How the CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. changed the way I view delegation.

Max De Pree became a well known as a successful business leader as CEO of Herman Miller – the primary innovator in the furniture business for 60 years and regularly included among the top twenty-five firms on FORTUNE’s list of most admired companies . He also wrote 2 exceptional books titled Leadership Is An Art and Leadership Jazz. Both of these books provide insights into Max’s unique leadership beliefs & practices. In Leadership Jazz, in a chapter titled Delegate!, De Pree describes an incident that occurred during World War II where he worked as a medical technician & scrub nurse for a talented surgeon.

A man was brought in with a critically fractured scull. The surgeon asked Max to assist in the operation as no other surgeons were available. Alarmed, Max pushed back against the surgeon’s request as he’d never assisted in a life-saving medical procedure before. “You’ve been working in this operating room for more than a year. You’ve seen all of this, and you’ve even done small parts of it yourself. I’ll be right here giving you instructions.”

The surgeon couldn’t perform the operation alone. He needed Max’s assistance and the operation was a success. And the surgeon was right: clear instruction, confidence expressed as a high expectation and an obvious trust in Max’s abilities to do the job paved the way for Max to rise to the challenge and tap latent skills even he wasn’t aware of.

Many hard-driving business managers are often reluctant to delegate. Managers (unlike like the surgeon illustrated above) are often suspicious of the consequences of real delegation. Rather than delegate properly, some managers “dump” tasks on ill-prepared workers, without proper instruction, and regular feedback, which is a surefire way to ensure frustration and failure.

So what exactly is effective delegation?

  • Delegation gives a leader the ability to allow their people to participate, to grow and to reach toward their potential. By delegating, the leader is saying “I care enough about your development and long term success to make you accountable.”
  • Delegation requires observed skill of the person to whom you are delegating, careful instruction, careful feedback, and of course some failure from time to time. Meaningful growth more often comes from failure than from success as humans are hardwired to avoid pain. Effective delegation is a rigorous, disciplined part of being a leader.
  • No one person can be all things to their company. Any leader who limits their output to that which can be accomplished using only their individual talents and available time is short-changing their company, whereas employing effective delegation enables leaders to leverage their talents and time to realize many times the output. Show me a company that struggles with delegation and I’ll show you a company that struggles with growth.
  • Also, Leadership isn’t something that you do to someone – it is something that you do with someone. A self assured sales leader will ask members of their team to delegate non-revenue producing tasks to them. This will allow your sales team members to jointly execute their plans with you. Examples of this would be gaining special pricing concessions or terms for your producer, assist in creating an executive summary for a client – the list is limitless. Remember: delegation doesn’t have to be a one-way street. In fact, it shouldn’t be.
  • Consider delegating the creation of specific sales training to certain members of your team. Then, have them present this training to the rest of your team. Also, involve your team in your hiring process. As an example, have your best performers “ride with” a sales applicant on a sales call so they can model excellence while simultaneously learning about the individual under consideration for the position. Why not time the “ride with” to conclude with a team lunch in your conference room or cafeteria? Now, you can glean insight from all of your team members as to their thoughts about this potential new team mate. What do you think the effect will have on their sense of inclusion and belonging by doing this?

It would be hard to overstate the importance of communication during the process of delegation. For the leader, an obvious benefit would be improved communication and training competencies. For the team member, learning by doing allows that individual to step closer to their true potential. For both of them, their value to their employer grows through the process of delegation. What company wouldn’t want that?

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