Delegation and Communication — Two Keys to Successful Management

Ulf Wolf

December 2009

At heart, business management consists of delegating those things you cannot do yourself (for lack of time or sufficient number of hands) to others, and this delegation is made by communicating.

Yes, there are many more pieces to the managerial puzzle, but those are all the different labels we put on various functions, jobs and positions; the sea of numbers we use to measure production; and all the little tricks of the managerial trade. However, at the end of the day, management consists of delegation and communication.

Delegation: Definitions
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines "delegate” as: "Entrusting (authority, power, etc.) to a person acting as one’s agent or representative—from Latin delegare, to send from one place to another.”

Greg Vangellow, owner of R.W. Dake & Co., Inc. in New York, defines it this way: "In my mind it means that the business owner can, in fact, leave for sales meetings or even vacations with minimal impact on the company.

"Proper delegation not only gives the owner a good life-balance—time to spend with spouses and children, for example—but more importantly, it gives everybody in the company the sense of value that comes with responsibility.”

William McPherson III, president of Central Ceilings, Inc. in Massachusetts, extends this definition a little: "Delegation is an act not only of asking that a thing be done, but following up to make sure it was done.”

Steve Birkland, owner of Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors in Minnesota, observes, "Delegation is probably the number-one issue when you hit the job site. Without it, the job will fail. Everything is delegated from me, the owner, down to the job-site foreman, who delegates to the workers. It is something that has to happen in that order.”

Says Glenn Sieber, chief estimator and co-owner of Easley & Rivers, Inc. in Pennsylvania, "It is a way to split up duties. In our company, they are delegated by the president to me on the estimating and contracting side, and to my counterpart on the production side. This has to be done. There’s just too much for one person to oversee.”

John Dillard, president of Central Idaho Systems, believes that "delegation means finding somebody to help you carry the load as a leader, owner or manager.”

Brian Mead, president of Commercial Builders, Inc. in Florida, says that "delegation means all my field guys know precisely what is expected of them. It also means that they run their jobs as if the jobs were their own.”

Delegation: To Whom?
Once you see the need to delegate, the key question arises: To whom do you delegate?

Vangellow says that "the person you delegate to must be able to take on responsibility, and must then be given clear authority to make decisions. He or she must know his or her job, must understand what you want accomplished, and must know to involve a senior manager, or an owner, should the need arise. There are going to make mistakes, but a wrong decision now is a learning experience that’s not likely to be repeated in the future. If they don’t understand what they did wrong, you make sure they do.”

Says Sieber, "It is important to surround yourself with the caliber of people to whom you can hand off things. It is also important to know that they will come back to you if they have questions or need guidance. I call it ‘fire and forget,’ meaning I have people I can send on their way so I can then forget about it.”

Lee Zaretzky, president of Ronsco, Inc. in New York, sums it up by saying, "You need the right people on the bus to begin with. There are some things that most everyone can do. There are expert tasks that a few can do, and then there are those employees who possess unique abilities and people skills—those are the ones you want to delegate to.

"Once chosen, you then need to clearly communicate to them what your expectations are; though, equally important, you must also have a system in place to monitor compliance to make sure the task was done as intended.”

Delegation: Experience
Delegation naturally implies trust in the person who will act on your behalf, and that he or she is a responsible individual who can and will carry out your request or directive. So how do you find, or recognize, the "right” person?

Zaretzky says, "I can’t say it’s instinctive, but it is experience based on years of seeing what skill sets work for what positions.”

Sieber agrees: "This comes with experience. The key things I look for in such a person are people skills and the attitude to facilitate working here. If he has that, he does not necessarily need all the specific job skills—those I can teach him.

"We’ve had people talking the talk in interviews, who when hired simply did not fit in. That ends up completely counterproductive. To me, attitude is key.”

Dillard sees it the same way: "I know whom I can delegate to based on past performance.”

Birkland says he usually doesn’t "pick someone to delegate to unless they’ve been with the company quite a while. I have a couple of foremen now who have been with me for 15 years or more, and I have complete confidence that they will convey my message to the guys and see that the job is done right.”

Mead concurs: "I have three field supervisors, all of whom have been with me a minimum of 10 years. I give these guys the ball, and then I let them run with it. Now, they don’t price out change orders in the field—that’s done back at the office, but as far as day-to-day operations go, it’s all theirs, and they know what’s expected of them. They know what they need to accomplish.

"Also,” adds Mead, "at the beginning of every job, we review the project thoroughly with our field superintendents—the generals in the field. We cover what materials will arrive on site, how we as management view this job, and how we see it running. This preparation may be more extensive than normal in our industry, but we believe that getting off on the right foot—well synchronized—is the most important part of the job.”

Communication: Definitions
Once you see that you have to delegate some function or responsibility, and to whom you are going to delegate it, communication becomes paramount.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines "communication” as "a giving or exchanging of information, signals, or messages as by talk, gestures or writing—from Latin communicare, to impart, share, lit., to make common.”

Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, adds some nice perspective to this: "Communication, in the case of delegation, consists of the manager having very clearly in mind exactly what he or she intends to communicate, then getting it across as clearly as he or she can; lastly to ensure that what was received at the other end was precisely what he intended to say.”

