Abdication Instead of Delegation


For many reasons, CEO’s find themselves doing work that others can and should be doing.  That’s not the mistake that I will discuss here, though. This blog will focus on mistakes leaders make when they attempt to delegate work but actually abdicate it.

Most Common Scenario

Over his morning cup of coffee, Charlie CEO is anxiously listing all the items that need completed before he leaves tomorrow for his week-long business trip.  “Drat”, he says as he remembers that he promised his best customer a proposal for a significant new service and it is due the day after he returns from his trip. He has an idea. This is a great opportunity to delegate! 

He asks Vic, a qualified and competent VP whom Charlie wants to develop further, to meet with him. Charlie hastily explains the proposal’s requirement. Vic, sensing that Charlie is in a hurry, accepts the assignment even though he is not familiar with the customer’s request. He rationalizes that he will figure it out later and use this opportunity to showcase his talents.

One week later, Vic proudly hands Charlie the proposal. Charlie is shocked and disappointed. It is nothing close to what the customer wanted, and the price is ridiculously inflated.  Charlie wondered how Vic’s results could be so dramatically different from what he had expected.  Charlie assumed that Vic knew the customer as well as he did and understood that the proposal would not only guarantee continued business with this customer for the next several years; the new service could be sold to other clients as well.  In total, this proposal is worth over $1,000,000 a year to the company.

Charlie feels sick.  The proposal is due tomorrow and needs to be totally rewritten. He knows this means that he is working all night with or without Vic. As he wonders how he is going to tell his wife he will not be home for dinner as promised, Charlie has a belated insight.  He abdicated instead of delegated responsibility for the proposal to Vic, and he is paying for his painful mistake, both at work and home!

Abdication is a formal resignation and renunciation of authority. Delegation is the assignment of authority and responsibility to another person to carry out specific activities. The person who delegated the work still remains accountable for the outcome.

By rushing through his original assignment to Vic, Charlie sent him the message: “Here is a vague assignment.  Figure out what I really want, and then do it well.”  Because Charlie didn’t specify Vic’s level of authority, Vic assumed that he could make decisions and implement them on his own. Other than hiring clairvoyant employees, for Charlie to realize his desired results, he needs to follow a specific and clear delegation process.  Let’s compare of Charlie’s original process with a more effective and appropriate one: 

What Charlie Did Effective Delegation Process[1] 
Winged it. 1.     Prepare beforehand.  Make sure you have a clear idea of your desired outcome, process, etc. 
Skipped 2.     Clearly and specifically define what you are delegating.
Skipped 3.     Clearly outline expected time frames or significant milestones. 
Skipped 4.     Define the level of authority that you are delegating:

a.     The authority to recommend

b.     The authority to act and then inform

c.     The authority to act without informing

Skipped 5.     Identify dates and frequency of check points.
Skipped 6.     After the project has been completed, hold a debriefing session.

By abdicating, Charlie paid some expensive tuition at YMU (“You Messed Up”!) When an Executive abdicates instead of delegates, he creates the following problems:

  1. He reinforces his own belief that only he is capable of completing important work and is less likely to delegate in the future. 
  2. This Executive becomes distracted from his primary responsibilities and works longer hours to compensate for his self-imposed additional workload.
  3. Employees will be very skeptical of their next delegated assignment and engage in “CYA” activities which will be interpreted as their inability to make decisions. The “abdication death spiral” is set into motion!
  4. Employees fail to develop and learn, which may cause them to doubt their future at their company. Eventually, they will leave for another position, maybe with a competitor. 

If any of Charlie’s story sounds familiar to you, and you realize that you have made a delegation mistake, what should your next steps be?

  1. Admit your mistake to your employee and apologize.
  2. Agree to follow a specific delegation process.
  3. Encourage employees to challenge you when the process is not followed- and thank them every time they do.

What can you do to reinforce the importance of delegation in your company?

  1. Prepare a checklist each time you delegate.  Use it for yourself, even with small tasks, until you are comfortable with the process.  Always prepare a document to share for significant and high-risk projects.
  2. Train your direct reports on effective delegating and demand that they do the same.
  3. Give your direct reports more challenging and high-profile assignments.
  4. Publicly recognize them for their excellent efforts.  This will encourage others to ask for more responsibilities and reward your effective delegation skills.
  5. Routinely ask your direct reports to identify responsibilities that they can delegate.
  6. Fire people who repeatedly refuse to delegate.
  7. Recognize when it is not appropriate to delegate.  For example, if you are unable to provide enough clarity to effectively delegate, if you want to learn more about the upcoming assignment yourself, or you are the best fit for it, then you should do it yourself.

Effective delegation is a required skill for all Executives.  Not only does it allow the leader to focus strategically, it develops and retains talent.  I challenge you to start now.  Identify three current tasks that you can delegate.  Use the attached checklist to obtain clarity and follow a proven process. 

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 [1]Donna M. Genett, Ph.D., a Vistage speaker and author of the book, “If You Want It Done Right, You Don’t Have to Do It Yourself!: The Power of Effective Delegation
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