Learning to delegate by degrees

For the business owner used to “doing it all,” letting others do it gets harder and harder.

By Susan Lazar

“Delegation deficiency” is not a phrase coined by psychologists, but it’s a classic trait, especially among business owners who have a driving need to control. The impact can be devastating when coupled with the increased complexities of operating a family owned business. The business owner may be oblivious to a stark reality: As a result of delegation deficiency, there will be no one in the wings ready to assume leadership. In the extreme, owners who are so busy maintaining control may become unaware that the business is failing or losing its market position.

There are significant consequences in trying to “do it all.” Business leaders describe the unrelenting stress they feel from the tremendous work loads they carry. Seventy-hour work weeks are not uncommon, and these leaders often have spans of control that number up to 20 direct reports. When asked about delegating responsibilities their responses range from “No one else does it the way I want it done,” to “It’s more work to tell someone else what I want done than to just do it myself.”

Tom, president of a retail business, told me that he couldn’t delegate work because he wasn’t sure how projects would develop. “I might not be aware of something that would need attention as things progress,” he said. Tom’s response tells me that he is reluctant to “let go” and fears losing control.

The question is why? Why is it so hard for these bright, successful people to hand off some of their responsibilities?

My experience tells me that despite their success, these leaders lack self-confidence, and their resistance to delegating grows out of this attitude. They fear their subordinate won’t do the job “right” and, as manager or leader, they’ll “take the rap.” They also may fear that the subordinate will do a better job and “show them up.” On occasions when these leaders do delegate, they either don’t turn over meaningful work or they don’t allow the co-worker the freedom to handle the assignment in his or her own way.

Have these business leaders always suffered from a lack of self-confidence? Absolutely not. Studies of entrepreneurs affirm they are people bursting with self-confidence, whose strong faith in their own powers is critical to bringing a new enterprise into existence. Business owners know how to operate when they are holding the reins of power. But as succession approaches, the company leader who grew the business to what it is today is being asked to turn it over to someone else. And the wild card in this situation is a new generation of leadership.

“I’ve devoted my life to this company,” said the founder of a construction firm. “I started out with a card table and a telephone in my garage. Today it’s a multimillion dollar enterprise. I brought my two sons and a nephew into the business, and now they’re big shots. It feels like they’re putting me out to pasture.”

As leaders enter this transition period, they are threatened by an unclear future. Their concerns may even result in projecting that uncertainty and discomfort on the future leaders of the company. The effect may be that both generations lack confidence in their personal ability to survive a transition and are troubled by unanswered questions: What will I do? What will be my role?

For the leader, relinquishing the reins means letting go of many of the activities which have given life meaning. Most of the person’s activities, friends, and vacations revolve around it.

One daughter who succeeded her father in a manufacturing firm said: “Dad taught me a lot of things I needed to know about the business. But he didn’t give me the chance to learn how to create and maintain relationships with our bankers. All the bankers dealt with him. Now he’s gone and I’m having a hard time establishing relationships with people who are critical to our business. His actions have put me and the business in a bad spot.”

On the other hand, Gene, successor to his family’s wholesale grocery chain, said, “I’m grateful that my folks put me in charge of dealing with the professionals and business people who are essential to our company. My folks gradually let me take the lead in dealing with outside people on everything from purchasing to negotiating loans. It was one more thing I felt at ease with and one less thing I had to worry about and learn when I took over.”

Lack of self-confidence in the transition phase usually includes an intense need to control. Despite the fact that they may be giving that control to their children, the change is difficult. Mike, the next leader of his family’s construction company, said, “Dad has to let me and others begin to make decisions he used to make on his own. He sees it, but really resents it.” On the face of it, the rules have not changed, and the senior leader may accept the fact intellectually, but not emotionally.

Anger and resentment are natural reactions. Not addressing them is dangerous. It is usually helpful for both generations to work with a skilled outsider to establish a process that addresses these issues and feelings. The people involved can work toward transition and change through the following manageable steps:

The bigger the unknown, the more difficult the transition process can be. But when leaders initiate a planned, professional strategy for letting go that involves effective problem-solving, positive decision-making, and affirmative conflict-resolution, they see that the unknown can be broken down into manageable pieces that disappear along the way. The ability to communicate and delegate can make the difference between a comfortable transition and a family crisis.


Susan Lazar is a consultant in Minneapolis, who works with family owned, owner managed, and closely held companies.