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Growth Strategies

Ready, Set, Delegate!

Handing out tasks is the key to growing your business.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the July 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Prove that you want to grow your business. Go ahead, tell us not how much you did today, but how much you didn't do. Sound crazy? The key to growing your company as big and as fast as you want may be getting very good at not doing any work. Here's why: "It's impossible to grow a business without delegating. You can only increase your workload so much," says Ralph Rubio, co-founder and CEO of Rubio's Baja Grill, a $40 million restaurant chain based in San Diego that dominates the fish taco business on the West Coast.

"There's only so much time in a day," adds Don Dailey, partner-in-charge of Cooper & Lybrand's Entrepreneurial Advisory Services Group in the Michigan-Ohio region. "When you're encumbered with daily business issues, you're prevented from attending to the larger issues--business vision, customer relations, growth. That's a fatal error we see in many small businesses. Daily stuff has to be done--somebody has to sign the checks--but if you're doing that when you should be developing your next product or service, you're limiting your future growth."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, e-mail

Task At Hand

Steve Leveen, co-founder and CEO of Delray Beach, Florida-based Levenger, a $70 million catalog company specializing in upscale products for readers and writers, vividly recalls when he hired his first nonfamily employees. It was a year after start-up, and, says Leveen, "I felt great relief. The people we hired helped with packing orders. That was a great boost to my productivity because I could then focus on areas that would help us grow."

Ask yourself how much you're delegating. "Most entrepreneurs don't know how little they're delegating," says Dailey. "Ask them, and they'll say they delegate a lot, but few do. Entrepreneurs are self-reliant, and delegating doesn't come easily to them."

What's worse is that many bosses delegate halfheartedly, says Leveen. "They know they should do it," he says, "but they feel they're the best at doing all the jobs. That's a dangerous attitude. Real growth requires real delegation."

How can you decide what to delegate? Begin with an inventory of the tasks that consume your day, Dailey advises. "Then ask yourself what you would be doing if you could best utilize your time. Usually the answers are thinking about new customers, developing new products and services, and grooming staff to take on new responsibilities. Once you know what you're doing and what you should be doing, look for disparities. Then start delegating so you can put your time into the tasks that will be meaningful to the future of your company."

Delegation 101

It's easy to talk about delegation--but is it easy to do? "Delegation is very hard to do right," says Susan Leeds, managing director of The Ayers Group Inc., a New York City human resources consulting firm. "Smart delegation takes thought and planning." That means delegation isn't simply sweeping your desk clean and blindly handing off all the tasks on your to-do list. "You need to approach delegation with a plan in mind," says Leeds, who teaches a multistep delegation process to clients. The first step is careful thought about what to delegate.

That's a crucial question, mainly because some tasks should be handled personally. There are tasks that aren't suited to delegation, says Ron Riggio, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College's Kravis Leadership Institute in Claremont, California.

What can't you delegate? There's no rule of thumb; let your instincts guide you. You probably wouldn't delegate thinking about the products your company will offer next year, but you might delegate a survey of current customers regarding improvements they'd like to see in your products. Either way, a building block for effective delegation is knowing what tasks are yours and yours alone.

The next step in Leeds' plan is to determine the results you want to achieve. That means not telling employees to make some phone calls about past-due invoices. That's too vague. Instead, be specific. A more defined goal might be to get customers with past-due bills to agree to a payment schedule. Knowing the results you want is your job, not the job of employees to whom you delegate.

Step three is to decide which person is right for the task, says Leeds. A salesperson might not be the right person to make collection calls, but perhaps your bookkeeper is. Either way, match skills and personality to the task--that will maximize productivity.

The fourth step is to decide what controls and checkpoints you'll put on the person to whom you're delegating. How often will the person report back to you? What signal means it's time to shout for help? Get very specific about these steps because that will make delegation work smoothly, both for you and employees.

Fifth, motivate the person to whom you're delegating. If you're handing off important work, you want the subordinate to be fired up to get results. "Link the new job to what motivates that employee," says Leeds. If the employee is there to learn, present the task as a development opportunity. If visibility is important, present it that way. "Make sure what you delegate is appropriate [for the employee]," Leeds says. And sell what you delegate--don't just hand out tasks.

The last step is accountability. "Effective delegation means holding people accountable for the jobs that are assigned to them," Leeds says. A big mistake here is that bosses often expect the employee to fail--and readily take the task back to do themselves. Don't. That's a quick way to undermine employee effectiveness and, in the bargain, guarantee employees will never develop in the ways you need them to if your business is to reach the level you want.

Letting Go

Follow these steps and, odds are, your delegation skills will improve dramatically. There's one more huge hurdle to jump, however. That occurs when employees start doing the work you've delegated, but they're not doing it the way you would have done it. "This is a major issue for entrepreneurs," says Dailey. "It's painful for them to accept that there are other ways to get jobs done and that oftentimes, the way the employee did the task is good enough."

But what if it isn't good enough? That can happen, as Leveen knows. "When I look at a job somebody else did and think that's not how I would have done it, it's tough," he admits. "When it honestly isn't good enough, I give honest feedback. For instance, my forte is writing copy about our products. We have two copywriters on staff, and sometimes they'll write things I don't think are very good. I tell them why I think that, but I also tell them when I think what they write is great. And they're thick-skinned enough to hear all of what I'm saying."

Ready to plunge into delegation? "Start small," urges Dailey. "Begin with less critical jobs. Over time, your confidence in your people will grow, and so will their confidence in themselves. Keep at it, and you won't have to keep working 16-hour days seven days a week. You'll have more time to put into the more critical tasks. And your business will likely grow much faster. Delegation really is the way to succeed."

Besides, adds Leveen, "I truly believe there are people who can do every job we need done in this company better than I can. My real job as president is to find those people, develop them, and then let them do their jobs."

Next Step

Read Empowering Employees Through Delegation by Robert B. Nelson (Irwin Professional Publishing). It provides a concise look at the nuts and bolts of effective delegation and how it produces stronger employees and businesses that thrive.

Contact Sources

The Ayers Group Inc., 370 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017, (212) 889-7788

Cooper & Lybrand's Entrepreneurial Advisory Services Group, (313) 446-7452,

Levenger, (800) 544-0880,

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