Early in my career, I took a call from the top executive in my business. This was an unusual phone call, as he was several rungs up in the corporate hierarchy.
After some polite small talk, he quickly got to the point of his call.
“We need more sales reps prospecting for new business. Most reps are content with farming existing accounts, which is why we are not growing. Would you agree?”
I had a strong opinion on this topic. As a rookie rep, I started with zero accounts and had to fight for every small sale while most of our reps had serviced the same accounts for years. As a result, they earned multiples of what I made without ever calling a new prospect.
“I want you to give a presentation at our leadership meeting in Miami. Show your peers how you have grown your account package from scratch. Show them what works for you. Inspire them that results can come quickly.”
“OK. How much time do I have?”
“I can give you 30 minutes on the agenda.”
“Great. Is there any particular format you want to see?”
“Nope. You’re the expert, and I’m sure you’ll come up with something appropriate.”
“Would you like to see it beforehand?”
“That is not necessary, but if you want help from me or anyone on my staff, we are here for you.”
“Great. Thanks for the opportunity.”
“Do you feel comfortable with what I’m asking for?”
“Uh, I think so. You want me to show the reps a process they can use to prospect; one that they believe will work for them. I can handle this.”
This was false bravado. I was scared as hell.
“Do you have an idea of how many slides I should create? Should I bring material for the audience to take away?”
“It’s your call on the number of slides. I am sure you will figure out the right number for your message. As for materials, I will leave that decision to you.”
Then he said something that gave me a boost of confidence.
“I chose you for a reason, so don’t try to be anyone else. I want you on that stage, so be yourself and be genuine. The audience will see through it if you go any other route.”
I needed to hear that, and it guided my thinking from the time I started on the outline until I took the stage. He wanted me to feel comfortable building the presentation that I wanted to give and was careful not to give too much advice.
For some context, this was not a small request. I was 24 years old, and this would be my third annual meeting. These meetings were made up of roughly 300 sales reps, managers and other corporate personnel.
At this time in my career, it felt like I was being asked to perform at Madison Square Garden. I was honored and terrified at the same time.
Our business had 120 sales reps and only a few under the age of 30. I was the youngest sales rep, having graduated a few years earlier. Most of my peers were at least 20 years older than me, and many were older than my parents.
The meeting was two months away, and this presentation would be all that I thought of until it was over.
The Five D’s Of Delegation
I was not a manager at the time, but this experience taught me a valuable lesson on how to delegate. That executive did five things that ensured a successful result with two satisfied parties.
I tried and failed to explain his delegating method over the years. Most attempts came out wordy and complicated until I found a catchy tagline (and one without known copyrights.) Using inspiration from the great Patches O’Houlihan, we created a method of delegation centered around five words starting with D. You won’t have to dodge a wrench to learn these steps.
- Define – Delegation is about an outcome, first and foremost. If a manager cannot clearly define a measurable, intended outcome, the assignment will frustrate both parties.
- Decide – The next decision is about “who,” and not “how.” Many delegation efforts are doomed before they start. Managers decide to delegate to a person with the freest schedule, even though they lack the skills for the job.
- Discuss – This is not a one-way conversation, where the manager barks instructions, and the subordinate takes notes. Leaders need to take the time to explain the desired outcome and understand their direct report’s point of view.
- Defer – The leader cares only about the outcome. Offer autonomy in how the job gets done, and you will build true commitment to the assignment. Defer to the judgment of the person you are trusting with the assignment and watch them surprise you with their ingenuity.
- Diligence – Delegation is not the same as abdication. As the delegator, you are ultimately responsible for the result. Placing blame after a failed delegation attempt will only serve in extending your pain. Check-in appropriately to encourage, support and keep track of pace.
Define The Outcome First, Then Decide On Who
This meeting was a three-day event, with only one day dedicated to presentations to the entire group. The rest was divided into break-out sessions, small group discussions and social events.
It was a significant investment from the business, and our Vice President was responsible for the agenda. Our business was declining, and sales force performance played a growing role.
I was on this executive’s radar as I had an opportunity to speak with him in a roundtable format earlier in the year. He asked me how I was growing accounts so quickly, and I laid out what a typical day looked like for me.
In that discussion, he turned to my manager and asked how many of our reps were spending their time similarly. The short answer was, “Not many.”
This VP was convinced that we had a sales problem involving skill and will. After a long bull market in the 1990s, many of our reps hadn’t prospected in years. Most took what their best customers gave them year in and year out.
Their prospecting skills hadn’t been sharpened and subsequently, were weak. Worse, our reps felt like they were above prospecting, which is humbling work. At their level, they perceived to have graduated from lowly tasks like cold calling.
New account development was an initiative worth pursuing, and our VP decided to use the annual meeting as his venue to kick it off. For this presentation, he needed to define his desired outcome and then decide who could best accomplish that outcome.
In this situation, the assignment was well-defined. First, I needed to present a step-by-step process for developing new business. Second, I needed to motivate my peers that this process was simple to follow and in their best interest. If done well, I would cover “skill” and “will” in the same presentation.
This executive could have decided to present the topic himself but chose the youngest sales rep in the company. Why? He understood that a message of change would be received better if delivered by someone without any skin in the game.
An executive presentation promoting prospecting would come off as self-serving. This executive had been out of the game for a long time. His sales skills were rusty, and he was no longer considered a subject matter expert. At the time, I had some growing street cred in that no sales rep had generated more new accounts in the previous year and I had nothing to gain by delivering the message.
