Do Your Managers’ Decisions Keep Landing Back on Your Desk?
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Do Your Managers’ Decisions Keep Landing Back on Your Desk?

Do Your Managers’ Decisions Keep Landing Back on Your Desk?

Tom shook his head in frustration and asked me, “Why do I have to keep overruling their decisions?  I thought the people closest to the customer were supposed to be the ones who knew the business the best.”

It had been a rhetorical question until very recently. Now he really wanted to know. A general manager with a brilliant track record, Tom had once again produced superior results for the stockholders and created thousands of jobs, but the personal toll was huge. Everyone worked unsustainably long hours, talent was hard to find, and now that the company was growing at a rapid clip, Tom and his management team absolutely had to scale.

I’m not revealing anything revolutionary when I say that you must drive decision-making down as a precondition to scale up. There are limits to how many decisions any one executive can make in 24 hours, even if you skip meals, a lot of sleep, and a personal life.

However, this fell off of many leaders’ priority lists in recent years. My conversation with Tom took place several years ago. Throughout the Great Recession, I rarely had this conversation with anyone. With so many companies in crisis mode, decision-making flew back up the ranks. Command and Tight Control became the norm. Executives became accustomed to making even small decisions that used to be in the hands of directors or even managers, such as approving job offers for individual contributors and signing off on $5000 PO’s. Directors started functioning like managers and managers like individual contributors.

As one manager put it, “The message was to get in the boat and row right now in exactly this direction until the boss yells to change direction, so we did.”

Now that the crisis has passed for so many companies, it’s time for most executives to delegate decision-making once again. It’s a hard shift to make after being in the habit of tight control for so long, so if you recognize yourself in this article, don’t beat yourself up. Once you’ve become accustomed to making do with extremely limited resources and powering your way through every situation, it takes a mental and emotional reset to make the changes that allow your talent to do all they’re capable of to support growth, let alone lead them on a path of learning and boomerangdevelopment so that they grow, too.

So how do you know if you need to let go? Take a look at the process steps below and see if you recognize yourself in any way. It’s a boomerang-like pattern:

  1. You hand off decision-making authority to one of your direct reports.
  2. He or she makes a poor decision, or at least one that’s not as good as the decision you would have made.
  3. You know you shouldn’t disempower this person but you don’t want to put the business at risk, so instead of taking the decision authority away, you ask for more frequent report-outs on the project to keep closer tabs on it.
  4. Your direct report spends additional time preparing reports for you and providing updates, leaving less time to think through subsequent decisions, get your guidance, and improve his or her judgment.
  5. You get more frequent updates but the decisions aren’t any better; it’s just more frequent reports about bad decisions.
  6. You lose confidence in the direct report, and start overriding his or her decisions during meetings or in email threads. Worse, you start questioning his or her judgment in other areas. It’s as if a shadow of doubt has been cast over everything he or she does.
  7. You now own the decision again, since you are the one making it. You also have the additional challenge of managing someone who feels micro-managed, humiliated, or insulted, and who spends more time covering his or her backside, ducking for cover, and agonizing over how to position every email to the boss. This person isn’t taking chances, growing, making mistakes, and learning. He or she is just executing your decisions and wondering why you changed.

As this sequence shows, much like additional vacation days, once you’ve given someone decision-making authority, it’s hard to take it back without creating a whole new set of problems.

I developed the following checklist to help you assess if you’ve got your ducks in a row to delegate an important decision. I’ve used this checklist myself as I was developing it, and found that it helped me identify some of my own blind spots. You can also use it after a delegated decision has gone bad (or even just sideways), and to assess what you need to change to continue improving your delegation going forward. You can even use it to stimulate your team’s thinking about how effectively they delegate, too. Consider this the Swiss Army Knife of delegation.

Checklist: The Sweet Spot for Effectively Driving Decision-Making Down in the Organization

Knowledge – does the person have full knowledge of…

squareDownstream impact of decision?
squareAll key stakeholders and their interests?
squareWhat the decision is and what it isn’t?
squareContext of how this decision fits into the business?

Skills – how skilled is this person at…

squareCommunicating with stakeholders up, down, sideways, and outward?
squareChoosing and using appropriate diagnostics such as root cause analysis, force field analysis, technical analysis, etc.?
squareDecision-making itself, including awareness of his or her natural strengths and blind spots in decision-making?
squareBuilding stakeholder relationships?
squareCollaborating where appropriate or helpful?
squarePersisting to see the decision through?

Leadership from You – are you ready, willing, and able to provide…

squareA clear, clean hand-off?
squareCoaching from the previous decision-maker (usually this is you) through several decision cycles?
squareAdvocacy to get needed resources?
squareSpecific feedback and dialogue?
squareConsistent reinforcement when others appeal to you for a different decision?
squareAppropriate time allocation for his or her learning curve before delegating full authority or authority for additional decisions?

I encourage you to use this list as a jumping off point for a conversation with your direct reports. Don’t just keep it to yourself. You can learn a lot more hearing their perspectives in addition to your own.

What would you add to this list? Is there anything with which you disagree? Let me know. I’m interested in learning your perspective.