The Self-Licking Ice-Cream Cone of Delegation

Delegate for business execution successMy latest article about delegation for the blog. Enjoy!



Bernie works as a leadership and strategic business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well. He believes that not doing anything about bad leadership, once you know about it, is abuse. And poor business practice. He believes organizations are founded on their values. He believes that the workplace is a place for both people and businesses to thrive. Not just survive. Check out his other articles at

The First Question to Ask After You Delegate

Short posting today. This is such a simple idea that I wish I’d learned it years ago. I’ve started asking my clients this question, and it even seems to work with my teenage daughter.

After you’ve decided how to delegate, and you’ve asked the person you’re delegating to set their deadline, a great way to close the delegation is to ask:

How would you like me to hold you accountable if you can’t meet your deadline?

See how that works? Now go try it.

Question for the Comments

What happens when you ask people how they want to be held to their commitments?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In

The First Question to Ask Before You Delegate
Four Different Ways to Delegate
Why Delegating to Your Staff is Good For Them

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not doing anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

The First Question to Ask Before You Delegate

There are two important questions you should consider when you’re delegating a task. Especially if it’s beyond the level of “Take action, don’t report” type. Two questions that will improve the probability of success. But asking the questions isn’t enough. How we react to the answers, and how well we follow through have the greatest impact.

The first question is:

When Can You Get This Done By?

It’s a pretty straight-forward question, and you might think I’m kidding. There are times when it’s appropriate to arbitrarily set deadlines. In reality most work isn’t life or death. And one of the biggest motivators for even rudimentary cognitive work is autonomy. The ability to govern oneself.

Many times the most productive action bosses can take is to get out of the way. Let the people working for us do what they do well. Let them figure out how to do the work instead of being treated like a cog in the machine. Maybe they don’t do it exactly the way you could, and that’s OK. It will still get done.

So when you ask this question or any question please, actually ask a question, and then have enough intestinal fortitude to respect the answer.

Actually Ask A Question

“I need you to do this.” is not a question. It doesn’t even have a question mark at the end. Yet that’s often how tasks are assigned. How much autonomy are we granting the person assigned the task when we do this? None.

If you really ask a question, use a sentence with a question mark at the end. Can you do this? and When can you do this by? are both examples of actual questions. If you need the work done by a specific date, then ask “Can you do this by Tuesday?” (or whatever the date is).

Asking puts the responsibility for completion with the delegate, increases their commitment to the task, builds a relationship, and allows them to develop their priority management skills independently. All things good managers who are committed to developing their staff will want.

And don’t worry that it will diminish your status. It won’t. Treating people like cogs in the machine will.

Respect the Answer

A wise sergeant once told me to never give an order I knew wouldn’t be obeyed. I say never ask a question that you don’t want to hear the answer to. You may have to negotiate, re-balance workload, or ask questions about priorities. And you may not like some of the answers.

Yet your job as a manager is to deal with reality, not react to the pressures put on you and pass them down. If you’re not going to manage the priorities put on you and your staff, then you’re not really needed, are you?

One of my clients called this being “a window”, just trickling down the directives and orders from on high. He’s the regional manager for a recruiting and placement firm. Last week they had no new starts in all of Western Canada, which was a huge under-performance for him and for the region. His CEO asked him “How can a region your size have no new starts in a month?”, a question for which there is no good answer.

Yet he didn’t start banging the table and  demand that people start producing. I’ve seen leaders who know better, cave under the pressure and threaten their staff with the boogey-man of “heads are going to roll” and their boss being “not happy”. And really what does anybody at the front line of an organization care if the CEO is happy or not, even if she knew what to do about it?

He has a plan for measuring, coaching, and increasing performance across the entire region, and he’s sticking to it. He’s putting the right people in place, he’s showing confidence in his staff, and they’re working their tails off for them.  He’s leading, not letting himself be buffaloed into a knee-jerk reaction.

Question for the Comments

How have you handled push-back to your delegations in the past? What do you do when somebody tells you they can’t and won’t do the work you’d like them to do?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In

Four Different Ways to Delegate
Why Delegating to Your Staff is Good For Them
You Need to Get Good At This to be a Leader

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not doing anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

Four Different Ways to Delegate

El Campesino leading the troops into the battle in BruneteDelegation is important, delegation is underutilized, and delegation doesn’t need to be complicated. If you can learn to successfully delegate, you’ll have added an important tool to your leadership toolkit.

Not everything has to be delegated in the same way. Nor does it need to be complicated, but you probably should take some time, even just 30 seconds, to decide how to delegate.

