Delegation and empowerment (online course)

Be less busy, delegate effectively and empower your team (17:53)

a year ago   •   8 min read

If you had to choose between a switch, a router, a proxy or a firewall, which one would describe best your management style? The switch sends tasks to individual team members, the router broadcasts work to the team, the proxy makes connections between teams and the firewall protects the team against outsiders. Have you decided?

What if I told you that none of them should describe your management style. Each of these equipment performs operational tasks that make them indispensable for the proper functioning of a network. On the contrary, your job as a manager is to be the architect, to make yourself dispensable, so that the team functions properly without your intervention.

Imagine the following conversation between a manager and one of her team members, Jane. When the two meet, Jane greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jane continues, the manager recognises in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems her team members bring to her attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of her. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then her and Jane part company.

What just happened? Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The teammate. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s.

For researchers William Oncken and Donald Wass who came up with this monkey-on-the-back metaphor in their 1974 seminal article, managers too often take ownership of topics, instead of transferring them back to their team. This situation happens even more with engineers who, when confronted with a new problem, unconsciously go back to their default role, the problem-solver. For each new problem, they tackle it on their own, especially if it’s complicated, intending to eventually chunk it into smaller tasks for the team to complete. After all, it was their problem-solving skill that allowed engineers to be successful before becoming managers.

Because of their unwillingness to let other people do what they used to do, or as former Google and Facebook executive Molly Graham says, refusing to “give away their legos”, these managers are unable to delegate.

Even when they’re willing to give away their legos, managers still end up with monkeys on their backs by behaving like what they think good managers are: fighting officers. They lead by example, are always in the front line, have answers to all questions, work more and help their team members when they have too much on their plate.

This popular belief has appeared as a reaction to caricature bosses, those whose employees do all the work, but do nothing and get all the glory. The problem is that when managers act like fighting officers, they burn out. They run from meetings to conference calls, trying to grasp each free minute to answer the hundreds of emails they receive every day or putting together this last-minute report. Moreover, in this scenario, managers tend to operate like routers: they forward tasks to team members, performing never-ending traffic directing functions.

And here lies the biggest paradox of management: both managers and employees do not want to interact this way, but often end up in micromanagement on the manager’s side, and sluggishness on the employee side. Why is that? Well, delegation is a two-way street, and following managers’ directions is so ingrained in our work culture that, while managers need to learn about delegation, employees also need to learn about initiative taking.

If you look at our education system, it’s all about conformity and compliance. So we go to school, and there’s a professor who is supposed to share knowledge, answer our questions, give us homework to do and provide feedback on how well we did. So it’s no surprise that, after 20 years of behaving like students, well, we expect our managers to behave like professors: sharing knowledge, answering questions, giving us work to do and providing feedback.

In Turn the Ship Around, retired U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet explains how he managed to get his submarine, the USS Santa Fe, from worst to first in the fleet by challenging the Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. Struggling against his instincts to take control, he instead achieved the vastly more powerful model of giving control by training his subordinates to stop waiting for orders and make the right decisions at the moment.

When you think about it, it makes so much sense. Imagine if a football team’s coach, who by the way is also called the team’s manager, would spend his time shouting directions to players, who anyway are not hearing anything, or worse, who would substitute himself to one of the players at a critical moment. Even Zinedine Zidane, now Real Madrid coach, doesn’t do it. On the contrary, the job of a football manager is to spend enough time training and coaching the players so that they make the right decisions during the match.

So, how should managers behave?

In one episode of the T.V. series Suits, Harvey Specter (the lead character) goes into the managing director’s office, only to find him doing crosswords:

Harvey. I’m just in the middle of a little afternoon crossword. Are you a puzzler?
Don’t you have work to do?
My dear fellow, if I have to do work, then I’m not doing my job. What can I do for you?

Entrepreneur and investor Andrew Wilkinson is a bit like this Managing Director. He avoids going into the office, only meets with his team a couple of times a week, hates giving speeches, coming up with vision statements, leading meetings, etc. To make matters worse, he rarely starts working before noon.

By all standards, Wilkinson is lazy. But despite all this, he’s somehow managed to start a group of companies with over two hundred employees and invested in more than thirty other companies along the way. How?

