How I Learned To Delegate

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The best lesson I ever learned on delegation came in 1997.  I was running teams for AAA (the Automobile Club) in our Burbank and Glendale offices.  These teams were comprised of outside salespeople (who sold AAA memberships, auto & homeowner’s insurance) and inside salespeople, who handled existing policyholder issues by phone and walk-ins.

Our team was a really top-performing team – probably in the top 5 out of 100 in the company in terms of sales and volume.

But the single biggest frustration I had was on Fridays.  All the big member issues, complaints and problems somehow always hit on Friday afternoons.  Time and time again, I had to intervene and handle these major complaints, and it was sucking the life out of me.  Between dealing with an angry customer, trying to navigate the corporate bureaucracy to get resolutions to the problem, and bringing the issue to  completion was exhausting, to say the least.  On a day – Friday – where I should have been spending time congratulating my team for their accomplishments, I was on hold waiting to talk to an underwriter about why a car didn’t get properly added to Mr. Johnson’s automobile insurance policy.

My boss had a suggestion.  He reminded me the team was really successful, that he knew I was working hard, so he said, “next Friday at lunch – go to the beach and take the rest of the day off.”

That sort of thing never happened at AAA back then (or, as far as I know, even today).  We were supposed to be in our offices every day from 8-5.  And remember – this was 1997.  No one really had cell phones and e-mail was a couple of years away.  I loved the beach – still do – but I was freaking out.  Who would handle the complaints? How bad would my desk look when I returned to work on Monday?

But I was grasping at straws, so I agreed.  On Friday morning, I told two of my supervisors that I’d be out of the office that afternoon and unavailable.  And, I went down to the beach.

It was not a relaxing afternoon at the beach.  Actually, the entire weekend was not pleasant: I was determined not to go in to the office on Saturday or Sunday, but was dreading Monday morning.  How many voice mails and customer complaints would be waiting for me when I returned?

Turns out, there were no voice mails.  There were no unresolved customer complaints on my desk.  I was shocked.  Was it possible there were no complaints at all on Friday?  It couldn’t possibly be true!

And it wasn’t.  In checking with my supervisors, there were still plenty of problems.  But without me there, they simply solved the issues themselves.  Everything was taken care of.

That one afternoon off transformed my way of thinking about delegation.

  • When you as a leader are not available, your good employees will step up if you empower them. Leave the office and untether for a day.  See what happens.
  • You are not essential to the everyday operation of your team 24/7. (If you are, then you’re doing it wrong).
  • A great way to identify leaders is to find out who steps up when you’re not there.
  • The key to a Self-Managing Team is not delegation, it’s empowerment. Let them make decisions and take responsibility.

That afternoon off, more than 20 years ago, is analogous to a few days off without e-mail today.  If you do it properly, it can be done.  So do it!