Part 2: A leadership coaching journey – Delegation and team working

August 31, 2019

This is the second instalment of an exploration of one person’s leadership coaching experience. This is a real client, who kindly agreed to become a case study, with details changed to maintain his anonymity. “Andrew” was the newly appointed MD of an IT company employing around 150 people. Last month I looked at coaching conversations related to Andrew’s working relationships. This month I’m looking at delegation and team working. In reality these conversations were intertwined and did not happen as neatly as this.

Delegation – breaking a pattern

Delegation is a frequent topic in coaching, but in Andrew’s case the reasons were slightly different. This wasn’t the classic situation of a control freak manager struggling to let go. Although he had kept a fairly tight rein when was Ops Director, now that he’d stepped up to the top job Andrew couldn’t wait to let go of the detail and focus on the bigger picture. What surprised him was that, with the exception of Bob, his replacement as Ops Director, people didn’t jump at the chance to make their own decisions or take on greater responsibility. He came to realise quite quickly that his colleagues had not been given the level of autonomy that he had by Tony, the previous MD. Tony had conditioned people to talk through every decision with him.

Andrew had to break that pattern and change people’s perceptions of what they thought he’d want from them. We explored ways of doing that, like explicitly stating that he trusted them to get on with things and not attending certain client meetings unless they needed him to. It took time, but gradually things began to change.

A step too far?

But I also challenged Andrew about just how much autonomy he gave people. Firstly, we considered how this delegation style might look to his team. Was there a danger that his team might think he wasn’t interested in what they were doing or worse, that he didn’t understand it? People who are very detail-focused, like some of his team, might think that, unless he’d really gone into the minutiae, he wouldn’t really get it. Andrew is a smart, big picture thinker who can grasp the key issues quickly. We looked at ways that he could demonstrate that he was interested and understood the subject without masses of detail.

My second challenge was to get Andrew to consider why Tony had not given his colleagues the same level of autonomy that he had enjoyed. Andrew’s assessment at the time of his appointment had shown that he is a very trusting person, probably far more trusting than Tony had been. Was there a risk that he might give people too much leeway, only to find that they weren’t up to the task? In particular, I suggested he think about the degree to which people need structure to guide their thinking. Andrew’s assessment had shown that he operated very effectively in an unstructured environment, working through information without any guidelines and creating solutions from a blank sheet. It’s quite common for people who can do this to underestimate others’ need for some sort of structure – processes, systems, flowcharts etc – to guide their thinking, particularly when dealing with something unfamiliar. I introduced Andrew to the idea of dimensions of delegation, so that he could determine how and what to delegate in particular situations.

Creating a team

Why, I wondered, had it been a surprise to find that Tony had managed everyone else so differently? It turned out that Tony didn’t manage them as a team. Sure, they were called the Senior Management Team and they had some meetings but these were mostly briefings and progress updates. Tony had a group of direct reports whom he managed on a one-to-one basis. There was no sense of  collective responsibility for the success of the business. Andrew wanted to change all that.

His first instinct was to what he always did when he had a big idea – write a  positioning paper and email it to people. It didn’t take him long to see that that was unlikely to work. I suggested that, if a positioning paper was at one end of a continuum, the other end would be to get people in a room with no agenda and ask “How shall we work together?” How far along that continuum did he want to go? Neither he nor the organisation was ready for a totally free-flowing discussion, so he decided to a prepare a presentation for the next management meeting. We talked through the main points, including the need to ask questions.

Things don’t go to plan

Andrew went away quite enthused, so I was surprised when he seemed despondent on a catch up call later in the month. He’d given his presentation and there had been a “tumbleweed moment”; no one had said anything or answered his questions. We unpicked what had happened and it became clear that he had presented some questions, with very little pause, rather than asking them. More “Here are some things I’d like us to talk about one day” than “What do you think about this?”.

Andrew persevered. At his next attempt, people were much more forthcoming. One person suggested that they weren’t a team at all. Others wanted to look at structures and processes. The idea of a team away day came from the team, not from Andrew, and he seized the opportunity. We had a long discussion about whether the focus of the away day should be the big picture stuff that Andrew wanted to look at or the more pragmatic review of structure and process that was on the team’s minds. Andrew decided to go with the team’s agenda and slip his ideas in where he could. I also helped him weigh up the pros and cons of using me as a facilitator – I had a lot of background but may not have been seen as neutral. He decided to use a third party and I helped him work out how to choose the right person. The away day was very successful and started the process of turning a group of people with the same boss into a team. They had some conversations that were long overdue.

Next month I’ll look at Andrew’s plans for the business itself and why I declared him the Ronnie Wood of his business.  In the meantime, if you’re embarking on a new leadership role or you’re an established leader who’d like a sounding board, I’d be happy to have a chat:

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