Asking someone two years removed from college might also spark some competitive fire from his sales team. After all, if a kid could hustle his way to new accounts, why couldn’t the veterans?
I was the right choice tactically, as well. I was young, hungry and ambitious. He understood that I would see this presentation as an award, where most veterans would see it as a burden or distraction. He knew that I would dive into the assignment with great alacrity.
Check For Understanding, But Be Careful Giving Too Much Guidance
In that initial discussion, the executive made sure to check that I understood the objective exactly as he did. He made sure that I didn’t have any reservations about the desired outcome. He asked a question any manager should ask when attempting to delegate.
“Do you feel comfortable accomplishing what I am asking for?”
If you hear a slight pause, probe to make sure they aren’t telling you what they think you want to hear. Your goal is to seek the truth before you delegate. Ask about their approach, resource needs and their schedule. Does this task fit in with everything they are being asked to accomplish in their role? Does the timeline make sense?
They might be excited about the assignment but believe the deadline is too tight. In this case, reconsider the deadline or use this as an opportunity to take something less important off their plate.
In my case, there was no negotiating the deadline. I was a small part of this annual meeting, and the date was set. However, I did negotiate a few undesirable events off my calendar during the process.
For months, I was on a worthless Six Sigma project team that felt like a waste of my time. I was scheduled for a two-day project review meeting in St. Louis that month and asked the executive if I could excuse myself to better prepare for his meeting. The answer was a resounding yes, and he let the project leader know personally.
In the original discussion and every subsequent discussion, the executive was careful not to tell me how to build the presentation. He wanted me to own the message, and meddling would have diluted my enthusiasm.
In every attempt I made to ask him for a specific direction, he deferred to me and always followed up with encouragement and trust. The technical term for this is Psychological Safety. William Kahn coined the term, which refers to being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.
I wouldn’t learn about that term for another decade, but this executive demonstrated a textbook example. By reassuring me that I was the expert and that he trusted my judgment, my confidence grew.
By encouraging me to “be myself,” he was stating that I couldn’t fail if I were genuine. Allowing freedom and autonomy on a complicated assignment is critical. A manager can be incredibly detailed on a minor task, like asking someone to pick up lunch for a customer meeting.
In that case, you might say something like, “Pick up 20 assorted sandwiches from McGillicutty’s and make sure they are in the conference room before noon.” This is a simple task, and you might not want to leave anything up to a chance.
As the complexity of the assignment increases, you have to offer more control over how the individual reaches the outcome.
Find Opportunities To Check In
Over the next two months, this executive checked in with me three times. The first was a simple email with one question, “How’s it going, Ian?”
I responded with a quick summary of what I had accomplished so far and asked a question of my own, regarding something technical about the projector. He responded quickly and again encouraged me to reach out for anything.
Two weeks later, he called me.
“Hey Ian, we’re a few weeks out, and I’m going through the final paces on my presentation. It made me think of you. Are you feeling like your message is coming together?”
My anxiety was growing at this point, and I wanted confirmation that I was on the right track.
“My slides are complete. Can I send them to you right now and walk you through them?”
He agreed, and I gave him the short version of my speech. There was one point in my presentation, where I felt like I needed a story to get the point across. I asked him for his opinion. He thought about it and then offered a great anecdote I could use. It was the first time he offered input on my approach, only after he was specifically asked.
His input was strong, as he was an incredible presenter. He told me that I was on the right track and that he couldn’t wait to see me present. He thanked me again for taking the assignment seriously.
He made a point to seek me out when I arrived for the first day of the meeting. He asked how I was feeling about the presentation, and I admitted to being nervous.
“How many times have you practiced?”
I told him I had been through it completely three times.
“You’ll get a feel for what works for you, but I go through all of my presentations 6-7 times from start to finish before I start to feel comfortable. Anxiety is normal, but it subsides with every dry run that you do. If you are still feeling anxious after dinner tonight, it might help to run through your presentation in your hotel room until you can pitch without even looking at your deck.”
This is the second time he offered advice, and it immediately followed me opening the door again. His advice was helpful in that he shared a process that worked for him without prescribing anything specific. I followed that advice for every big presentation over the next twenty years.
Gratitude Goes A Long Way
The presentation went well. I got some laughs, made an impact and many of the veterans approached me after the meeting to thank me for sharing what I had learned. Several asked if they could see my call scripts, and my direct manager asked me to put together role-playing scenarios we could use as a team.
The executive who delegated the presentation to me wasn’t finished. While the next presenter was on stage, he quietly snuck back to where I was sitting and handed me a note before walking back to his seat.
It was a handwritten note that he started writing toward the end of my presentation. It was only a few sentences but ended with, “I look forward to the day you have my job.” I still have that handwritten note and kept it as a reminder of how a little gratitude can go a long way. I have written many similar notes since that day, and it started with his example.
A delegating manager must balance being supportive with offering enough space for employees to grow with the assignment.
At the time, it was startling how much freedom he gave me. After all, I had the stage for 30 minutes in our most important meeting of the year.
Looking back, it was the best approach in the short term and long term. By letting me own the pitch, it came across as authentic. Had he meddled with every slide, my enthusiasm would have waned and I would have looked like a puppet giving the company line.
Long term, I learned how to develop a message and find my voice. That assignment made me a more effective manager and executive. I will let legendary baseball manager, Tommy Lasorda, have the last word as few quotes have described management better.
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