Tips for Delegating the Leadership of Major Change

Monday, January 14th, 2019

Early in the life of a major change, you will need to delegate portions of the initiative to various individuals, teams, and departments.  The handoff from you to them is critically important. If you fumble or if they fail to pick up the ball, everything is put at risk. Three things need to be in place in order for you to delegate effectively.

  1. They need to understand what this change is all about. Why now? Why this change?  Let them know “why” and “what” before you get into “how to do it.” The middle managers that will be leading portions of change need context in order to make good decisions. Without that understanding, they must make it up as they go along – guessing at why this is important and trying to intuit what’s most important every step of the way. Don’t leave this to chance – explain what’s going on.
  2. They need to understand what’s at stake. What’s driving this change – new competition, the need to respond quicker to challenges in your environment, fear that great performances today may not equal great performances in the coming years? What’s the risk if you fail? What’s the risk if you do nothing?
  3. They need to trust you (and other senior managers). If they don’t think you will see this through, they will probably do just enough work to keep you off their backs until you turn your attention to something else. You need to demonstrate that you are a capable leader. In other words, you will oversee this project from beginning to end. You will fight for resources. You will not be distracted by other new priorities.

Create an Informal Contract

A very good way to hand off the assignment is to develop a simple contract with the leaders who will be assigned to plan and carry out various parts of the change. This contract should include:

  • Common understanding of outcome
    Make sure that you and the people or groups you delegate to have a common understanding of what is expected. Explain your picture of success. What will it look like? How will you know when you are successful? Robert Mager, who wrote extensively about creating good goals and objectives, said that a clear goal was one that “if you met it on the street, you’d recognize it.”
  • Specific milestones and completion date
    Explain how all of you will be able to measure success along the way. What are the metrics you will use? If you don’t have a good answer for this question, then turn to the people you are delegating to and develop clear measurable milestones in collaboration with them.
    Let your people know how much detail you will need as they go along. Some leaders want to be in the loop every step of the way, while others prefer minimal up-dates. Make sure these leaders know what you want.
  • Resources
    Ask what they will need in order to meet these targets? For example:
  • People. Who do they need in order to be successful? Perhaps they will need access to an engineer in another location or a marketing whiz from across the country.  
  • Money. What’s the budget for their portion of the project?
  • Access to other stakeholders. Ask who else they will need to talk to in order to be successful. Often these will be your peers, and you can be the link that opens those doors.
  • Access to you. Discuss the best ways for you to stay in touch. Tell them the best way to contact you when they have an urgent question.
  • Protect their time. These people are probably already overworked. You can’t simply add another major project and expect it will get done. You’ve got to be willing to re-adjust priorities. If you don’t, you risk seeing projects either die or come in well beneath expectations.
  • Anticipate Glitches
    With the help of the people to whom you are delegating, brainstorm things that could go wrong. (Don’t pretend that this time will be different than all the others. Plan for the unexpected.)
    Identify those glitches that are important to address today. Discuss what you can do to protect against that glitch occurring in the first place? What are the early warning signs that something might be about to occur? What contingency plans will you put into place to avert a major problem?
  • Review
    Make sure that everyone is clear about all parts of this contract. Thank people for coming — and then get started. This simple process gets major changes off on the right foot and can save you many headaches, broken reputations, and potential failures. Good luck.

© 2008 (revised 2019) Rick Maurer. This originally appeared in the e-book, Leading from the Middle.