Proper delegation builds partnerships was previously published in The Bottom Line, Education for Accountants, Mid-May 2016.
There are many different ways to delegate, some just barely get the job done and others are the foundation on which successful firms were built. A few of the prototypically, less effective methods:
- Dropping a file on someone’s desk and telling them that it’s due Tuesday at 9am sharp, without further explanation as you breeze through the door.
- Completing someone’s in progress assignment without further collaboration or credit.
- Asking someone to take on a new assignment, but without the actual authority to make any meaningful decisions on their own.
Whether they’ve had first hand experience with these scenarios or not, most accountants know that the old style of delegating alienates, rather than strengthens, teams. It gets the item off the ‘to do’ list, at least in the interim. But in the process it can demotivate and frustrate, not the best predictors of successful delegation.
If the old style of delegation is on its way out of accounting firms and other professional practices, what is it being replaced by? And what should it be replaced by? Being polite? While not a bad habit to get into, it’s not actually a delegation strategy.
On the other hand, partnership is.
Good delegation builds partnership between delegator and delegatee. It pulls people up through the ranks, building bench strength for the firm throughout the process. It is the source from which new leadership emerges.
So, to keep a task off their to do list through to completion, rather than bouncing right back every time an obstacle is encountered, accountants need to think about how, not only to get the delegatee to care about what they’ve taken on, but also how to change their own role in the process. In practical terms how can accountants delegate better? They need to delegate with HEART – Honesty, Engagement, Accountability, Respect and Trust:
Before delegating a thing, it can be helpful to recognize that one of the obstacles to the process is risk (the work won’t get done on time, it won’t be good enough, it will have to be redone at the 11th hour and so on).
In a transparent manner, minimize exposure by building quality control into the process.
Assign authority along with responsibility (decision-making, client contact, financial administration). But build quality control steps into the process. Hands off. Not eyes off. Follow through. Plan to meet as often as is needed to maintain an eye on the progress of the assignment and not lose the opportunity to provide timely feedback along the way.
Don’t hold back if things aren’t meeting the firm’s standard for quality. Be clear and provide references to illustrate the desired end result, rather than accepting something substandard or redoing the work.
Individualize delegation, for best results.
Assess the situation. First decide, is the task at hand appropriate for delegation, as opposed to directives? Is the individual sufficiently skilled (would it be considered a stretch or jumping into something completely new)? Does time allow for any necessary coaching along the way?
Assess the individual. Is this person the right individual for the task at hand? Or just convenient and available? Have they indicated an interest in this type or work or in the advancement that it would eventually lead to?
Assess how much development will be needed to get the task done on time and properly. Communicate effectively. Take the time to consider how to best communicate with each individual. Everyone communicates differently. If the person is introverted, the delegator may need to be prepared for lengthy pauses in coaching conversations while the delegatee processes their ideas. On the other hand, if the person is extroverted, the delegator may need to be prepared for immediate, unformed responses as the delegatee organizes their ideas out loud.
Either way, to maximize engagement, don’t interrupt and don’t micromanage. Allow the delegatees’ ideas and interest to emerge, at their own pace.
Coach for ownership and accountability. Don’t just manage for results. Identify the issue. What really needs to be done? Is it obvious? Is the task being delegated because it needs to be done or because that’s the way it’s always been done? Is there a better way? Identifying objectives, with the delegate, establishes buy in, clarity and efficiency.
Problem solve, together. True coaching doesn’t mean babysitting or paint by numbers. It means enabling the delegatee to think for themselves. Ask non-leading questions and share past experiences, to open up their thinking about how they might take on this new task. Stay open to new ways of doing things. Establish a plan.
Agree on everything: next steps, milestones and deliverables. But don’t set the pace. Allow the delegatee to create the plan and change it as they move ahead. This will breed ownership, interest and creativity.
Invest in skill development and firm infrastructure. Consider the long term. Where development is needed, develop effectively. There is no one size fits all. For some, an itemized description of a new process will be all they’ll ever need. Others will need to talk it through. Yet others will need to observe how new tasks are undertaken firsthand, before jumping in themselves.
Get organized. Is the firm’s hierarchy understood by all? Will the delegatee be expecting to receive assignments from the delegator? Are people familiar with their own job descriptions and the job descriptions that represent advancement in the firm? If people understand how certain tasks will make them more promotable, they may be more amenable to doing them.
Don’t take it back. Though it will be tempting to answer questions about missing details with “I’ll get back to you on that” or edit requirements with “oh just leave that with me”, the delegator should be aware that doing so means the task will land right back on their to do list. Instead, consider how to empower the delegatee to keep hold of their task by offering examples, training tools, meetings to review questions or other additional resources.
Accountants that build their teams with HEART will be sure to be rewarded with a shrinking pile of work on their desks and less worries about the quality of what comes back from their teams.
The bonus will be the lift in confidence and morale as everyone starts to take on more, propelling both the individuals and the firm itself towards growth and success.