According to Wilkinson, “entrepreneurship is really just a fancy word for delegation. It’s a continuous process of removing yourself from the equation step-by-step and empowering your team to do the things that they do best.” To make it happen, he considers his business as a machine that he engineers to produce the outcomes he wants, a concept borrowed from billionaire investor Ray Dalio and author of Principles:

Great managers are not philosophers, entertainers, doers, or artists. They are engineers. They see their organisations as machines and work assiduously to maintain and improve them. They create process-flow diagrams to show how the machine works and to evaluate its design. They build metrics to light up how well each of the individual parts of the machine (most importantly, the people) and the machine as a whole are working. And they tinker constantly with its designs and its people to make both better.

To get started on effective delegation, let’s do a simple exercise. For one week, write down all your interactions with team members: tasks you ask them to complete, questions they ask you, etc. At the end of the week, take a look at the list and group similar interactions. What you’ll realise is that you mainly have four types of interactions with your team: assigning tasks, answering questions, making decisions and monitoring progress. And apart from exceptional situations, you did not have to be involved in any of these interactions.

To change this, I came up with the 3T delegation framework, which stands for Tell, Teach and Track.

The first step of the delegation framework is Tell.  For team members to take initiatives, managers need to make clear where the team is going and what they’re expecting, using :

  • Processes, the specific sequence of related, structured activities that serve a particular business goal; and
  • Values, the beliefs, philosophies, and principles that drive a business.

For David Marquet, whom I already mentioned:

Clarity means people at all levels of an organisation clearly and completely understand what the organisation is about. This is needed because people in the organisation make decisions against a set of criteria that includes what the organisation is trying to accomplish.

And to convey values and processes in the clearest way possible, you have to write them down. GitLab, probably the world’s largest all-remote company, maintains a public handbook, with over seven thousand pages, whose goal is to ensure that all the company information is accessible to everyone.

This handbook started when GitLab was a company of just ten people to make sharing information efficient and easy. CEO Sid Sijbrandij knew that future GitLab team-members wouldn’t be able to see emails about process changes shared before they joined.

The second step of the delegation framework is Teach.  High performers, like athletes and soldiers, spend 80% of their time training and 20% performing. No coach would let an athlete go into a big game without practising extensively beforehand. But in the corporate world, we ask our high performers to perform one hundred per cent of their time and assume they will do well when given a task for the first time. When someone works on a task with no prior training, even when there’s clear documentation available, their chances of succeeding are slim.

Onboarding is the process of helping new hires adjust to the social and performance aspects of their new jobs. While the numbers vary from study to study, all of them concur on the fact that a robust onboarding process drastically improves productivity and employee retention. And onboarding is not just for new hires.

What about an onboarding process for employees coming from another team in your company? Or an onboarding process for new tasks, challenges, projects? After going through these mini onboarding processes, team members would have the tools and information they need to get started and succeed. And you’re always there to coach if need be.

The third and final step of the delegation framework is Track. Billionaire investor Warren Buffet also qualifies as a terrible CEO on paper. While he owns more than 60 companies, employing over 400,000 employees, he spends most of his days reading, thinking and looking at deals. Still, in six decades of investing, his total returns were 2.5 million per cent. How? By hiring the right CEOs, letting them figure out the company’s strategies and managing budgets, goals and tasks. Like most investors, all Warren Buffet does is to use a set of quantitative metrics that help him monitor performance and dig deeper if need be.

If you think about it, team leaders, and even individual project owners, are like CEOs. They have to devise strategies and manage budgets, goals and tasks. So, in a way, managers are like investors with a portfolio of people and projects. And like investors, managers can set quantitative metrics to help them monitor performance and dig deeper if need be.

The main idea here is to avoid getting into “the how”: team leaders equipped with the right skills can find the best way to reach an objective. They’re even able to devise their own team’s strategy based on a mutually agreed vision. Like Steve Jobs used to say, “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

In a software engineering team, these metrics can be the amount of work pushed into production, the quality of releases or the speed. But you can also add more generic metrics, like in this example from software agency datarockets.

Finally, with the right metrics, managers can anticipate potential troubles along the way and go back to step one or two.


  • Managers need to learn about delegation, but they also need to teach initiative-taking to team members
  • Teams are machines that managers engineer to produce the outcomes they want
  • You can use the 3T delegation framework, Tell, Teach and Track, to effectively delegate to team members

Reading List

[BOOK] Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules - L. David Marquet

[BOOK] Principles: Life and Work - Ray Dalio

[ARTICLE] Lazy Leadership - Andrew Wilkinson

[ARTICLE] Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? - William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass

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