Silicon Valley Leaders Do Not Delegate

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Ahhh, the holy grail of management: delegate everything and just sit back and observe… for just 4 hours a week. Efficient delegation is heralded as the true path to the mastery of business execution, the pinnacle of kaizen. Accomplish an enormous objective and take the credit for it as the executive— with a small army of invisible staff standing firmly behind.

As reality dictates, things get a little more complicated when working with people, those emotional beings who do not put priorities of your company above their own.

Delegation is inherently simple in purpose but traitorously complicated in principle. It implies a specific set of tasks with clear direction and transparent objectives for success. It implies rigid boundaries for execution.

Turns out, people don’t like to take orders. There is a reason for this aversion. It implies lack of choice. Even if the task itself will bring joy, that joy is diminished knowing that someone else requires you to complete it. Sure, there are those among us that need boundaries. Some people do prefer the laid out path and lack of responsibility. If you come across a person like this on your team — heed the red flag.

In my previous post (Leadership vs Management) I touched on the topic of what makes a leader different from a manager. There are leadership traits which we instantly recognize if they are there, yet have a hard time replicating. Paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher, being a leader is like being a lady… if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.

What makes leaders different is their charisma to instill a sense of purpose and direction, a sense of right outcome. Great leaders inspire people to accomplish what’s needed for success (their own and that of the whole team) and take on the responsibility of accomplishing the tasks which nudge the said team towards the objectives. This is different from assigning tasks or delegation as we call it.

Let me offer an example.

As a product owner, you have been seeing a reduced delivery rate of your platform’s emails. 1% drop equals unhappy clients. One way is to assign someone to the task to investigate the issue, report results, and get that 1% back.

A better way is to show the metrics, explain the impact on the business and start a discussion with the person responsible for the communication hub of the product, gently nudging them towards the realization that an improvement is required.

Even better way would be to organize the team in such a way that all the metrics are transparent and every member of the team knows how their work impacts the bottom line. An observation of the issue sparks a conversation where the person responsible feels compelled to volunteer a solution.

The best way would be to instill a culture of excellence from the beginning so that the person responsible comes to you first to report the issue and identify ways to mitigate it. What a world of difference.

Have I ever observed this best way scenario? Oh gosh — of course not. Do we have this on our team? I wish with all my heart.

What works for your team? Anything you’re proud of as a leader? Leave your insights in the comments.