I was having a conversation with my 90-year old aunt about delegation, task management and managing staff – she’d had many years of running teams and offices.
She said: ‘Efficiency is a life-long discipline, and not everyone has it or can learn it. Some people are naturally efficient and disciplined. Others are not – they need constant supervision.
‘If you’ve got a staff member who needs that extra level of supervision, you have to always know what they’ve got on, keep an eye on their work, make sure that they do what’s required, and be prepared to help if they can’t or haven’t finished. This person will constantly slip back.’
Between those two extremes I believe there’s a larger middle layer – people who learn it, once shown the techniques. However, they may need a long time to anchor the skills, depending on their learning styles and what ability they start with. It doesn’t come to them naturally but they pull themselves up by the bootstraps over time. I know this because I’ve come out of this group as regards time management and efficiency, as do many of the people I work with. This group is teachable and will over time absorb the relevant principles and learn to apply them.
However, the turnaround isn’t necessarily quick.
Square pegs in round holes
Not long after the conversation with Aunt Peg I was asked to work with Sally, a young team leader. She had an incredibly messy environment, an overload of work, and unrealistic optimism about how much she could achieve.
No matter how hard she worked, and how much overtime she put in, work was one long litany of complaints. Other departments complained about lack of communication, her supportive CEO was seriously frustrated with multiple missed deadlines, and Sally’s team were sometimes over- and other times under-managed.
She sat somewhat to the right on the continuum below. I believe Sally could have conquered her challenges over time, but the further to the right a person is, the longer they need to make change – if they want to. Unfortunately, there were commercial implications that couldn’t wait. Sally was asked to resign.
Natural achievement level
We have a range of natural achievement levels in everything we engage in.
In Sally’s case, her day-to-day work was excellent, but at the time of her promotion to team leader she didn’t have the right mix of skills. Her warm and caring personality meant that she had worked very well when part of a team, but this strength needed to be modified for her to become a good team leader and delegator. Instead, when anyone asked for help, she would stop whatever she was doing, no matter how important and no matter for whom, and extend the helping hand. She wasn’t good at saying ‘no’ appropriately.
Matching task and person
If you’re experiencing a situation like this, from Sally’s perspective remember that there’s no shame in changing your mind and stepping back. Life is too short to burn yourself out in an environment that doesn’t suit your natural style. If you want to move into new arenas, look for non-critical opportunities to practice the required new skills before you put yourself on the line.
And if you’re in the shoes of her CEO, try to avoid putting people into a critical position of responsibility, or passing over full responsibility, until they’ve proven themselves in smaller ways as equal to the task.
Be prepared to coach and supervise until you’re confident the staff member has a grip on their task and you’ve got a grip on their skill level. Some managers hesitate to check the work of their staff whilst it’s in progress, for fear of appearing to lack trust. How you set up review meetings is one key: if sufficient review guidelines to catch potential problems are established at the outset it becomes ‘the way we do things round here’ rather than inappropriate checking.
And if things just aren’t working out, bite the bullet, have a frank heart-to-heart with the person concerned, and encourage them to look for different and less stressful opportunities. In almost all cases they’ll thank you for it later.
A version of this article also appears in Robyn’s regular New Zealand Herald Online column