Deputization Versus Delegation

As leaders, we are repeatedly told that we need to learn to delegate. And unsurprisingly most of us struggle with it. After all, we likely got our jobs because we were star performers that happily took on more work and responsibilities.

The core assumption of delegation is that there’s work and then there’s leadership work. If a leader gets too bogged down with the former, she or he can’t make time for the latter. In times of change, this is an especially inescapable reality of leadership. While it’s everyone’s job in the organization to make change, leaders have the added responsibilities of defining the narrative for change (i.e., why and why now), reacting to negative responses to change (e.g. loss of control, loss of pride, etc.), and ensuring that the organization adopts attitudes and rituals that support further learning and adaptation (e.g. continuous feedback, customer sensing, etc.).

So, logically it makes sense to urge leaders to delegate. In actuality, this is terrible advice. Instead, we should be deputizing.

Delegating is the act of distributing a task to someone else. Deputizing is the act of distributing an authority to someone else. That may seem like a subtle difference, but when you’re leading an organization through change, that difference is crucial.

Delegating means “do this task and bring it back to me.” Deputizing means “own this process and bring me the results.”

When Yahoo needed a logo refresh, Marissa Mayer didn’t design it herself. She delegated the task to her design team. But she didn’t deputize them to produce a new logo. Instead, she held the team over a weekend to review every permutation of the new logo. Famously, she decided that the new logo must have no straight lines and that the “!” in “Yahoo!” must sit at a nine-degree tilt.

In cases like this, delegating can actually slow down work and lead to poor decision-making. If the tasker has to get approval at each decision point, they not only have to spend considerable time filling you in on the work so far, but they’re also counting on you to make the best decision, quickly, with no first-hand knowledge.

On the Toyota assembly line, each worker is delegated a task. They are also deputized with a remarkable authority: they can shut down the entire line if they spot a defect. When it was introduced no other car manufacturer would have ever considered it, but Toyota proved that it was far more profitable to distribute authority to their workers.

When you deputize someone, you place both the work itself and the power to accomplish the work in their hands. You grant them some, if not all, of the explicit powers to 1) hold conversations about the work, 2) transfer intermediate tasks to others, 3) make decisions, and 4) enforce compliance with those decisions.

We know from our time before we were leaders that when we were truly deputized by a boss we not only got the job done better and faster, but it also made us more engaged at work. But now as leaders, faced with the added burden of changing our organizations, we cringe at the thought of passing authorities to others. We tell ourselves that it sounds well and good in theory, but things are far too critical right now to afford it. We alone must get it done. Right now, we must be involved in every decision.

Given the amount of work required to change an organization, that response is well … physically impossible.

To succeed in your role as a leader of change, you must start deputizing others. To begin:

  1. Ask yourself if you trust the expertise, judgement, and persuasive abilities of your direct reports. All three are non-negotiables for leaders. Do they have the skills to do the work? Do they have the wisdom to make sound decisions without you? And do they have the charm to convince others? If you lack faith in your people in these areas, either train them or exit them. This is the only task you can’t deputize to someone else and the one that warrants your immediate attention.
  2. If you do trust your people, loudly promote your faith in them internally and to your outside partners. You want the rest of the organization to know that your direct reports are fully capable of their roles and have your explicit backing. This will greatly reduce the number of people who try to bypass them to involve you directly (which will only cause more confusion, more work, and more waste). Whenever you can, say no to these kinds of requests.
  3. Share everything you know as often as you can AND make it clear that your way isn’t the highway. One reason Marissa Mayer gave for her notorious micro-management was that her teams didn’t know everything she had learned in her career and therefore she needed to play a role in every part of the company. She likely also expected her people to do things exactly as she would. Both foster the conditions where team members constantly seek validation and wait for your approval.
  4. Make it clear to everyone what authority you’re handing over, how often you want to check-in, and roughly how you’ll measure their results. Deputies need some rules to function within, even if those rules are solely defined by their boundaries (e.g. update our logo for smaller screens and a younger audience, but don’t change the name or color pallette). These rules need to be known not only by the people you’ve deputized, but also those who must work with them.

Lastly, it’s crucial to remember that while you can distribute tasks and authorities, as a leader your responsibilities are non-transferrable. That pressure is what so often drives leaders to shy away from deputizing their teams. Instead, that pressure should drive you to hire the best people you can and to invest in them at every possible turn. The duty of a leader isn’t to improve the work, but to improve the people doing the work.

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