Hold on, were you just trying to delegate?

Let’s go back to the basics here folks. Whether you have 3 months or 3 decades of leadership experience, an essential skill to keep your team effective and engaged is delegation. A wise man once said “delegation is about deciding what you don’t do, and prioritization is about deciding what no one does.”

Cliche aside, the skill required in effective delegation is assigning tasks to your team members that achieve leverage and learning. Terry Pearce has a classic (i.e., VHS!) training video about leadership speaking in which he tells the story of dropping off his daughter at college: the main message about delegation is that unless it hurts, you haven’t delegated a large enough task. But what does this look like on a graph, you ask?

Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team
Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team

The ideal level of delegation gives the team member enough autonomy to achieve a task that requires a slight “stretch” of skill (i.e., learning) to complete at the required level of quality. Yes, the manager could have completed the same task at a higher quality level (per unit time), but the free time created in the organization allows the manager to take on a higher complexity task that, presumably, no one else below him or her in the team could achieve. This is what I mean by leverage.

Locating this curve for each employee/manager combination requires self-awareness and feedback on both sides. The team member needs to raise awareness of his or her skill level, and the manager needs to raise awareness of his or her level of control or autonomy with delegated tasks. From the manager’s perspective, you must be willing to sacrifice control for the sake of leverage and learning, without setting your team up for failure. Staying too far to the left is demeaning and stifling for your team. Too far to the right, and you will assign tasks that my former (rugby loving) manager would call a “hospital pass:” drop it and your team loses, catch it and you’ll get knocked out.

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the left on the curve include:

  • you ask a team member to circulate a document for feedback among a group, and then scold him or her for sending an email to that group before letting you proofread it
  • you ask a team member to facilitate a meeting, and then chime in after every one of his or her comments with a “clarification”
  • your team members have asked (directly or indirectly) for more responsibility and authority to set direction in achieving the team’s goals

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the right on the curve include:

  • many of the tasks you assign need to be reworked at the last minute
  • few team members volunteer for tasks on offer because they are intimidated by the complexity of the task or the risk of failure

So, I challenge you to use this post as a prompt to reassess your ability to delegate. Have a conversation with your team members to reach alignment on where you are on the curve. Find low-risk ways for your team members to fail constructively, and watch the benefits of learning and leverage accumulate.

Capability models, performance management, and knowledge management: how they all fit together

Often the day-to-day demands of work prevent us from stepping back and seeing how the big pieces fit together. While you might not have the same ecstatic reaction of this guy discovering a rainbow in his backyard, hopefully this post will help you have an even better answer to “what does this mean” (if you can make it to 1:17 in the clip).

Capability (competency) model, performance management, knowledge management: many of these terms get interchanged, however, in my experience I have seen distinct and specific applications for the processes as businesses work to maximize their return on investment in human capital. Below the diagram is a quick definition of the terms with links for more information.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  1. Business Strategy: While Michael Porter has a longer answer, Jack Welch defines strategy (in his book Winning) as “making clear cut choices on how to compete.” In a previous post, I compiled the 9 Critical Questions on Strategy.
  2. Organizational Design: just as form follows function in art and nature (but not chickens), an organization’s structure should follow its strategy. Jaques takes a scientific yet pragmatic approach in Requisite Organization.
  3. Capability Model: while purists will prefer to use the term “competency” to emphasize demonstrated abilities (rather than future potential), in either case a model, such as SHRM’s, provides a framework for a hierarchy of skills that can be developed and applied at various levels of the organization.
  4. Role Definitions: each role (remember, each position can have multiple roles, just like a father can be a cook, landscaper and coach) needs a definition of its responsibilities and scope
  5. Role-based Capability Model: Combine 3 with 4, and you get an inventory of the capabilities (competencies) required to be successful in each role. This is an essential input to the processes below. Do not pass go, do not collect $89 (after taxes).
  6. Four related processes to improve an organization’s return on human capital
    1. Talent Intake: defining the requirements for each role will empower your recruiting organization to provide a better slate of candidates for vacancies, and help new hires get up to speed and contributing within the first phase of the talent cycle.
    2. Knowledge Management: a central repository for standards, policies, procedures, and other specific “tribal knowledge” accumulated with experience in any organization. A top-notch knowledge management system combines the “push” of compliance with the “pull” of recognition for contributors and highly accessible content (like wikipedia and TED).
    3. Performance Management: while a recent duel of data fit models has caught a lot of buzz, an effective performance management process gives employees meaningful, actionable feedback on their performance vs expectations in role, and allows the organization’s leadership to identify high-performing, high-capability players and put plans in place to address staff who are under-performing. Performance review surveys are typically more complicated than they need to be, and the best ones I’ve seen capture 360-feedback quarterly.
    4. Capability Development: programs combine training and succession planning to close development gaps identified in any of the above processes. Training can be delivered through self-study, online learning, classroom based training, and on the job coaching.

While none of these definitions go deep enough to be applicable on their own, hopefully differentiating between the terms with a few resources for further research will be a good start to helping your team go “all the way across the sky.”

What did I leave out? What other approaches have you seen work also? Leave a comment and let us know.

Use these metrics to rev your talent engine: Delivery and transition phases

Continuing the series on the four stages of the talent cycle, once the hard work has been done to bring new talent into your organization, it’s time for them to deliver value before transitioning to a new role. These metrics will help ensure a mutually beneficial and productive working relationship between employees and employers.


