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Delegation: How To Stop Those Annoying Employee Phone Calls and Have a More Productive Company

by Ron Roberts and Ranger Kidwell-Ross
posted September 2008

Ron Roberts

There are many business advantages to delegating like a goose instead of a buffalo.

You should. That's what is meant by "Managing by the numbers."

Ron's brief video introducing the 10 Biggest Mistakes Contractors Make is now on YouTube. Click on the link below or copy and paste it into your browser.

Contractors often ask: "How do I free myself from the constant phone calls from my employees? Can't anyone out there step up and make a decision?" You've heard the answer for years. It is the magic elixir: Delegation

All you have to do is delegate and you will find yourself with hours and hours of uninterrupted time to work ON your business. Just go out and delegate. That's easy enough, right?

Wait a sec. What did you say? You've tried to delegate but no one stepped up? Those that did made stupid decisions that cost you money and clients?

Delegating isn't so easy is it? That's okay. I'm here to help.

Lessons From the Animal Kingdom

The following lesson is taken from the book 'Flight of the Buffalo' by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer. Belasco and Stayer compare the leadership styles of buffalo and geese. Yes, they actually have leadership styles.

When you micro manage, force most decisions through you, you are being a HEAD BUFFALO. When you share decision making authority, you are being a goose.

Buffalo herds ALWAYS follow their leader. They don't move unless the leader directs them to. Geese, by contrast, trade off the leading position. They are the ultimate in shared leadership.

Which is better?

Back in the wild west days, hunters discovered that if you killed the HEAD BUFFALO, you could kill them all. Without direction from the HEAD BUFFALO, who was now dead, the others would stand around waiting for direction to run that never came. So, they just stood around watching each other fall.

Geese operate quite differently. They share leadership responsibilities, to the greater good of all. In case you haven't noticed, Geese fly in a V. V's are very aerodynamic. Less effort and energy are spent by the group than would be spent individually.

The lead bird, the one at the tip of the V, faces the greatest wind resistance. As it tires, it peels off to the back so it can coast and regain its strength. Another bird moves up to the tip and takes over.

A flock of geese can fly much faster and further than can an individual goose can. True teamwork and shared leadership.

Both lessons apply to business - your business.

If you don't learn to delegate, you're a head buffalo and you're never going to grow it past a couple of crews. Head buffalo's leave their family's financial security at great risk.

If you can delegate and empower, create an environment where workers take on as much responsibility as possible, your business will reach heights almost unimaginable.

Let's move on to the HOW of delegation. The hard part will be getting people to make sound decisions. The decisions you'd make if you were in their shoes.

The Delegation Process

Step 1: Undo the damage you've done.
Step 2: Start small.
Step 3: Force them to bring two solutions to the table.
Step 4: When something goes wrong, have them walk you through their thought process.
Step 5: Celebrate successes.
Step 6: Keep giving them rope until they hang themselves.
Step 7: Teach your team how to delegate.

Step 1: Undo the damage you've done

If you've been making the decisions and solving the problems, you've trained your team to rely on you. You've trained your team to NOT THINK. They've become comfortable with using you as their crutch.

The more you micro managed, the harder it will be to retrain your people.

There's an old saying that goes like this. "The people who got you in the current mess are unlikely to have what it takes to get you out." Hopefully, YOUR team is capable of changing its stripes.

Step 2: Start small

Do not, I repeat, DO NOT go cold turkey with your delegation. You have to prepare your workers to step up. Always take small steps when passing on authority. Check on them frequently to see how things are going.

As they prove them can handle riskier decisions, increase their authority. Ramp it up individually for each worker. You may well have three crew leaders who all have vastly differing levels of independence. Some will pick up the new duties and decision making rapidly, others may never pick it up.

Step 3: Force them to bring two solutions to the table.

You have to teach your people how to make sound decisions. The easiest and quickest way to do that is to FORCE them to think by demanding they bring you two possible solutions for every problem. Require them to recommend one of the solutions.

At first, recognize that you will struggle not signaling the solution until after they have finished explaining their decision.

Your objective is to teach them how you want them to think things through. When you signal your preference prematurely, you interfere with their learning process.

This one small change in your approach will have profound effect on your team's decision making skills. Instead of picking up the phone to hear your direction, they will start to own the problem and solution.

Step 4: When something goes wrong, have them walk you through their thought process.

As soon as possible, ask your worker tell you what they thought about, what pros and cons they thought of, what risk to reward trade-offs they considered. Look for the issue they overlooked.

Verify their priorities were correct; their assumptions were correct; they paid adequate attention to quality, safety, and productivity. Ask them what they would do differently next time.

After you have heard their thoughts, tell them how you would have thought through the decision. Point out issues they overlooked. Clarify their priorities if they don't match with yours.

Step 5: Celebrate successes (i.e., sound decisions)

Nothing promotes repeat behavior better than positive reinforcement. Pat them on the back. Tell they how proud you are of their initiative, creative problem solving, or whatever they did that was right.

Celebrate the parts of the decision they did right, even if they messed up on other parts and ended up making a poor decision.

Step 6: Keep giving them rope until they hang themselves.

Once your worker has mastered the super simple tasks, step it up a bit. Give him a little more authority.

Keep doing that as he demonstrates the ability to think like you want him to think. Eventually one of two things will happen. Either he will hit his limitation of decision making ability or he will become your decision making twin.

Step 7: Teach your team how to delegate.

Once you've got your immediate subordinates handling their own business, teach them how to delegate.

It's common for project managers, foremen, and superintendents to be border-line control freaks. That's plays into your hands when you're trying to delegate. It plays against you when you're wanting them to take on broader duties and handle more responsibility by delegating down mundane planning and organizing tasks.

Teach your leaders with the same process you used to delegate away your detailed tasks. The more they delegate, the greater your team's ability to excel, be productive, and wow your customers.

Goose or Buffalo?

Call it what you will - delegation, empowerment, getting people to take the initiative - it all produces the same outcome. You end up with a team that makes good, timely decisions without your involvement.

The truth is: you must learn how to delegate and empower if you wish to have any freedom in your life. Otherwise, you will be tied to your phone 24/7 answering stupid little questions that drive you nuts. Not only that, they will be burning clock waiting for you to tell them their next step.

Editor's note: Should you need help implementing the above, call Ron at (913)-961-1790.

Until next time, best of luck with your business!

Ron Roberts,
The Contractor's Business Coach

More information about Ron Roberts' and his company may be found on his website Ron may be reached via email sent to

If you have new information to provide on this topic, let us know and we can add it in as an addendum to this article.

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