Managers are supposed to be good at delegation. Everyone talks of it and people criticise managers who are not good at passing on work to others.
But what if the opposite were true? What if truly great managers were good at taking work away from their teams?
Most organisations are already busy places. Management and administration are not the ‘purpose’ of any organisation. They are something that enables the main work to happen. They are vital, absolutely vital, but as a means to an end. They create the conditions in which the main work can be done well.
Leaders identify this main work – the actions that add value to customers (internal and external), stakeholders or beneficiaries, the tasks which serve the organisation’s purpose – and eliminate as much as possible of everything else.
This means that great managers will be eagerly looking for things to take away from people. They undelegate. They are vigilant in policing distractions and try not to become one themselves. When they do impose a task, they will make it as light touch as possible. Although they definitely have high expectations for performance, they will be reluctant to impose burdens that don’t advance the main work. And they will certainly not create tasks simply to make themselves important or to be in the loop.
The ideal situation is that a task taken away simply disappears. But there will be times when a manager finds that, although the task is not central to adding value, it is still needed to permit other good things to happen. There will be rare occasions, therefore, when a manager takes work from others and does it themselves. They will serve others in the name of a focused and disciplined organisation. It can be as simple as grabbing lunch for people when they are immersed in a critical team meeting or as difficult as fronting up to an angry customer (or parent) who will need a long and painful conversation.
This is not to say that great managers don’t want to see people working hard and well. They simply want to see people working hard on the right things and they try to keep their egos out of it. Nor do they destroy themselves in the name of service to others. They know it is a long game and that they must pace themselves to maintain their judgement.
It can be gratifying to have people working for us. The reality is that they should be working for something greater than us. And it is our privilege to help them achieve that purpose. In some ways we are working for them.