Today’s firm leaders are faced with a tricky challenge: building sustainable practices while creating a firm culture that manages performance, all while nurturing and developing people. Our clients tell us that balancing the appropriate amount of oversight and delegation can be exasperating for everyone. When the balance is right, productivity increases and people grow in their capabilities. When the balance is off, productivity decreases, frustration mounts and trust diminishes from both perspectives.

She said: What is the secret to achieving the right balance between micro-managing and letting go? How do you know when it makes sense to just let something go with the expectation that it will be done accurately and correctly?

He said: You must be very clear about the job responsibilities and the specific tasks that need to be completed. What are the goals and what does success look like? If you don’t do that, how can you expect someone to successfully execute on the task? I often see this as a barrier. Clear expectations and modeling help with this.

She said: Yes, but you also must assess the person’s skill set. You can ask a brand-new staff-level professional to handle a complex consulting engagement, but the chances of a successful outcome aren’t great no matter how clear you are about the desired outcome. The person probably isn’t ready to take on the assignment at this point in their career.

He said: You’re right. Clarity first, then assess the readiness. As I see it, there are three basic readiness levels:

  • Level 1. The individual has the technical skills needed to complete the task, but has limited confidence or motivation.
  • Level 2. The individual is confident and motivated, but doesn’t have the necessary technical skills.
  • Level 3. The individual has all three elements: technical skills, confidence and motivation.

She said: That makes sense. Once you determine readiness, you can more effectively delegate based on the situation. Some scenarios may require tighter oversight and control initially. These controls will loosen over time as the person achieves the hallmarks of readiness. Each situation presents its own unique challenges, so there is really no one-size-fits-all approach.
He said: Precisely! For example, John, who is at a Level 1 readiness in a particular project, needs clear and specific direction, guidelines and rules, training as needed, and close supervision with frequent meetings (including coaching and feedback). Annette, who is at Level 2, needs more guidance than direction. She definitely needs more training. Finally, Kate, a Level 3 readiness person, should be fine with a delegating leadership style.

She said: Fair enough, but you also have to consider this: Skills and confidence are important but motivation is often overlooked. Motivation can be as much about wishing to be promoted as it is about wanting to learn, to try something new. It is about being willing to be uncomfortable and maybe even fail, in order to learn and get stronger.

The one delegating must be motivated to teach others, just as the one taking on the assignment must be motivated to give it their best shot. Here’s an example: Beatrice is a partner who complains she can’t delegate work to the managers because they make too many mistakes. When the managing partner asks her to transition more work, she says she can get the work done in one third of the time it would take to train the managers to do it. The managers can’t force her to delegate. It’s the managing partner’s responsibility.

He said: You are absolutely right. The buck stops at the managing partner’s desk. He or she needs to effectively communicate with Beatrice and outline the consequences of not transitioning the work.

She said: This kind of communication is key, even when it is difficult to communicate with a particular individual. Avoidance doesn’t work. Delegation only happens naturally and smoothly when communication flows freely and clear expectations are set.

I’ve found that setting regular check-ins when delegating an assignment or when managing an individual to be a best practice. Even if a lot of time is not needed, having a quick check-in can take away any ambiguity and help to remove obstacles.

He said: I agree. There are times when an individual wants to perform well in certain areas, but can never quite get there. It is best to assess this earlier, rather than later, so it can be addressed. If the proper training and development is offered and they just can’t do the job, then the firm needs to make a decision — either let the individual go or allow him to work at a lower competency level.

She said: There are also times when an individual doesn’t accept constructive feedback. This creates a tense situation where you want to avoid giving feedback at all. When these challenges occur, it is best to address them head on.

They say: There is no secret formula for managing performance. The key to creating a successful balance between micro-managing and letting go lies in using the following three factors to evaluate every situation on its own merits:

  • 1. Lack of clarity in expectations is a common weakness. Even if you think you have been clear, you need to get clearer.
  • 2. Never overlook the person’s level of readiness. Technical skills, confidence and motivation are all part of a readiness assessment.
  • 3. Frequent communication impacts the comfort level of the parties as well as the outcome of the project. When barriers arise, it is best to deal with them head-on, instead of ignoring them.

Achieving the right balance of managing performance can produce strong people and powerful results. It may take time and effort, but the results are worth it. 
August Aquila is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquilaa@aquilaadvisors.com. Angie Grissom is president of The Rainmaker Companies, which exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or angie@therainmakercompanies.com.

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