Why Delegating Work is a Smart Decision

Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq., mbass@alpsnet.com

We all have a few family stories that never seem to die. One of mine involves an extended family member who didn’t file his personal taxes for a number of years. Don’t misunderstand me, the tax returns were finished. He just never took the time to review the work of the tax preparers he had hired so the darn things were never signed and sent off. There came a time when I couldn’t help but ask what the heck was going on. His response was he didn’t trust anyone else to do the work correctly and he didn’t have the time to do it himself. I followed up with the obvious question which was why pay someone else to do your taxes if you have no intention of ever filing what they prepared. He looked at me as if I was a bother and replied that he trusted their work enough to provide him with the information he needed to pay an estimate and file extensions but that was it. In short, in his mind he used their work to buy him time because at some point he would eventually get to this. Of course he never did and the expected consequences of this approach eventually played out.

Every once in a while I come across a solo or small firm practice that is run in a fashion very similar to how this extended family member handled his taxes. When I do, I sometimes try to address it and at other times I just sit back and observe. Regardless of the specifics of any given situation, I always walk away with the same feeling. This trust piece mentioned above is so central to the problem. While an attorney may understand that he or she doesn’t have the time to get to something, this always seems to be counterbalanced by an inability to trust anyone else to adequately take care of it, even if that other person is more competent or proficient at the given task than the attorney. Turning the task completely over to someone else isn’t an option; but why?

I often hear some version of the competency excuse. I never buy it. This isn’t about competency. Even my extended family member didn’t believe the tax preparers were incompetent. What often seems to be going on is that the attorney may have a need to be in total control, may not want to acknowledge that he doesn’t have the skill set to complete the task, may be afraid to admit to himself that he could use some help, or may not want others to know how far behind he is. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter. The point here is not to do a differential diagnosis. The point is to focus light on where the true problem really lies and as I see it, it lies with the attorney who is unable or unwilling to delegate work. Now, if anything about this discussion is striking a chord, don’t start to rationalization. If you truly feel you are surrounded by incompetent staff who cannot be trusted to complete their work to an acceptable level then stop the bleeding, fire the lot, and hire competent help. Life’s too short as it is. No, this is about trying to help attorneys who can’t let go for whatever reason.

Why do I care? Because as a risk manager I know that failing to delegate and allowing one’s work load to build to unmanageable levels will always result in the normal and expected consequences playing out. Of course, while most failures to delegate won’t result in the IRS knocking at your door, they could easily lead to your losing competent but underutilized staff or associates, to being fired by one or more dissatisfied clients, to having a disciplinary complaint filed for failure to communicate or neglecting a client matter, or to having to face a malpractice claim because a deadline was missed. It doesn’t need to be this way.

For those of you who struggle with delegating work, listen clearly, it’s time to learn to let go. Start by trying to take your feelings of distrust of others out of the picture and perhaps some of the fear of what might happen if you give up a little control and, for crying out loud, just start to delegate. Take that leap of faith. It will be ok in the end. The real challenge is going to be in how to get there. While there will be different answers for different folk, here are a few ideas that might prove useful.

Work on changing your perspective. I assume you trust yourself, so trust your judgment in hiring who you hired and let those folks do the work you hired them to do. If you are concerned that they are not properly trained for what you ultimately need to turn over to them, provide the necessary training because you do need to have some degree of faith in their skill set. Next, look at how you might manage accountability and follow through. Again, every situation will be different, but consider developing customized check lists that can be used to assure staff are doing all that needs to be done on any given matter. This will also enable you to quickly check up on their progress. You might establish appropriate completion dates for various tasks or assignments and determine how those completion dates will be monitored. As you think about this, I strongly encourage you to also think about levels of priority with various types of work and share your conclusions with everyone. Staff needs to understand how to prioritize work in accordance with your thinking when multiple matters are being handled or if and when unforeseen interruptions arise because they are not mind readers.

Make certain that staff are given the proper time and tools to complete their assignments. It’s not their fault if they can’t complete something to your level of satisfaction when you finally had no other option but to delegate at the eleventh hour because you allowed too many other things to hit a crisis point. Delegation isn’t about putting out fires; it’s about fire prevention. You might have a weekly Monday morning meeting with staff and attorneys whereby the week’s priorities are established for all based upon what was accomplished the prior week and what’s coming up in the next few weeks. Finally, as you discover that delegation can lead to increased efficiencies without sacrificing quality of work product, share praise publically where appropriate. While this can do wonders for morale, I really suggest that you do this for you. By publically acknowledging that something is working (i.e. your willingness to delegate), you cannot help but to begin to build a comfort level with the process which in the end will ensure its continuance.

One final thought. Every person that I have ever met who had a problem delegating, presented as having a disheveled and stress filled professional life. It’s like watching a juggler try to keep more and more pins in the air. While I have seen a lot of fantastic jugglers in my day, I have yet to see someone keep seven or more pins up for an extended amount of time. Eventually, something always gets dropped. That said, wonderful things start to happen when a solo juggler all of a sudden has someone else step into the act and a few pins are delegated to that second individual. I’m always impressed by that. Not only do the two calmly keep all the pins up, but they remain so even as they add additional pins to the act. Although they make it look easy; the reality is that by trusting each other with part of the task they very effectively demonstrate that two can competently handle far more than either could alone. I find that most interesting. How about you?