7 tips for CFOs who struggle to delegate

The raison d'être of organisations is to enable groups of people to work together and achieve what they would be unable to achieve as individuals, on their own. Delegation is an age-old art − of assigning tasks and sharing responsibilities – and is therefore essential to organisation.

The technical prowess, attention to detail and achieving that got most CFOs to where they are ? that helped them establish their professional reputations ? and impress others in the early stages of their career, are not enough and may in fact become a liability when fulfilling the expectations associated with being a good Chief Officer.

This is an Expert Insight by Jonathan Yudelowitz, Joint Managing Director of YSA (Pty) Limited, Author of Smart Leadership and a well-known Leadership Expert and Executive Coach. He previously wrote the on this website about saying NO to the CEO.

Moreover, people tend to promise according to their hopes, yet perform according to their fears - especially when feeling stressed. CFOs with whom I work say that they believe in delegation, but commonly land up assuming that it would be better if they did things themselves; especially when the stakes seem high. Not only is the ensuing micro-management and over-control likely to compromise a CFO's capacity to spread responsibility ? but it will clutter his schedule with tasks that are frankly 'beneath his pay-grade', leaving him less time and energy available to lead. Moreover, those working for with him inevitably land up feeling disrespected, frustrated or excluded, act-out and behave badly. This reinforces the CFO's original belief that the only way to ensure that things get done correctly is to do them himself.

Instead of operating according to this self-perpetuating pattern a CFO must learn to delegate.

The following tips should help:

  1. Besides defining what needs to be done, clarify the purpose of the task. Be explicit about why them, and why now? If one understands that one is being given a task for developmental purposes, one will approach it differently than say, if the reason is because your boss doesn't have enough time.
  2. Be clear about the consequences of not fulfilling the task to requirements, as well as the value that will be created by doing the job right. Be as honest as possible about standards, especially about time lines: if you set a tight deadline, make sure that this is necessary. A common mistake is to say you need something immediately and then it sits in your in-tray for weeks. Remember your own credibility is always at stake and you should use every available opportunity to build trust by being true to your word.
  3. Compare to other similar tasks: either those that have come before or those with which this task may be confused.
  4. Clarify what is different, or needs to be different and why. This will help the person use his prior experience and also know when to seek new information. It is a good idea to check for the person's own understanding first - to ascertain the frame-of-reference he is using to interpret your request - and then to 'top up' with your knowledge and expertise.
  5. One of the best ways to explain exactly what you need is by saying what you must avoid. By each party saying what he doesn't want and most fears, one effectively establishes boundaries. This helps define mutual expectations, in a way that relies on one's own sense of things and experience rather than manuals and other external prescriptions. It provides a way of both parties expressing prejudice and fears and harvesting the benefit from past bad experiences, without either one implying that he expects the worst to happen.
  6. Like dark humour during a crisis or after an accident, this process helps say the unsayable - it releases energy and cuts pretence and enhances common understanding - and can therefore be cathartic, fun and healthy.
  7. Follow up frequently, but listen as much as you speak when you do so. After all, delegation is not only about the task, but also about development and responsibility. Be firm about enforcing standards and priorities and make sure that there are consequences for action, but don't shout or preach. We all switch off when being lectured, especially when nervous. In fact, listening to a person's own take on what's happened, what they have done and what they have learnt, will give one insight into how they think and operate. It creates an excellent platform for you to 'top up': to frame one's input and correct misconceptions, reminding them of key principles that may have been missed or misconstrued.

Management and leadership fashion are as capricious and susceptible to hype, questionable taste as their catwalk equivalents. Yet delegation remains as fundamental and vital to effective leadership and management as it ever was. Whilst much vaunted advances in technology can make some of its requisite transactions more efficient, like most leadership its effectiveness depends almost entirely on self-awareness, interpersonal skill and discussion. The art is best learnt through trial and error and through developing self-awareness through reflection and conversation itself.