Managers can improve productivity when they delegate responsibility


March 18, 1991|By Ellen James Martin

In growing a business, the delegation of work is central to success.

Yet too often, managers bungle delegation, says Vincent L. Zirpoli, a Timonium consultant who advises on the art of delegation and other management skills.

"Poor delegators don't realize the tremendous power they have to create an atmosphere in which people succeed," Mr. Zirpoli says.

By failing to delegate and to create an effective feedback system, managers miss the chance to motivate and develop employees over the long haul. Even their short-term odds of getting work done well are low, according to Mr. Zirpoli, president of Mega Marketing Inc.

"As a manager, my job is to catch people doing things right. If I reinforce employees who do the right things, they increase the frequency of doing those right things. These employees will risk more and be more creative because they know they're not going to be shot down," says Mr. Zirpoli, who coaches business executives in the skills of workplace planning, organizing, motivating and controlling.

Take the example of a bank manager who delegates the preparation of an employee newsletter to her subordinate. After a week, the manager sits down with the assistant to review progress on the project.

If she's a bad delegator, she'll criticize the assistant for the shortcomings in his work, says Mr. Zirpoli. But if she's a good delegator, she'll focus first on what the assistant did right on the newsletter, such as an attractive layout. Then she'll draw the employee out on possible ways to improve the publication, including better selection of articles.

Mr. Zirpoli, former director of sales at Monumental Life Insurance Co. in Baltimore, who earned his MBA at Loyola College, advises clients in fields ranging from financial services to manufacturing.

He has advised more than 100 companies, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, the health insurance company; Herget/Carroon & Black, the benefits consulting firm; Reid & Rowell, the pharmaceutical company; Burns & Russell, the chemical company; and ADP Inc., the payroll processing firm.

Mr. Zirpoli says that regardless of the field, the principles of good delegation -- like other management skills -- are universal.

"Everybody thinks their particular industry is different. But people everywhere have the same needs. The manager's job is helping them satisfy those needs in their work," he says.

The object of delegation is to get employees to fulfill well-defined corporate objectives. That has little to do with barking orders, Mr. Zirpoli says. Involving employees in formulating goals for their work -- and devising a plan to meet those goals -- are much more important, he says.

"If I tell an employee the way to do steps 1, 2, 3 and 4 toward achieving the goal, I'm not giving him a chance to express his creativity in the process," he says. "Rather, I should coach the subordinate to help him find the steps that lead to the goal, to set target dates, and to work his way through the action plan."

Suppose, for instance, that a manager in the software field wants an assistant to put together a marketing campaign for a new product by Sept. 1. To delegate the job, he should sit down with the subordinate, help him figure out what steps need to be taken, put the steps in order of priority and attach target dates to each step.

By June, for example, the assistant should complete marketing research. By July, he should have his sales brochure roughed out. And by August, he should have a program of awards set up for the sales force.

By involving his assistant at the front end of the delegation

process, the software manager gets the benefit of the employee's ideas, while at the same time providing the employee with a feeling of ownership over his work, Mr. Zirpoli explains. The employee gains a better understanding about the tasks and probably will work harder.

The next important step for the software manager is to create a feedback system. That will ensure that the assistant is progressing toward his goals.

Just as the driver of a car casts an occasional glance at his speedometer to be sure he'll arrive at his destination on time, the manager should check in with the subordinate on a regular schedule to be sure his work is progressing as planned. If target dates aren't being met, Mr. Zirpoli says, the manager should meet with the assistant to find out why and discuss ways to get the work back on track. Such discussions are essential if the employee is to grow on the job, he says.

"Quite frequently, managers delegate and then forget about it. They don't have any feedback system set up and, as a result, get frustrated when the work isn't done right or on time. What they're doing is driving the car without reading the speedometer or other feedback systems to determine progress," he says.

But feedback systems shouldn't be used punitively.

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