In growing a business, the delegation of work is central to success.
Yet too often, managers bungle delegation, says Vincent L. Zirpoli, a Timonium consultant who advises on the art of delegation and other management skills.
"Poor delegators don't realize the tremendous power they have to create an atmosphere in which people succeed," Mr. Zirpoli says.
By failing to delegate and to create an effective feedback system, managers miss the chance to motivate and develop employees over the long haul. Even their short-term odds of getting work done well are low, according to Mr. Zirpoli, president of Mega Marketing Inc.
"As a manager, my job is to catch people doing things right. If I reinforce employees who do the right things, they increase the frequency of doing those right things. These employees will risk more and be more creative because they know they're not going to be shot down," says Mr. Zirpoli, who coaches business executives in the skills of workplace planning, organizing, motivating and controlling.
Take the example of a bank manager who delegates the preparation of an employee newsletter to her subordinate. After a week, the manager sits down with the assistant to review progress on the project.
If she's a bad delegator, she'll criticize the assistant for the shortcomings in his work, says Mr. Zirpoli. But if she's a good delegator, she'll focus first on what the assistant did right on the newsletter, such as an attractive layout. Then she'll draw the employee out on possible ways to improve the publication, including better selection of articles.
Mr. Zirpoli, former director of sales at Monumental Life Insurance Co. in Baltimore, who earned his MBA at Loyola College, advises clients in fields ranging from financial services to manufacturing.
He has advised more than 100 companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, the health insurance company; Herget/Carroon & Black, the benefits consulting firm; Reid & Rowell, the pharmaceutical company; Burns & Russell, the chemical company; and ADP Inc., the payroll processing firm.
Mr. Zirpoli says that regardless of the field, the principles of good delegation -- like other management skills -- are universal.
"Everybody thinks their particular industry is different. But people everywhere have the same needs. The manager's job is helping them satisfy those needs in their work," he says.
The object of delegation is to get employees to fulfill well-defined corporate objectives. That has little to do with barking orders, Mr. Zirpoli says. Involving employees in formulating goals for their work -- and devising a plan to meet those goals -- are much more important, he says.
"If I tell an employee the way to do steps 1, 2, 3 and 4 toward achieving the goal, I'm not giving him a chance to express his creativity in the process," he says. "Rather, I should coach the subordinate to help him find the steps that lead to the goal, to set target dates, and to work his way through the action plan."
Suppose, for instance, that a manager in the software field wants an assistant to put together a marketing campaign for a new product by Sept. 1. To delegate the job, he should sit down with the subordinate, help him figure out what steps need to be taken, put the steps in order of priority and attach target dates to each step.
By June, for example, the assistant should complete marketing research. By July, he should have his sales brochure roughed out. And by August, he should have a program of awards set up for the sales force.
By involving his assistant at the front end of the delegation
process, the software manager gets the benefit of the employee's ideas, while at the same time providing the employee with a feeling of ownership over his work, Mr. Zirpoli explains. The employee gains a better understanding about the tasks and probably will work harder.
The next important step for the software manager is to create a feedback system. That will ensure that the assistant is progressing toward his goals.
Just as the driver of a car casts an occasional glance at his speedometer to be sure he'll arrive at his destination on time, the manager should check in with the subordinate on a regular schedule to be sure his work is progressing as planned. If target dates aren't being met, Mr. Zirpoli says, the manager should meet with the assistant to find out why and discuss ways to get the work back on track. Such discussions are essential if the employee is to grow on the job, he says.
"Quite frequently, managers delegate and then forget about it. They don't have any feedback system set up and, as a result, get frustrated when the work isn't done right or on time. What they're doing is driving the car without reading the speedometer or other feedback systems to determine progress," he says.
But feedback systems shouldn't be used punitively.
"A boss who uses feedback in an authoritarian way -- passing on blame when work is not done as planned and threatening the individual -- demotivates him and stifles growth. In the long run, this reduces productivity and hurts the company. The manager of today has to recognize that one of the primary motivators is growth on the job," he says.
Of course, the art of delegation has a lot to do with hiring the right employees in the first place, Mr. Zirpoli says. "The good manager recognizes that everyone can be motivated but he may not be able to motivate everyone."
If, for instance, a secretary is more interested in planning her weekend social life than progressing on the job, her boss may have difficulty motivating her under the best of circumstances.
Yet the motivation of most employees can be enhanced by delegating skillfully. By training employees properly, by setting up an effective feedback system and by increasing employees' responsibilities over time, managers can avoid many of the common mistakes related to delegation.
Failure to delegate effectively is not always an issue of the subordinate's motivation, says Ann McGee-Cooper, a management consultant and time-management specialist in Dallas. She says many executives fail to delegate because of the fear of an empty desk. The underlying apprehension of such a manager is that his company will think he's not really needed because others have come to do much of the work he once did.
"We need to be needed. It's all part of the superhuman thing. We teach people to need us, and in so doing we set a real trap for ourselves," Ms. McGee-Cooper says.
Mr. Zirpoli cautions managers against confusing positive motivation with a permissive management style. Just because a manager uses his feedback system to draw out the employee and to focus on the positive doesn't mean he's any less likely to fire that employee for failing to meet reasonable performance standards.
A manager who uses good delegation methods to develop those who report to him can be far more valuable to a business than a manager with superior technical knowledge but few people skills, in Ms. McGee-Cooper's opinion.
"Really, the most valuable leaders are those who have learned to develop people rather than manage information," she says. "Companies are discovering that it's much easier to teach an enthusiastic person technical skills than to teach a technical person people skills."
HOW TO DELEGATE
*Start with good emplpyees. Hire carefully and train deliberately.
*Set high expectations for your employees.
*Don't bark orders. Involve employees in formulating goals for their work and devising a plan to meet those goals.
*Create an effective feedback system to keep track of your employees' progress.
*Don't confuse positive motivation with a permissive management style.
"You don't Have to Go Home From Work Exhausted, by Ann McGee-Cooper with Duane Trammell and Barbara Lau. Bowen & Rogers, Dallas, 1990.
"Straight Talk for Monday Morning: Creating Values, Vision and Vitality at Work," by Allan Cox. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1990.
"Zapp: The Lightning of Empowerment," by William C. Byham with Jeff Cox. Harmony Books, New York, 1988.