Consider these four “levels” of delegation, and which is appropriate to the task and the ability of the delegate.

Level 1: Take Action, Don’t Report

Some tasks don’t need a lot of detail, explanation, or even tracking. You trust the person assigned the task, or they’ve done the task successfully in the past. She can to act independently. If that’s the case, just go ahead and delegate.

My daughters raises rabbits in our back yard. Reminding her to feed her bunnies is an example of “fire and forget” delegation.

Level 2: Take Action, Report When Done

Either you want to ensure the task is done, or the task requires coordination with others. Be prepared to follow-up if and when the deadline passes. If they’re not responsible, and can’t or won’t do what they said they were going to do, that’s on them. If you don’t hold them accountable for it, that’s on you.

Cleaning out the bunny cage on a regular basis – a dirty, unloved chore – requires follow-up and even inspection to ensure compliance.

Level 3: Recommend Action, Get Approval

We want the delegate to do the research, make a decision, and recommend an action. They may either then be tasked with that action or not.

At this level we really start to see some of the “development” benefits of delegating. As a rule of thumb, if you believe the person you have in mind for this task can do 70% of the work, then go ahead and use them. They’ll need mentoring, coaching, and support, but that will be part of your delegation plan (more on that later).

We had a late season litter of five kits show up a couple of weeks ago. Surprise! The next local bunny and chicken auction (where all this started all those years ago, and where we could sell them at a good margin) isn’t until spring. We had to come up with other options. Listing them on Kijiji, selling them to local pet stores, or getting a second hutch and holding out for a bigger profit at the spring auction were some of the choices she considered.

Level 4: Analyse Different Options

This is appropriate for an especially complicated, challenging, or risky task. It’s also a huge opportunity to get insight into and shape the thinking of the person delegated to. At this level you are explicitly reserving the right to decide which option, if any, to choose. You may also decide to focus on researching and analyzing more thoroughly the most promising options after the initial report.

Since Nichole (the daughter) might be moving out to go to college next fall, we have to start planning for what we’re going to do with the rabbits. You can imagine I have a vested interested in managing this transition, otherwise I’ll be stuck with shovelling bunny poop while she’s away.

Anybody interested in taking over a viable bunny raising business? Hutch included.

Question for the Comments: What is the next steps in your team or organization when somebody fails to deliver what they promised? How does your company hold people accountable?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In:
Learning By Doing
You Need to Get Good At This to be a Leader
Why Delegating to Your Staff is Good For Them

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not doing anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

You Need To Get Good At This To Be A Good Leader

Please don’t run away when I say this word. It’s something you need to learn to do if you hope to be a good leader:


I know, I know, it’s not very sexy. It’s one of those over-used words like “accountability” and ” engagement” that’s lost a lot of its meaning. But it’s shorter and sounds better than saying: “getting other people to do your work”.

So why do “they” say you can’t be a good leader and advance in your company or grow your business without learning how to delegate? Well, because they’re right, and here’s why.

  1. It saves you time (in the long run).
  2. It saves the company time
  3. It saves the company money
  4. It’s good for your staff (development wise)
  5. It’s good for the company (leadership succession wise)
  6. It gets you promoted

Today I’d like to tackle the first three:

Delegation Saves You Time

Teaching, training, coaching, and correcting somebody else’s work takes more time than just doing it. In the short-term. But if you invest the time in the long run you’ll be saving time, like this:

It’s hard to do, especially at first when you have the least time to spare. Your can choose to stay in the same job forever because you’re the only one that can do it, or take the long slow journey to the bottom of the ocean drowning in work. Short term pain, long-term gain.

What should you do with your new found breathing room? Up to you, but I do know that “not enough time” is the biggest complaint among many of my clients, so use it wisely, and keep delegating.

Delegation Saves the Company Time

Yes, sometimes it’s faster doing it (whatever “it” is) yourself. Problem is that we end up doing all the “its” ourselves. So then we become the bottle-neck. Which means people are literally lined up out our door. Yes, I’ve had consulting clients complain about exactly this. Not only don’t we get our own work done, neither does anybody else. Which means that part of operations, sales, or finance grinds to a halt.

So while you’re getting stuff done faster and being the hero, the company as a whole is suffering and opportunities are missed. Turns out doing it yourself is actually kinda selfish.

Delegation Saves the Company Money

It stands to reason that work done by somebody reporting to you costs less than if you do it. Assuming they do it to a reasonable standard in a reasonable amount of time. This save the company money. Which is kind of your job as a boss: to get the work done as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If you’re keeping work that can reasonably be done by somebody who gets paid less, then why isn’t it being done that way? Otherwise you’re deliberately wasting the company’s money (and your time). Stop that please.

