Delegate, delegate? It's not so easy, business owners say

Although Soyini Chan-Shue easily delegated work to police officers when she was a sergeant in the New York City Police Department, it was hard to relinquish tasks to employees of the security firm she now owns.

The key difference for her? Chan-Shue worked in an NYPD office that formulated policy and she was part of a chain of command. At her own company, she's the one in charge.

"It can be nerve-wracking to give my staffers the autonomy to make decisions I formerly made, but I realized that I can't effectively grow my business if I don't," says Chan-Shue, CEO of City Safe Partners in New York.

When a business is large enough that the owner must delegate decisions and tasks — even to trusted employees — it can be a psychic shock, especially for entrepreneurs used to doing everything themselves. Many pale at the idea of asking managers and top staffers to take on critical responsibilities like prospecting for and dealing with customers, hiring new workers or overseeing production. Beyond taking pride in being a superhero owner, they fear what might happen if a staffer makes a costly mistake.

Greg Galant remembers feeling "a mixture of terror and pride" as he gave his staff more responsibility at his company, Sawhorse Media, whose business includes Muck Rack, a website for journalists and public relations professionals.

"You feel like you are the business, and now you're letting someone else do the business unchecked," he says.

The New York-based company has grown to more than 40 staffers since Galant and business partner Lee Semel founded it in 2009. Galant realized early on that the company wouldn't be able to expand that way unless he turned over some tasks to employees. Among them: maintaining the company's books and monitoring website traffic.

"Eventually you realize that you are the bottleneck and not delegating is hurting the company," says Robert Glazer, the CEO of marketing company Acceleration Partners and a board member at other companies. He's learned from his own experience, and also from the struggles of owners he's advised.

People need to accept that the tasks they delegate won't be done perfectly all the time, Glazer says.

"When things don't turn out as planned, they feel they should not have delegated. You have to break out of that cycle," he says. "Success is it being 85 percent right without having to do the work themselves."

Lawrence Kopp struggled to delegate for the first decade he owned The TASC Group public relations firm. When a client wanted to appear on a network TV morning news show, Kopp wouldn't let a staffer call a producer to make the arrangements.

"I always felt that I was the only one who had the answer," Kopp says.

His approach made it hard to retain employees who wanted more responsibility, and that created staff turnover that frustrated clients. When Kopp realized he was hindering the firm's growth, he began seeking mentors.

He joined a business owners' group and started taking their advice, delegating and letting staffers succeed or make mistakes. The payoff: "It brings me great pride and joy to see my team succeed despite me. And it enables me to focus on the more important items."

Kopp has also learned that when staffers fail, the business can still benefit in the long run because they learn from their mistakes. Besides, he says, "You make mistakes, so why shouldn't they?"

Owners can improve staffers' chances of success by delegating responsibilities to the right people, Chan-Shue says. Her 23 years in the NYPD taught her about staff development. "I learned how to identify people who would be potential good decision-makers," she says.

And once she's given a staffer a new task, she takes a step back.

"I try not to micromanage so as to allow them to be confident in their decisions and to support their growth as managers," she says.

For Tiffany Couch, it wasn't ceding control that was the issue. She worried that staffers might be overwhelmed by taking on work she had done, for example, handling the initial phone call with a prospective client.

"I did not want my staff to feel the same burden I did, or to potentially fail," says Couch, owner of Acuity Forensics, an accounting firm in Vancouver, Washington, that specializes in financial investigations.

But Couch's employees told her that they had learned how to do the tasks, and do them well, by watching and listening to her. And she, in turn, learned how to reassure those who had self-doubts.

"I'd tell them, 'At some point, you might be better than me,'" Couch says.


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