For the delivery phase of the talent cycle, the two most important aspects to manage are performance and engagement. Although the latest trend is to reject the bell curve (i.e., normal distribution) for a power function, any organization with a team size larger than 2 has to address performance management in both absolute and relative terms. Ensure that your performance management system–which could range from a piece of paper to an enterprise application–can help you answer the following questions in dialogue between leaders and employees:

  • Absolute performance: how is each employee performing relative to his/her potential? What is he/she doing well, and should do more? What is he/she struggling to do, and what support can the company provide? What are the employee’s career goals, and how is his/her current position aligned with them?
  • Relative performance: does the employee “raise the gene pool” of the organization? is the employee negatively impacting the quality and enjoyment of other employee’s work experience? What capabilities can the employee role model for the rest of the team?

Performance reviews (I recommend every 6 months rather than annually, to keep the feedback fresh) naturally lead to transitions. Some employees will be ready for more responsibility and promotion, others no longer fit the organization and need to rotate out. Succession planning and attrition will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Engagement is the most broadly applicable metric, providing insight across all phases of the talent cycle. The most straightforward and pragmatic way to gauge engagement is with a 2 question survey:

  1. How likely are you to recommend working at this company to a friend or colleague? Answer on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most likely.
  2. What one thing would need to change for you to give a higher rating? Open text response.

Gallup’s method to capturing engagement data is another statistically validated, relatively brief (12 questions) survey.

As the modern economy shifts more towards services and technology, managing the talent cycle is an increasingly important skill for leaders to master in order to maintain a competitive advantage. While it will always be a subjective, personal experience, the intent of setting out these metrics across the talent cycle is to help reduce the complexity of the process by introducing some standardization and objectivity.

4 counterintuitive leadership traits

“The difference between a leader and a dreamer is who gets followed.” I can’t attribute that quote to anyone in particular, maybe it was a fortune cookie. It’s also possible to substitute “tyrant” for “dreamer” and create another set of leadership lessons.

Segway Guy
Not being followed.

Much of what has been written about leadership styles emphasizes being visionary, creative, decisive, and fearless. My sense is that too much of these traits undermine the trust of the team you lead and erode your credibility. I’m not trying to write the next revolution in leadership theory (heroic, post-heroic, servant, virtual, 21st century — all taken) or even to suggest that the points below are academically complete. But they line up with my experiences in life so far, and they work. What do you think?

  1. Don’t try to right, just be clear. How often do you make a point of having the last word? If you want to build a team who points out risks in your plans and builds solutions collaboratively, you need to give them airtime without insecurity. Thanks to Ping Fu (what a name!) for that lesson in Build Magazine.
  2. Show your vulnerability to build a reputation for strength. It can be very humbling during a tough period to know that your role model has experienced similar setbacks and grown from them. Rather than acting invincible, be open about your weaknesses, failures, and fears to show that you, too, are human. Surprisingly, your team might regard you as a stronger character because of those revelations.
  3. Don’t try to be dynamic if you can’t first be consistent. Do you set sweeping strategic goals or drill down to every minute detail? Do you codify tribal knowledge into efficient process flows or do you rearrange the furniture to spark creative innovation? Do you sway with the ups and downs of individual relationships or lock a laser beam on the goal? Yes, we should all develop multiple leadership styles to be more successful in a wider range of situations and with diverse teams. But trust is a prerequisite, and consistency builds trust. To clarify your current strengths, ask for some feedback or try a more scientific assessment such as Tom Rath’s.
  4. At some point, everyone just wants to be told what to do (even if that is just so they can argue with you). The questioning/Socratic method of coaching is great for learning and building ownership. Don’t forget the root of the word “executive:” you’ve got to pull the trigger at some point. Those on your team looking for directions to follow will do so readily; those looking to challenge your authority will enjoy getting another chance!

Image: http://www.segway.com

You need three things to succeed. As a coach, I can only give you two

Sometimes a softer, coaching approach gets the group closest to the pin

Recently a member of my team was struggling to meet client expectations. His direct manager (who reports to me) kept me aware of the situation, and was putting in more of her own time than any of us wanted in order to help him keep his head above water. After the pattern continued for about two weeks, it was time to intervene. The three of us sat down and discussed the framework below:

  1. A clear vision of success – the first thing I can do as a coach is help you understand what success looks like. I can describe this in my terms, I can show you prior examples of success, and ultimately I want to hear you articulate how this vision applies to the current situation in your own words so I’m sure we’re on the same page.
  2. Skills to complete the work – in the spirit of “if this were easy, it’d be done already,” you are likely going to have to reach a new level of capability to succeed. Let’s identify which core skills you need to build (technical, interpersonal, communication, etc.) to achieve the vision above, and how you can quickly build proficiency and confidence.
  3. Motivation –  this last part must come from you. Ideally our discussions will tap into some of your longer term aspirations, and you will be motivated for a while. Maybe you will have to find motivation on a shorter time scale: avoiding a negative performance review next month, or just not seeing my smiling face first thing every morning to ask you what the plan is! Of course I will help you with a framework to identify your own personal motivators, but at the end of the day, motivation is entirely internal.

This collaborative, coaching style of leadership might come naturally to some of us, and might need cultivation in others. You can read an example from Michele Fabrizi, a leader who found success through a strong coaching style, at one of my favorite new sites, thebuildnetwork.com.

For a more detail about leadership styles and how to select the most effective one for different business scenarios, check out this classic from HBR by Daniel Goleman. (image above from HBR)

What do you think of this framework? Try it out, and let me know the result!