Next Time: How delegation is good for you, the company, and gets you promoted.

Question for the Comments: What can you delegate today that will save you time or the company money in the long run?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In:
Why Delegating to Your Staff is Good for Them
Learning By Doing

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with

Outstanding Entrepreneurs Do This Well

Are you getting sucked back into the daily drama, details, and problem solving that you (supposedly) hired others to take care of? Are you unable to pull your head out of the minutia of running a business to think about where that business needs to go next? Are you reacting to daily and hourly crises instead of being “proactive”?

Sprinter and Rabbits

If you’re a successful entrepreneur, you probably have a strong bias towards action. You’re a doer, a decider, the action gal. It’s a big part of why you’re successful. Like a fast running sprinter, or the hard to catch rabbit, you move fast..

A sprinter runs so fast and so hard they leave everybody else behind in the parking lot. That’s good if you’re ahead of your competition. If you’re leading a business it may be a problem.

If everybody else is still trying to figure out where the finish line is when you’ve already crossed it, then you’re not really being a leader. The idea of leadership is to get everybody across the finish line as quickly as possible. Not just you.

The rabbit is also fast. A rabbit who is trying to evade a coyote will zig-zag and change direction quickly. Also not a bad thing if you’re taking advantage of opportunities and can change direction quickly to stay ahead of your competitors.

This doesn’t mean your staff knows which way you’re going next, or if they’ll be able to keep up. It may seem to them that they’re chasing a crazy rabbit who keeps changing its mind.

If Nobody Else Can Keep Up, Maybe They Aren’t the Problem

Your bias to action comes with a blind spot, sometimes. Making sure the team understands where you’re going next as a company. This helps them make decisions that line up with the company strategy (so you don’t have to), or anticipate where they need to be next. You may be frustrated that people don’t seem to get it, or keep up, or have the same excitement or energy or engagement as you. But they’re frustrated with you too.

They’re frustrated because you’ve left them behind, or they’re tired of chasing your zig-zagging rabbit backside. They can’t see the stuff you, the leader, can see.  And you’ve taken off without sharing what’s happening in your brain. So what are they supposed to do next? You could hire mind-readers, but my wife isn’t available.

You’ve lost your staff. As an entrepreneur or leader you can’t do it all yourself, and you’ve learned (hopefully) how to delegate and supervise. This frees you up to do what you do best: Create and discover new opportunities, get out in front of emerging markets, anticipate changes, hire the right people.

You may keep getting sucked back into the daily drama, details, and problem solving that you hired others to take care of because you keep running away without telling them where the finish line is.

You Need Them, They Need You

You do have to recognize that people can’t read your mind. People don’t know what you know, and they certainly don’t know what you’re thinking. Changes in speed and direction need energy, especially for the non-rabbits.

Those  detail guys and gals sometimes drive you nuts, but they keep you out of trouble. Worker bees get the mundane but important things done every day. The ones that are effective and efficient and complete because they take their time and think things through. And drive you crazy because they can never decide anything without you.

Maybe you can’t slow down to their speed, and maybe they can’t accelerate to yours. But you can meet them halfway.

What You Can Do

* Think a little more

Sit on your new ideas before throwing them out, and expecting people to understand what they’re supposed to do next. Not every idea you have is a good one, so don’t overwhelm the detail guys and gals with stuff that’s not going to happen because you change your mind tomorrow

* Over-communicate.

Keep your message simple and repeat it constantly. If you can’t explain what your company does and who its customers are in a way an eighth grader can understand, then it’s not simple enough.

* Listen more than you talk

Close the loop and listen as intently to your internal staff as you do your customers. You listen to your customers, right? This will tell you if your message is getting through, and having the desired effect. Adjust as necessary.

It’s About People, Really

I got a huge compliment from one of the company partners this week. He said “You’ve done a great job learning to connect with people the last year.” Now, this might sound like a left-handed complement, but for me it’s something that I’ve consciously focused on the last little while. I’ll never be a Bill Clinton, but it’s something that was important to get better at.

Changing behaviour like that is hard and requires continuous focus. I came from a software and project management background, and in my earlier life I was little better than most at persuading people to work together. Which is to say that I was a little better than a company full of engineers, programmers, and project managers. When I started working at I realized that not only was I going to have to raise my game to the next level, but that there are levels above me that I wasn’t even aware of.