Truer words were never spoken. For if there is a mis-duplication of intent or content, then, as certainly as pennies when dropped hit the ground, the person receiving the communication will now go off and do something quite different from what was intended, and that—as many have experienced—can have disastrous consequences.

Vangellow has this take on the word: "It’s taking the time to teach someone to do it right the first time, then letting them come up with new ideas on how to do it better once they’ve mastered it.

"Communication comes in many forms: face-to-face, e-mail, voice—in these days there are so many methods of communication. It’s also the ability to question different things, to allow the employees to do so as they need to.

"And you have to be clear, for you see every day how messages are twisted about, like those games the kids play, whispering a message from one to the other. It seldom comes out right at the end of the line.”

McPherson thinks "it is probably 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking. As for clarity of the communication, in the fast-paced world we live in today, I think being completely clear at all times is impossible. I think you need to say what you feel is appropriate at the moment and get moving.”

Sieber believes that "part of good communication is allowing people to ask questions. We have many informal discussions throughout the course of the day, lots of communication going on, constantly.

"I’d really get onto someone who is not asking questions. We have enough knowledge and experience here to find any answer. We’ve been in business 60-some years, and we have seen and resolved just about any situation.”

Dillard agrees with clarity, which he has found "to be very important. Not that I can say that I remember, or have the time, to make myself extremely clear every time. Also, there are those who take offense at being told something more than once.

"Then there are times when I take it for granted because the person is someone I know well and trust. [I think] he or she is going to understand precisely what I mean, and that does not always work out either.

"The safe thing to do, of course, is to make sure you’re fully understood, whatever that takes.”

Brian Whipple, president of Interior Systems, Inc. in Idaho, says, "I view this more from a leadership than managerial perspective, but yes, communication is vital.

"I find there is a fine line between over-communicating, meaning that you waste people’s time by sharing too much—things they don’t need to know to do their jobs, and under-communicating, meaning not keeping them sufficiently informed to function well; or—which is especially true in these hard economic times—letting people who don’t hear from you assume the worst. It seems to be a human trait to fill a vacuum with bad news.

"As for clarity, that is a must. However, I have found that you cannot apply the same communication tactics to every person. Some need to be listened to a lot more than others, and some you can simply tell and they’ll grasp it and get the job done.

"A key capability as a leader or manager is to see how best to communicate to your staff or employees.”

Communication = Teamwork
It is probably safe to say that without good communication, very little will be done properly, or on time; and while there may be a number of employees rushing about, there will be no team.

"My job is to keep everybody informed of changes and new ways of doing things,” Vangellow says. "Nowadays, I’m holding monthly lunch-seminars on various topics. Last month was bonding. Keeping the team briefed is a big part of management.

"And I love the question, Why? Why are we doing this, and why this way? That means that the person is interested and is taking responsibility for his area.

"I do what I can to keep a good team together, where each person feels valued and really wants to come to work today. I do this by allowing my employees to make decisions (that, frankly, saves me time) and by helping them, as needed, to make the right decisions.

"I think there are many positions in any company that can feel like a dead end if you don’t provide the opportunity for the employee to assume more responsibility as well as the opportunity to learn more and so expand. That makes for a good team.

"I think a good manager is one who recognizes the potential of his employees and allows them to grow to their full potential.”

Sieber says, "We are too busy to have big formal meetings on a regular basis, but information sharing is a vital part of our company. We have an open office that allows us to stay in constant communication, which in turn allows for cross-training and assistance. Someone who is really up on fireproofing will work with someone else who is not as strong on that—cross-discipline, relying on people’s different strengths.

"Also, I communicate with my team members. I spend time with them and find out what is going on in personal lives, with their parents, children. I get to know my people.

"We win projects as a team. In truth, most bids bid are collaborations of two or three people: one running down prices while another double-checks the bid before it goes out the door. Someone else might take care of some detail that required his or her particular strength.

"The first order of our business is to succeed. The next most important thing is that everyone here enjoys coming to work in the morning. And the truth is that if we don’t enjoy coming to work we are not going to be successful.”

Share the Wealth
As an aside, when it comes to team building, profit sharing can go a long way to shore up the team spirit and the effectiveness of the project.

Sieber brought it up: "We have a great profit-sharing program, so we all benefit from our successes. We either all win together or lose together. It’s a great way to build a team.”

Mead agrees: "I have incentives in place for my field supervisors, so consequently they have a vested interest in making sure the project is successful. They’re pinching every penny as if it were their own. This, of course, is especially important in today’s economy, with margins getting tighter. And they do a great job at this.

"We also have a company-wide, discretionary contribution profit-sharing plan, which gives everyone who contributed to the plan a slice of the pie when we turn profits. This certainly helps to shape a team.”

Delegation + Communication = A Good Night’s Sleep
Recognizing those individuals in your company who are responsible and skilled enough to assume a larger role, and clearly communicating to them what you expect them to do for you, constitutes the bulk of your managerial actions.

Making sure things are done right, and correcting them when not, makes up the rest of it.

And done right, this makes for good, restful sleep at night. Good luck.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.