Delegate with Confidence

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Dean Kuhn is no stranger to 70-hour workweeks. That was the norm in the early 1990s when he opened Oceanside Transmission in Oceanside, Calif. He was new to business at the age of 27, and without any prior management training or experience, he did everything necessary to keep the doors open.

That meant he literally did everything. Kuhn was fixing cars, answering phones, processing repair orders, working the front desk and even cleaning the shop.

“I had nine employees in the shop, but nobody really did anything. When I needed someone to work on vehicles, I looked in the mirror. When I needed someone to talk to customers, I looked in the mirror,” Kuhn says. “I was running all over the shop doing everything.”

By day’s end, Kuhn wouldn’t have even touched his own tasks, such as marketing and performance assessments, requiring him to stay every night after hours tying up loose ends.

But the early mornings and late nights took their toll on Kuhn’s business and personal life. Despite the hard work, the business was only bringing about $240,000 in annually, and Kuhn rarely saw his family.

“I thought, ‘Man, I just have to do something about this,’” Kuhn says.

The solution: delegation.

Seven Steps

Learning to delegate is not an overnight task. It requires time and a well-executed process of employee training and development, says Patrick Donadio, a business communications coach who teaches courses for the Automotive Management Institute (AMI).

Donadio says effective delegation cannot be a reactionary effort. Don’t make a list of all the work on your plate and start dumping it on other people without offering any direction or input. To do this right, shop owners should follow a delegation process that slowly transfers authority of certain tasks to an employee over a period of time with a system of checks and balances.

“You have to train, support and oversee people when you give them a new responsibility,” Donadio says. “Create a system that keeps some control in your hands without actually having to do the work yourself.” 

Donadio outlines a seven-step process to get you started:

One: Identify what tasks to delegate.

Kuhn made a list of everything he was doing in the office and on the shop floor. He separated them into two categories: tasks needed for business growth—such as marketing and financial assessments—and tasks necessary for maintaining daily operations, like answering phones, staffing, customer interaction, production, job scheduling and cleaning. Everything on the list for daily operations needed to be delegated.

“I started peeling the least important responsibilities away from myself,” Kuhn says. 

Two: Use “degrees of authority” to test employee abilities.

Choose the right person for each task you’re delegating. Identify the skills that a particular task requires, the outcome you’re trying to achieve and the employee who best matches those needs.

Give the employee a small, specific task. If they succeed, add more responsibility, Donadio says. Eventually, give them control over an entire project to see whether they’re capable of taking that task on long term.

Kuhn had his employees take personality assessment surveys to identify their strengths and weaknesses to help understand who is best for various functions and to give the right job to the right person.

Kuhn used the personality assessments to identify trustworthy managers. He wanted to put one manager in place for each department who had the skills to oversee departmental activities and issues, and cascade responsibility of specific duties down to the lowest level employees.

One of Kuhn’s employees earned high scores in the leadership and management categories of the personality assessment. Knowing she was highly detail-oriented, Kuhn appointed her to the office manager position to oversee customer service activities, repair order paperwork, staffing and job scheduling.

Three: Set goals and objectives together.

Be clear and specific about what you want the employee to do and what the end result should look like. Make a decision together about when they should get it done instead of dictating a deadline on your own.

“Help the person think through the process. Don’t just assume they know what needs to be done,” Donadio says. “Take time to make sure the employee understands what’s being asked of them. Follow up with something in writing as to what you discussed and agreed to with the employee.”

Kuhn held a company-wide meeting with all employees. He explained what he needed to do and why delegation was necessary. To help get employee buy-in, he asked for their input and suggestions as to who would be best to take on certain daily responsibilities, such as opening and closing of the shop, and cleaning and sweeping duties.

Four: Create a feedback loop.

When you’re breaking somebody in on a new task, allow them to check in with you periodically to make any course corrections. Make yourself available to answer their questions. Establish a process for checking in before the final deadline to see how things are going. Be a good listener and coach.

“It’s a lot easier to make small corrections along the way rather than finding out afterward that they went down the wrong path,” Donadio says. 

Kuhn gave employees one new task at a time and monitored their performance. He checked in with them multiple times each day to find out how things were going and whether any help was needed, and made himself available for employees to contact him directly for questions or support. Kuhn also held another meeting one week after the initial delegation to discuss issues or adjustments that needed to be addressed.  

Five: Assign tasks with confidence.

People might feel timid taking on a new responsibility. Let your employee know you have confidence and trust in them, and that you want them to succeed at the new task. If people don’t feel trusted, they won’t perform well. 

Six: Acknowledge that delegating is a process, not an event.

Delegating is about giving somebody a skill to learn so you won’t have to worry about that task in the future. You have to let go, allow people to make mistakes and allow them to do the job differently than you might do it. Give the employee flexibility on how to handle some of the details of the task, but don’t forget to coach them along the way.

Seven: Have a review process.

Meet with the employee after the task is complete to discuss successes and problems. If things go well, give positive recognition. If things go poorly, turn it into a learning opportunity and create a plan for improvement.

Business and Personal Growth

“Without delegation, there’s no chance for growth. You absolutely can’t grow if your time is spent just helping move cars out the door,” Kuhn says.

Within one year of learning to delegate, Kuhn quadrupled annual revenue from $240,000 to $1 million. He’s since tripled his operation to three shop locations, and also engages in several other business ventures.

And he doesn’t even manage from the shop anymore; Kuhn oversees everything with two laptop computers in his home office.

“Delegation allowed me to have a lot of things going on without being actively involved in all of them,” Kuhn says, noting he only physically visited one shop location once last year. “It has freed me from each business to allow time to open and grow the next one.”

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