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By: Jeanne Gray, Publisher of American Entrepreneurship Today
Small Business Management: Delegation is a Balance between Oversight and Independence, The Goldilocks Challenge

The growth of a small business or early stage scalable business very often rests on the shoulders of the founding owner or entrepreneur. But not all founders have prior or sufficient managerial experience before starting a business. The lack of well-honed managerial skills may hinder the growth of the business when it needs to become a multiple employee company.

To be a successful and effective manager, one must be a strong delegator. How well and to whom work is given by the small business owner will very often determine how quickly and smoothly a company grows.  Lack of experience or a deficiency in certain skills may lead to a number of mistakes or setbacks in work delegation that a more experienced manager would have avoided.

Establishing effective delegation could be described as the “Goldilocks” challenge. Throughout the popular children’s story a little girl visits the house of three bears and repeatedly tries the chairs, the beds and bowls of porridge until she finds the one that she feels is “just right”.  

Business owners follow a similar testing process in establishing their working relationship with subordinates.  How well that working relationship forms is dependent on a number of factors--both on the side of the owner and those who do the work.  Just like in the Goldilocks’ story there typically is an ongoing trial period that eventually leads to a satisfying and productive relationship.  It is a challenge to reach that “just right” point where there is a balance between the involvement of the manager and the independence of the subordinate who has been delegated to do the work. There is no micro-managing being done nor is the manager remaining too distant to give proper support.

Under involvement in a subordinate’s work may lead to a number of unwanted outcomes. Without appropriate supervision, an employee may stray into areas not intended for them or that are above their skill level. This not only wastes time but may lead to costly errors.  A worker doing work he or she is not trained to do also clouds the owner’s perception of the true capabilities of that worker. This leads to confusion and may drive someone out the company who might otherwise have made a solid contribution. The under-supervised worker may also not be receiving the correct information to do the job well that may be a result of poor communication from above.

On the other hand, over involvement by a manager in the work they delegate to a subordinate (aka micro-management) may lead a totally different set of poor outcomes. Some subordinates may feel intruded upon and stressed.  Others may become paralyzed in their decision-making as a result of too many demands being placed on them.

Excessive direction to a worker or a need to know too many details as their work progresses may become a diversion from the priorities that need to be done.  The subordinate also may be reluctant to act independently, slowing execution. Possibly the biggest penalty is the valuable time wasted by an owner or manager who is unnecessarily spending time on lower skilled work at the expense of their own responsibilities.

In a talk given at Rider University, Greg Brown, the CEO of Motorola Solutions, shares the importance of establishing appropriate engagement between owner/manager and their worker/employee. He references former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ definition of “Micro-management” in comparison to “Micro-knowledge”.

Brown stated, quoting Secretary Gates, “Micro-manage means I am doing the job for you. Micro-knowledge means I invest the time and prepare to have an in depth understanding, so when I sit down with you, you know what I am talking about.  And therefore you up your game”.

Gates and Brown capture so much in those definitions.  One can easily envision the micro-manager wrongly imposing themselves on a subordinate, juxtaposed with a  second image of two people engaged in respectful dialogue about what needs to be done and how it will be accomplished.

In order to establish a strong delegation process and engage effectively with a subordinate, here is a checklist you can use:

  • Structure and communicate the assignment and scope of work
  • Set specific outcomes and expectations you have for the assignment
  • Give sufficient time for the subordinate to ask questions
  • Gain their input as to a mutually agreed upon timeline and key milestones
  • If possible, be aware of any key junctures where you know they will have challenges and they might be in need of further direction
  • Convey what you consider to be important in any updates they give or any areas where you have particular concerns
  • Define methods of communication such as email, scheduled meetings etc.and their frequency to be given
  • Ask the subordinate what they need in order to do their work successfully and on time, and provide them with the resources you agree are reasonable for them to have

In the Gates' quote the word “invest” is used to describe the responsibility of the owner/supervisor to his workers. Gates is saying that it is critical that the manager set aside the appropriate amount of time to convey all that is needed by the subordinate to do their best work. If they strive to do this consistently they are building the foundation of a growing business because only through strong delegation can a business grow.