Buffet and Bennis on Delegating
Mediocre leaders can’t or won’t delegate. Delegating may be the most unglamorous part of leadership.
I woke up this morning with three things on my mind, delegating an important role in the organization I lead, and two Warrens. They all go together.
Warren Buffet on delegation:
- Hire people and don’t tell them what to do.
- Let good people set their own standards and direction.
- Delegate almost to the point of abdication.
Buffets observations feel like a left shoe stuck on the right foot to many leaders and managers. Delegating the Buffet way only makes sense if:
- People possess character and ability. The reason you can’t delegate is you hired and kept incompetent people or you failed to develop their potential. If you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you’ll find an ax in your own hand.
- Everyone shares unswerving alignment with values, mission, and vision.
- Information flows freely.
Always accentuate never minimize:
Foolish leaders begin the delegation process by saying stupid things like, “This should be easy for you.” Look for people who rise up to challenges rather than sinking into ease. Tap into their desire to make a difference not simply getting something done.
Warren Bennis wisely said, “Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.”
Hands on in the right way:
Never meddle. I never liked a meddling boss. I interpreted their involvement as lack of trust. I’ve learned, however, that meddling was usually about them, not me.
Stay involved but don’t meddle. Never withdraw; always fan flames. Find ways to encourage without meddling. Celebrate small wins, for example.
What have you learned about the challenges and success of delegating?
I know someone who runs a company Buffet bought, and what you say about him is absolutely true. He is totally hands off. That takes enormous courage but Buffet’s track record makes any other approach appear foolish.
Dan, I agree – either let folks do the work you give them or don’t bother to give it to them. And your point about meddling is critical. You need to show interest in results and progress, because that keeps them focused and motivated, but let them get there. I like the word “abdicate” – it shows trust. If you delegate but don’t let go, you will end up with a less-capable team member than before because they will see your distrust and may begin to doubt. At a minimum the relationship suffers.
Keep in mind that you can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility. If your organization makes your responsible for something, you are still responsible for success or failure even if you delegate. Don’t throw anyone under the bus if they fail – you still should have been close enough to see when things began to go wrong. If you do blame a subordinate for something that was your responsibility, you take a hit with both your team member and your boss.
Being able to delegate this way is a key growth skill for leaders, because unless you can trust your team to perform without your direct involvement, you will never have time to focus on the future instead of today.
I love Buffet’s rules and try very hard to work that way myself. I think as a leader you hired people because in your judgment they had the skills, abilities and potential to be great at the work. If you don’t give them the work, what does that say about your belief in your own judgment? Trust yourself, trust your judgment and let your team do the work you hired them to do.
I agree Bonnie, your last sentence is point on..
I agree. A micromanager makes employees feel like robots, kills innovation and creativity.
I love this line, Never withdraw; always fan flames.” Although I’m not a leader of an organization, I consistently seek out good leaders (across our school board) who delegate and develop my potential. I prefer a leader who sees my potential and models my next step, or provides me with opportunities to develop the next skill. Thanks for a great post! So many important points here…again 😉
Good stuff, Dan. I want to highlight the delegate, but stay in touch part. I’ve watched recently as a couple of my coachees have not only delegatged, but also abdicated by not inspecting the final product. Consequently, the leader ended up with very poor quality and it reflected poorly on him. With a slight adjustment in his interaction this could have been a wonderful opportunity for everyone to learn AND to produce a quality outcome.
Having and building confidence often requires us to have an ability for healthy inquiry after we delegate. It is less about meddling and more about interest. A genuine interest about how things are going, asking where they are struggling, and do they have all the necessary resources, looks more like support than meddling. It is also a chance to uncover early warning signs if there are problems.
Delegation is all about leveraging talent and is key to any successful leader and organization.
Very pointed, Dan… especially your remarks following Mr. Buffet’s three delgation points. The trick to that kind of delegating success is knowing your staff, who will ultimately be the recipients of your benevolent delegation. If you joined the organization and inherited someone else’s champions and dead woods then it can take time to sift through the old habits to garner trust (both ways)… which may not likely happen for everyone in the group. On the other hand, if you had to hire a new team from scratch, Buffet’s points can shine for sure.
I’m a huge Warren Bennis fan. I’ve enjoyed every interaction I’ve had with him, and have never left a conversation without learning something very practical. Just like you Dan, Warren makes me think.
I actually find delegation to be one of the most glamorous parts of leadership. Appropriate delegation equals provides an opportunity for personal, professional, and organizational growth – what’s not glamorous about that from a leader’s perspective?
Understanding how to effectively delegate to others in a fashion that sets them up for success and not failure is another key part of the equation. It is critical to understand that improper delegation not only results in the task not getting done, but in most cases, in the task ending-up back on your desk in worse shape than when it left.
Here’s the main thing – if you keep authority but delegate responsibility you actually disable someone from being effective. If you give away both authority and responsibility you haven’t delegated, you have abdicated. If you keep both authority and responsibility over something but delegate the task, you are tasking not delegating. Smart leaders empower others by delegating the authority but owning the responsibility.
The moral of the story is this – a lack of delegation creates operational bottlenecks, delegation confused with abdication creates organization chaos, and effective delegation of authority vs. tasks creates personal and operational excellence. Focus on making the lower echelons as competent and productive as possible, driving all decisions down to the lowest level in the organization without suffering an unacceptable increase in delivery risk.
Thanks for making me think Dan…
I love how you have courageously decided that delegating is glamorous mainly due to the positive benefits it yields if done properly and with vigilance. I happen to share both views, as the practical side of delegating can be very challenging if you don’t have the perfect team in place, yet. Developing talent and skill in subordinates (and oneself) takes patience, consistency and a positive attitude.
I appreciate hearing your side of the story and you make excellent additional points to Dan’s great post!
Interesting how reciprocal trust is in play here, as Bonnie noted. Leaders want to be trusted and leaders have to trust that their hiring process hired the right people.
If the right players are on board, leaders have to have a higher level of unconditional trust (and positive regard) that those individuals will maintain alignment with VMV. Letting go and trust, even if the path chosen by those individuals may not be the exact path the leader would use to move toward the vision. That brings new insights/options to the journey, maybe even options that the leader had not seen. That may be a sidecar benefit…savoring (and sharing) the fruits of delegation.
Secondarily, the leader is setting a legacy process in place for the future of the organization. Within that framework, the leader may need to be more explicit in the intent behind the process…the whys (wise?) delegation, speaking to what Mike and Greg pointed out…the distinctions of delegations, responsibility, and accountability.
And Dan’s final point about celebrating small wins to fan the flames…ka-ching! That’s when it gets fun.
I would like to mention that together, Buffet’s points and your three points are a sure fire antidote the the “safe success” culture you talked about a few days ago. And as many have mentioned here, that requires lots of trust within management in themselves, those they have hired and the ability to intervene while instilling greater skill and confidence in delegates as needed.
I love this column. It just gets better as it all ties together.
I just love the Warren Bennis quote and have passed it on to the leaders in my professional and volunteer life.
When the leader does not delegate they are not leading. They are not even project managing. It’s called risk avoidance. Leadership is only about shifting ownership, accountability and authority for decision-making down the line in order to develop the team’s capabilities to grow, become more productive, effective, etc. It’s called risk reduction and it’s an art.