In my current role as a business execution specialist connecting with people and building trust and a relationship is the biggest part of the job. They are trusting me with their companies, their livelihoods, and livelihoods of everybody in their company. If you’re a CEO you’re even more so in the hot seat. The buck stops with you.

Which is why I was surprised when I got briefed in on a new client recently. Part of what I was told is that they don’t want any of that fuzzy-wuzzy psychology mumbo-jumbo. Just come in and fix what’s wrong. This gave me the first sign of what my approach was going to have to be. Except I would have to be patient. Spend time face-to-face with the players. Build trust. Establish a relationship. You know, all that fuzzy-wuzzy psychology mumbo-jumbo stuff. Because at the c-suite level it’s all about the people. And trust. And relationships.

If you’re a lumberjack you’d better know how to use a chain-saw. If you’re a manager, leader, or CEO, you better know what makes your people tick and how to get them working together. Either that or you can pay somebody like me a lot of money to “fix what’s wrong”.

What Does Your Reality Look Like?

“You can ask me for anything you like, except time.” – Napoleon

I was having a beer with a former Scout of mine last night at a local brew pub. He works as a pyro-technician full-time and he’s been running his own little business for the last ten years. As a kid he was fascinated with fire, and had set up a forge in his backyard when he was sixteen so that he could make swords. You can imagine what his mother had to say about that.

Currently he owns and runs his own storefront selling swords, armour, and chain-mail to the medieval re-creationist market. His store, Dark Age Creations, is doing  well and he’s plowing all the profits back into the business.

Turns out he’s a good salesman and understands how to make money. He has no problem calling others when they don’t do what they said they were going to do, and he surrounds himself with people who support what he’s doing. In five years he wants to sit back and collect dividend cheques while the store runs itself. Not a bad plan really. Better than many I’ve heard.

Pay Attention to the Numbers

Problem is he needs an accountant, but he hasn’t done anything about it. He doesn’t even know what his tax liability is going to be at the end of the year! I pointed out the irony (between holding others accountable and not himself), gave him a figurative smack upside his head, and told him to get straightened out now.  It was like being back in the days when he wasn’t taller than me.

He’s been lucky so far, but no business can base its success on the hope of an unbroken string of charm and good luck. Even when we’re doing what we love and living our passion the tax-man and the landlord are always ready to step in when they think they’re not going to get theirs. It only takes one “bad quarter” to put you out of business.

Sense of Urgency

So I told him the story of one of my former clients that allowed their CFO six months to report on the year-end. They were unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to get things moving. When the year-end was finally ready, they had lost half a million dollars on the year – on $15M of revenue. Not something that a company that size can easily swallow.

It was a big lesson for me – all the vision, people and customer focus in the world is useless if you’re not on top of the cash. Yes, you need a higher purpose – other than just making money –  to inspire and motivate. One that engages your clients, employees, and shareholders. All the enduring, profitable companies have one. That’s not going to make you feel better when you’re emptying your desk because your company’s gone bust.

Face Reality Quickly and Constantly

I lost that client, but I learned a valuable lesson that day. Face reality, and face it quickly. Business has enough uncertainty and risk without ignoring what is right in front of us. We can’t control everything, but we’d better be paying attention to what we can control.

Put another way, as I said it to him: “Pay attention to the freaking numbers. Don’t be those other guys who didn’t know they’d lost half a million dollars.”

Relentlessly face race reality. Be skeptical. Don’t take hand-waving or indefinite answers. Have the difficult conversations when you need to, and while you’re holding others accountable, hold yourself accountable too.

What Are You Communicating?

One of the more frequent issues facing organizations is around internal communication. Sometimes employees say they don’t know what’s going on despite great effort made at communicating, or the leader has a clear idea of where they want to go but nobody seems to be following.

Even worse is when the leadership thinks it’s doing a good job communicating (“Look, we have a newsletter!”), but the internal survey comes back with “lack of communication” written all over it. This is what I like to call failing the “Am I smoking crack?” check.

Good news: at least you’re checking. That puts you ahead of 90% of the companies out there.

What simple behaviors do leaders who communicate well engage in? Here’s a couple of things I’ve noticed.

