal skills who wanted to advance in IT. However, he didn’t have in-depth technical knowledge because he came from procurement. Despite some concerns from colleagues about his lack of technical knowledge, Farnsley assigned him to develop a strategic planning process for IT.

“I knew he was quick to learn and would ask me if he needed help, so I threw him into the deep end,” she says. “In the end, he learned a lot about IT by working in the IT department, working with senior leaders, [and] putting together presentations for senior people in the company.”

The assignment helped ready him for a more senior role that he took two years later, Farnsley adds.

Detail your expectations

As a manager, you’re likely to have a clear idea about what you want to achieve with each task you take off your plate.

But if you don’t communicate your expectations to your workers, you’re not setting them up to succeed, Karten says.

“When a manager gives a subordinate a responsibility, there has to be some kind of agreement about what the task is, what the communication has to be during the process, how that [worker] will communicate, how success will be measured and some acknowledgment that the task was completed and whether it was completed well or not. That’s the responsibility of the manager,” Karten says.

Social media speaker and consultant Patrick O’Malley says when he was a high-tech executive, he was very detailed about who needed to do what when. (Among other jobs, he was vice president of operations at Web search engine developer Northern Light Group in Cambridge, Mass.)

O’Malley also learned to be very specific about deadlines, setting them early to leave a cushion of time in case there were any unforeseen obstacles, such as illnesses or problems with code.

“I would get status updates and I’d do it in a group, which makes people feel like they’re part of a team. That way they understand that other people depend on them, and it gives them a better sense of accountability as well as a better sense of the larger community,” he adds.

Allocate resources, provide support

When Farnsley assigned that inexperienced IT worker to develop a strategic planning process, she says she made it clear to her staff leaders that they’d have to provide him some support. “I told them that they had to offer their expertise [and that] they had a responsibility to give their input,” she says.

Access to higher-ups might be just part of what workers will need on any given project. They might also need the authority to assign tasks to colleagues, access restricted company data or spend money. And they’ll need time.

“One thing that people forget is that the key resource is time,” Farnsley says.

“Managers might delegate something [to an employee] but then don’t take something else off their plate, and often workers don’t want to turn down a good assignment but they’re already busy. So you need to give them the time to get the project done.”

When delegating a task or project, you as manager should make sure your subordinate knows who she can turn to for help, and you should make sure the others know that as well. “They might have to cajole other people or put together a team, so you need to make sure the other people know that this is an expectation from you,” Farnsley says.

Boston-based IT consultant Rick Farquharson says he formalized that support process when he was CIO at Babson Capital Management LLC. The IT department identified experienced IT staffers and subject matter experts to serve on what Farquharson called an “on-track consulting team” to mentor colleagues through projects.

Hold everyone accountable

At Duke University Health Systems, Ahmad says delegating works best when everyone does it and everyone is held accountable. Every manager, including the CIO, needs to make successful delegation one of his goals, Ahmad believes. “It should be on your personal performance scorecard.”

Ahmad works with his managers and supervisors to develop delegation skills, and he monitors their progress. “I meet with all levels of staff to see how it’s functioning for them,” he says.

That said, Ahmad allows his managers to make their own decisions about how best to achieve results, and he encourages them to empower their staff members in the same way. “Even my help desk person feels empowered. They’ve been delegated to manage clients as they feel they should without being micromanaged,” he says.

Out of that empowerment, he says, comes accountability — and employees who are comfortable being judged by the outcome of the tasks they’ve been assigned.

“For me,” says Ahmad, “delegating means you’re holding people responsible for the job they were hired to do.”

Don’t micromanage

Former IT manager Eric P. Bloom, president and founder of Manager Mechanics, a management training firm in Ashland, Mass., saw leadership potential in one of his senior programmers. So he assigned her to work with an intern. His plan was to have the intern take on some of the programmer’s lower-level tasks while the senior programmer gained some management experience.

It didn’t work out that way. Instead, the programmer micromanaged, and both parties were unhappy.

“The intern was miserable. He was being told, ‘Put this here, and do this there.’ And [the programmer] spent so much time micromanaging that she was actually less productive,” Bloom says, noting that he had to step in and guide her as she learned to manage.

Many managers, particularly new ones, go through the same experience. They have a hard time letting others take over and perform tasks in their own style. Instead, they remain overly involved in day-to-day details. The results are demoralized staff, overworked managers and poorly executed tasks.

“I don’t see any benefit in micromanaging whatsoever,” says Mal Griffin, CIO of Canada’s Interior Health Authority. “Individuals hate it, and they’re not going to excel because they’re always going to be looking over their shoulders.”

To avoid that trap, IT managers need to give workers the freedom to make their own decisions while still being available to monitor progress and offer help when it’s needed.

Achieving that balance, Griffin says, is the real challenge of being a good delegator.

He and others say there’s no single formula for achieving the right balance, other than the need to beware of the micromanagement trap. Griffin says to ask yourself, “Would I want someone managing me the way I’m managing others?” The answer will give you the insight you need.

“You need to know what’s going on, but you don’t need to be involved every step of the way. You need to let go,” Griffin says.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at [email protected].

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