How to Delegate the Right Way; Executives Have a Lot on Their Plates; Disbursing Work Poorly Can Backfire

How to Delegate the Right Way

Executives Have a Lot on Their Plates; Disbursing Work Poorly Can Backfire


Updated March 13, 2014 10:18 a.m. ET

Dumping work on colleagues can turn into a dumb idea. The work often comes back to you.

Stressed by huge workloads and pinched resources, executives must unload tasks to get things done. But to succeed, you must delegate effectively. The fine art of delegation involves figuring out the right associates, marching orders and feedback.

Inadequate delegators lack time to be strategic, cautions Gail Angelo, a leadership coach in Charlotte, N.C. “It limits their upward mobility.” Ms. Angelo finds that most of her executive clients want to bolster their delegation skills, compared with a minority a decade ago.

Among them are rising stars at Deloitte LLP. The professional-services firm has provided outside coaches like Ms. Angelo to the 210 participants in Deloitte’s “NextGen” program since its December 2010 launch.

Like Deloitte, more big businesses now teach delegation in grooming potential senior leaders, several coaches report. Marriott International Inc. MAR +0.32% is typical. Delegation decisions “have a clear connection to a business’s success,” explains David Rodriguez, its chief human resources officer.

The hotel chain added a delegation segment to its executive-development program about four years ago. Elaine Richard, a Marriott vice president who completed the four-week program in June, says she became more disciplined about sharing power without losing control. “If you’re not effective at delegation, you can drown [at work],” she says.

Ms. Richard believes her strengthened delegation ability helped her land a promotion last year. She currently oversees 250 hotels with 2013 revenue of nearly $1.2 billion.

It’s a similar story for Deloitte executives Joni Swedlund, Jennifer Knickerbocker and Anthony Stephan. They saw their careers advance since Ms. Angelo counseled them about artful delegation. Here’s how each tackled some tough issues involved.

Avoiding boomerang work

Ms. Swedlund, a principal in Deloitte’s management consulting unit, admits she frequently suffered the “boomerang” effect of ineffective delegation. “I wanted to get things off my plate as quickly and efficiently as possible,” she recalls. “Time was the most precious commodity.”

Yet delegating fast didn’t always save time for Ms. Swedlund.

She typically delegated to a few team members whom she knew worked hard. But they sometimes didn’t complete tasks because “they were juggling far too many projects,” Ms. Swedlund says. “More often than I liked, I would just take the assignment back and get it done right.” She also tended to assign other staffers “anything remotely related to their area of expertise,” she continues.

A wake-up call persuaded the executive to delegate differently. Last summer, a Deloitte senior partner suggested that Ms. Swedlund polish her “soft” leadership skills because “results are only going to get you so far.” The advice “rocked my world,” she notes.

Ms. Swedlund decided to spend time delegating based on her employees’ strengths and weaknesses. For instance, she says she began giving one subordinate detailed instructions about desired results because that manager was easily distracted, sending irrelevant email during a project.

Focusing harder on talent development.

Ms. Knickerbocker took delegation one step further soon after she took charge of Deloitte’s global compliance and reporting services practice in 2012—with marching orders to enlarge the U.S. portion. She used delegation to expand her employees’ capabilities and “up their game,” she says.

Easier said than done. For less experienced colleagues, “setting challenges that really stretch them can seem scary” and hurt their confidence, the Deloitte partner observes. “This can lead to diminished results.” So through frequent communication, she regularly kept track of those individuals’ progress and whether they appeared overwhelmed .

In addition, Ms. Knickerbocker paired veteran team members with new or younger professionals keen to acquire skills, such as pursuing new clients. But delegating this way means work “doesn’t get done as fast,” she concedes.

The U.S. practice has acquired more clients during her command because improved delegation helped people “rise to the next level,” Ms. Knickerbocker contends. She foresees an even bigger long-term payoff. “I have more people who have strengths.”

Enlarging an internal network.

Mr. Stephan was forced to change his delegation style after a plum assignment clashed with his personal life.

He became lead consulting partner for a major Chicago telecom company in early 2013—at a time when a family situation required him to work one week a month from his office in Parsippany, N.J. He previously took business trips for part of every week.

“I had to think about delegation differently,” Mr. Stephan recalls. He needed to persuade fellow Deloitte leaders about assisting the telecom on short notice. “I was hitting new ground,” he says. “How do I delegate to my peers?”

Encouraged by Ms. Angelo, Mr. Stephan says he identified trusted colleagues with suitable skills for advising this client over the long run. Few of these 11 executives had been deeply involved with the telecom before, however. And most made other clients their highest priority.

Mr. Stephan sought to solidify his cadre’s commitment to accept his work requests. At a May get-together with the 11 peers, he says he pointed out that the telecom highly valued innovation and some other traits expected of top Deloitte performers.

The following month, the head of one of the client’s business units requested an initial Chicago meeting with Deloitte—during a week that Mr. Stephan couldn’t leave New Jersey.

The Deloitte executive spent six hours on the phone with two pinch-hitting partners. He told them everything he knew about the topic. The upshot? The client session “was a huge success,” Mr. Stephan recollects.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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