As I work with both large and small companies in a very wide range of industries around the world, a constant time challenge shared by senior business executives and managers is delegation. Trouble is, it's not an intuitive and natural skill for most people and consequently needs to be learned.

Two simple mistakes are made by many well-intentioned managers:
• They're too available and responsive to staff queries. (Yes, I know that sounds contrary to modern practice, but don't bite my head off yet!)
• When passing a task over, they give too much detail to competent staff.

Being there for my people
I'd been called in to help the partner in a professional services firm - we'll call her Deirdre. She was in overload.

I asked about her workflow.


'We run an open door policy,' she replied. 'The team are welcome to come in and ask me questions any time.'

At that, I knew we had one answer to her problems. Trouble is, the little darlings start to rely on a boss who's always available. Before they know it, those who run such a system often end up doing the work of their team.

Solution 1 - Don't be so available
Now she meets first thing with her PA. The assistant is now the first line of defence for most of Deirdre's phone calls; she makes most of Deirdre's appointments; and she shields her from many more interruptions. This may seem obvious, but the process constantly needs to be revisited. Many executives don't use their assistants effectively. When we do a task we could delegate to another who's paid a lesser rate, we effectively pay ourselves at that lower rate (and it's easy to slip into old habits). Do the math!

The other short early morning meetings Deirdre now runs are with her direct reports. Their day's work is sorted. Then, unless it's a crisis, she's instructed them to save further questions until later in the day - no more wandering in with 'just a quick question'.

Also she now doesn't accept morning meetings with clients (again, unless it's an emergency). It's not hard to do - the PA just says she's in meetings, and she is - with herself, doing fee earning work for clients. For many of us those first hours of the day are our most productive time; use it for the hard work, the creative work, the income-generating work.

And what are Deirdre's results? Her team is now more focused, work output has increased, they're taking more responsibility and interruptions have dramatically reduced. Profits are up, Deirdre's personal time has improved, she's getting home at a more reasonable hour, and exercise has become a regular part of her life again.

Does Deirdre's situation sound at all familiar?
• How often do your staff come to you with queries they should be able to solve?
• Do you often get phone calls someone else could (and should) have dealt with?
• Or do drop-in visitors and emails regularly break your focus?

If you've answered yes to any of the above, you might want to try some variation of Deirdre's technique.

Solution 2 - Good questions reduce interruptions
If competent people keep interrupting you with questions they should be able to handle, throw questions back:
• 'So what have you done about it so far?
• 'What do you think is the best approach?'
• 'Where have you looked?

Also, educate them to come with two solutions every time they come with a question. Pretty soon you'll reduce the questions. If they've had to work out the answers before they come, they'll soon realise they don't need to interrupt you for what amounts to a 'rubber-stamp job'.

If we're too quick to supply answers we encourage laziness and dependency. Beware of good old human nature - the tendency to take the easy road. For many people, if they can get someone else to do their thinking, why wouldn't they ask!

Solution 3 - Don't overdo the detail, once a staff member has enough training
If a staff member is competent, we do them no favours by drilling down to minute detail in our instructions. If instead we give them the big picture of what we want to achieve and ask them to come up with solutions or processes, we engage their brain, give them ownership, and will often be amazed at a result or solution we would never have thought of ourselves.

Of course we must be willing to guide, coach and review, but beware of unnecessary detail. Often a good staff member will have a better way.