Small Business

Learning to Delegate to Employees


The first person you have to convince that your small business can run without you is you

I have a small company and want it to grow, but have no experience trusting employees to take care of the details I now look after myself. How do I start delegating tasks once I start hiring a larger staff? —K.G., Seattle

It sounds as if you're hesitant to let go of some of the control you've established as a hands-on entrepreneur. This is a common early hurdle for companies moving to the next level of sophistication. But before you spend time and money building systems or hiring employees, you'll need to sell yourself fully on this idea: If you don't, even your best efforts to delegate tasks won't work.

"The first person to convince that you can have a business that works without you is yourself. If you do not have a vision of what that looks like, then how can you expect someone else to have that vision for you?" asks Brian Blomgren, owner of business coaching and training firm ActionCOACH in Atlanta. "Because an owner has already sacrificed so much to build the company, he or she may not be able to see their value to others outside of the role they play in their professional life. If you find yourself in this situation, take the time to create a new identity that you want to pursue and live up to," Blomgren says.

Another stumbling block you may run across as you begin turning responsibilities over to your new employees is the feeling that you must constantly be busy—or even overwhelmed—with work during your day. As your employees begin taking over some of the detail work that you've always handled, you'll need to step back and not indulge your tendency to micromanage.

"Build a vision for yourself on what you will be doing once your business is running day to day on a self-sufficient basis," Blomgren says. Many entrepreneurial companies suffer because their leaders do not have the time to keep up with trends, check in with clients, talk to vendors and competitors, and strategize about their firms' future direction. As you let go of routine business jobs, free up some time every day, or even every week, to think about your company's overall vision and brainstorm with key employees. Your ideas will help your firm grow in a smart, strategic manner.

If you're not sure exactly what tasks your employees can handle for you (BusinessWeek SmallBiz, June/July 2008), take a scientific approach.

Plot your daily activities on a four-quadrant chart with the horizontal axis being the level of skill and then the vertical axis being your level of enjoyment in the activity, Blomgren suggests. "Your lower-left-corner quadrant would be low skill, low enjoyment, while your top right corner would be high skill, high enjoyment. Obviously, you want to begin delegating your low-skill and low-enjoyment activities to others." Before you delegate, however, make sure all those tasks are even worthwhile. What would happen to your firm if that daily activity did not get done? You may be able to streamline or eliminate some routine tasks that are not necessary for your business, Blomgren says.

Once you begin hiring a staff, make sure each individual's job responsibilities, goals, and expectations are given to them in writing. Employees are happiest when they have clearly defined tasks and some goals to strive for within a specific time frame. Blomgren recommends that you spell out "positional agreements" with your employees. "Positional agreements are different from job descriptions, in that there is a definition of what the employer and employee agree to do, with key measurements defined," he says. "I can assure you that top employees want to work where they are valued in a positive work environment where achievement is recognized and rewarded."

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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