Twenty-two years I’ve been at this (Dan here), and while our company has had more than its share of twists and turns, I’ve learned that it’s not a foregone conclusion these twists and turns will teach you anything.
CEOs only learn if they want to learn. Without that willingness and openness, it doesn’t matter how many things you see, hear or experience. You will keep traveling the same path because it’s the only one you accept.
So, I’ve had to make an intentional choice to learn from my experiences in this seat. I’ve had to question things I was sure of, especially when it became necessary to understand why certain things didn’t go the way I had hoped.
I want to focus today on this lesson: There is an important line between delegating and abdicating, and you cross it at your peril.
When I first became a CEO, my favorite piece of advice I was given was, “Don’t micromanage. Delegate and trust your people to do what they do well.”
It made the job sound a lot easier. Why should I try to be the chief financial officer, for instance, when I had finance people who knew how to do it better than I did? Let them do their jobs! It’s what all the business books say.
But that notion conflicts with this one: Your people look to you for leadership. And there’s more to leadership than “I’m the big-picture guy,” which can quickly become an excuse for blowing off the details. There’s also more to leadership than silly statements like, “I see things at 40,000 feet. They’re on the ground.”
You have to know what’s happening on the ground.
How can you both lead and delegate? How can you empower your people to make decisions while also making it clear that you’re the one steering the ship?
It starts with this: You can’t lead anyone if you don’t understand what they do. You’re not a finance guy? Sorry to tell you this, but if you’re a CEO, you need to learn about finance. I’m not saying you have to be as much of an expert as your CFO, but you have to understand the ins and outs of what he or she does enough to be able to assess how well he or she is doing it. If all you do is nod your head and say, “Well, you’re the expert here so I trust you,” then you are not leading and you are not a good CEO.
The same goes for things like factory operations. The suits in the corner office may have never worked a day of their lives on the line but if they don’t spend time developing at least a rudimentary understanding of what’s happening there, they cannot make good decisions about resource deployment, budgeting or even marketing strategies. Because they don’t understand what they’re equipping, funding or selling.
I’ve heard it said, “If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”
That’s not true. I love being a writer. But in order to run this company, I have to exercise leadership in areas like marketing, finance, facilities, HR, benefits and scheduling. The writing is fun (usually) but all the rest of that is work. I’ve had to learn how it works. I’ve had to allocate time to it. I’ve had to grow and get better at all of it.
Delegating means trusting the people you hire to implement the policies you set, based on a solid understanding of the functions you need them to perform.
Abdicating is refusing to learn, pay attention or be accountable for things that are ultimately your responsibility.
The line between the two might seem fine. But the mindsets that lead you to one or the other are really nothing alike.