This picture was taken just moments after receiving my degree. For the past two years, I was enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, on top of my responsibilities as General Manager of Projectline Services, husband, and father of two. What you see is the smirk of someone who was ready to be done—to trim down the list of worries to a full-time job and a family. The irony of this photo is that there is no degree in there. You get the case and a placeholder; your real degree arrives in the mail several months later. I just received mine, and now I can mark this long journey as complete.
They say it takes a village. I say sometimes it takes a few villages. I think of my family as the village where I live, and I could not have completed my degree without the amazing support of my wife and children (ages 11 and 7). It’s not like they hit pause for two years on growing, school work, soccer practices, or the latest Star Wars movies. (In fairness, their father shared in this last need.)
The same is true for my work village. Clients still have questions, strategic decisions still need to be made, teams still need to be hired and inspired, and plans still need to be enacted. It was exhausting, and it was thrilling. In the process, I think I finally learned the lesson of the importance of delegation. Maybe you can learn from my experience (without spending two years on a master’s degree to do it).
As a leader, letting my team down ranks among my greatest fears. Any leader fears making a bad decision that costs the business, but a much less conspicuous concern prevented me from properly delegating responsibilities: giving my direct reports the impression that I was just throwing something over the fence at them. We’ve all had bad managers, the kind that hand you difficult, thankless tasks and tell you to “just figure it out.” That’s not inspiring, and it is not delegation.
Ever striving to fall into the “good boss” category, I want my teams to feel they have the tools and experience to take on the consequences and ownership of whatever I hand them. They should have a lifeline to check in, but also the freedom to work without interference (no one wants to work for a micromanager). But over the past two years, time suddenly became my single biggest bottleneck. Anything that fell outside of working, eating, family activities, or studying came at the expense of precious little sleep.
In this kind of survival mode, the short-term math permeated my thinking. If it would take me an hour to hand off a monthly task that I could do in 30 minutes, I did it myself. This, of course, doomed me to losing those 30 minutes every month on something I could have delegated indefinitely. As a manager, I could recognize the failure in the moment. It is similar to parenting, when I find myself saying “because I said so” even as my inner monologue shakes its head and sighs at me. But what can we do? Even if we know we should be taking the longer view, survival decisions come from our reptilian brain stem, not our frontal cortex.
Somewhere in the jump between the first and second year of the program, the sheer volume of work pushed me to focus on the long-term math. There was simply too much to do. In no small part is this because my management team shifted their mindsets too. They no longer asked if they could help, they just took things on and dared me to tell them otherwise.
A 25th hour in the day didn’t magically appear, and I don’t remember getting many full nights of sleep—but things definitely became easier. At work, we grew roughly 50% over those two years. We added new client logos, developed a new service offering, and kicked off new internal initiatives to enhance our company culture (such as mindfulness and inclusivity best practices). Our company has never been happier, or bigger, than it is today. If I didn’t delegate during this process, I would have been the bottleneck. By definition, the business outcomes would have been worse by comparison.
I only delegated, really delegated, because the reality of having only 24 hours in a day forced my hand. So, my advice? Force your own hand. Strangely enough, giving up control can give you a wider field of vision. You will be surprised by how different brains come up with better ideas than your own. Outcomes will improve with diversity of input. Work becomes more fun for everyone. Eventually, you’ll have moments when someone on your management team approaches you and says something to the effect of: “hey, you know that thing you don’t know about yet because I’m just now telling you for the first time? Well, this is what happened, here’s what I did, and it turned out great.”
When you build teams you can trust, they will be hungry to deal with things that don’t have clear answers. I know that my own periods of rapid career growth occurred when I was stepping into challenges I didn’t feel completely prepared to own. Don’t worry about making sure your teams are comfortable with responsibility before giving it to them. Give them the opportunity to become comfortable being uncomfortable. Why? Because they are probably already ready for whatever you are not sure they are ready for. And, like you were, they are thirsty for a challenge, and for the opportunity to show their boss what they can do.
If you are interested in learning more about Projectline, delegation, or would simply like to stay in touch with Damian, you can connect via LinkedIn.