  1. Listen  – Maybe your one-way communication to your organization isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s that you’re not listening to what they’re saying. People generally aren’t ready to listen until they feel they’ve been heard. Maybe they’re trying to tell you something important? What are you telling people when you listen to them.
  2. Have a Simple and Consistent Message– remember KISS? “Keep it Simple Stupid?” The “stupid” in this case is not the people you’re talking to. It’s you. If you think that a wordy, complicated, bland message  is going to engage people to action then you’re being stupid.If you’re going to ask people to listen to you at least do them the courtesy and have the courage to actually say something. Be bold, brave, and brief.What is your message?
  3. Link Purpose to Action– can you answer the “So What?” question? Does everybody in your organization know where they fit in? If they don’t know how what they do supports the company – what the company is trying to do and what their part is – then they tend to switch off.If you can’t draw a line between somebody’s role  in your company to the company’s larger vision, strategy, and goals, then why do they work for you again?
  4. See Every Interaction as an Opportunity – every interaction with all employees is an opportunity to communicate. Beginning at the hiring process, on-boarding, newsletters, celebrations, feedback, one-on-ones, coaching, how your company runs meetings, who you fire (or not), who you promote(or not), etc. All the simple things that outstanding managers do well.How does your company behave during a crisis? What does how often and how you communicate say about you and your company? Sometimes it’s a case of “your actions are so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying”.
  5. Forget E-Mail – notice how I didn’t mention e-mails (until now). If you think you’re communicating through e-mail you might want to have another think.  Talking a lot is also not communicating (see point 1. above).
How important do you think communication is in your current rôle? How much time do you think you spend communicating? How much time do you dedicate to “communicating” (and listening) in your daily schedule?

Learning By Doing

Tommy trips over a guy lineI was doing some strategic planning with a long-term client last week. They’re doing well, expanding their business in tough times, making the hard decisions about staff, and being leaders. They’re the kind of business I love working with because they run with what they decide. Which has translated into some fantastic cultural and business changes for them in the last year.

We landed priorities for the next quarter, and it came time to assign champions for each one. First pass: the CEO ended up as the champion for all three. So I asked her:

“Are you the best person to do all of these, or are you absolutely the only person that can do these?”

Often the leader is the best person to be accountable for any strategic given initiative. They’ve got the experience, the training, the track record. That’s why they’re the leader. They could do the best job. It doesn’t mean they’re they should.

Mine Mine Mine

I’ve seen this often enough now: the leader takes all the important initiatives, leaving nothing for anybody else to do (strategically leastways). The consequences?

  • They’ve just sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Why aren’t my managers engaged? Because you won’t let them be.
  • They’ve just become the bottleneck, and will often fail at everything instead of giving themselves the chance to be successful at one thing
  • They’ve not focused on the most important thing a CEO has influence over: the values and culture of the business.
  • They’ve lost an opportunity to identify and mentor possible successors

Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, had several very simple principles of developing leadership in young men and women. One of them was:

Learning by Doing

He believed that the best way for young men and women to learn leadership was to lead a small group of their peers. That’s why the patrol system (6-8 boys or girls organized as a small team that do their planning, camping, cooking, etc. together) is so powerful. They can learn all the things they need to in a mostly safe environment, where feedback is immediate and honest, and mistakes are easily forgiven.

The fastest way to squash the enthusiasm of a patrol of Scouts is to start micro-managing them. Adults, especially if they have their own children in the program, get in there and start “fixing” things before they even go wrong. The kids don’t learn anything, the adult becomes over-whelmed and frustrated trying to keep up, and Scouts start drifting away to other troops or even out of the program.

Adults do the same thing. They’re just a little more subtle about it. Sometimes.

So here’s my recommendation:

Delegate Like Crazy

Delegation is hard, because we’re often prone to believe we’re the best person to do any particular task or lead a specific initiative. We might even be right, we are the person that could do that job the best. But we’re not the only one who could.

Stick to the jobs that only you can do, and delegate everything else. It’s a huge opportunity to develop your staff and the culture of your team / division / group / company. Which is your single biggest responsibility (after turning a profit).

You are now the leader of leaders. It doesn’t matter if it’s a snotty twelve-year-old boy who hasn’t changed his underwear in three days, or an executive vice-president. Develop them!

Don’t know how to delegate? Learn. In the age of the internet, business and executive coaching, and self-help books there’s no excuse! Never done it before? Start small and work your way up.

There’s no way to get the most out of your team or get to the top of your profession without delegating. You may be very good at your job, but that’s the only thing you’ll ever be doing if you don’t learn to develop relationships and leadership in the people who work for you.

Learn delegating by doing it.

Question for the Comments: What do you have on your desk or to-do list right now that you could give away, or not even do?

Other Articles You May Be Interested In:
Manager Tools – The Art of Delegation (podcast)
Delegation on Amazon
Why I Suck and Delegating (and Why You Might Too) (blog)

Bernie works as a leadership and business coach, consultant, and facilitator. He believes there are simple things outstanding leaders do well, and that not to do anything about bad leadership once you know about it is abuse. Check out what he does with