Hitting the Beach
Lee is a huge advocate of the military, and his father-in-law was an Admiral and Naval Academy graduate. One of my Naval Academy classmates, Captain David Marquet, just published an excellent book entitled Turn The Ship Around!: How to Create Leadership at Every Level. He describes the unique leadership approach he used to take a nuclear submarine, USS Santa Fe, from “worst to first.” Put this book on your reading list.
This week’s post has one of my submarine stories, as well as a Disney story about a very traumatic event at Epcot.
Hitting the Beach
I learned about delegation early in my career. I had been assigned as the officer in charge of Auxiliary Division. A-Div was responsible for all the non-nuclear engineering on the submarine, such as the hydraulics, compressed air, sanitary, and diesel engine components. The ship was in refit period, which is thirty days between patrols to repair and replenish the ship. We were in the last few days of refit, which was the busiest time. Being a new division officer, I wanted to impress my men by actively participating in the work. We were repairing the diesel generator and I was up to my elbows in grease. I looked up and saw my Chief Petty Officer in civilian clothes with some of the other Chiefs. In disbelief, I asked him, “Where do you think you are going?” He stared at me and said, “I’m going to the beach, sir. I figure if you are going to do my job for me, we don’t need both of us on the boat.”
My chief had given me an early and important lesson about delegating authority and trusting the people who worked for me. From that point on, he was the hands-on leader, and I ended up primarily doing the paperwork.
The key to successful delegation is to ask the question, “Do I absolutely have to do this task, or can someone else do it?” Any time a piece of paper, e-mail, phone call or task crosses my desk, I ask this question. Many leaders rationalize doing tasks themselves with justifications like, “I could give this to someone else, but I can do it faster myself” or “It would take much longer to train someone to do this, so I’ll do it this time.” These statements are true—in the short run. But, once you do a task yourself, you are destined to continue doing the task from then on. If you add up all the times you might end up doing the task, it is almost always better to spend upfront time delegating, training and following up.
Delegation doesn’t stop with tasks. Whenever I was on vacation, I would delegate my authority to one of my direct reports, rotating through my executives. The Food & Beverage General Manager at Epcot “became” the VP in my absence, with full authority to make decisions. I learned this from assignment to London with British Petroleum. Executives, even at very senior levels, would take long vacations of three to five weeks, going to locales without phones or faxes, leaving a subordinate in charge. When I asked the Treasurer of BP about this as he was preparing to go on vacation, he told me he did this on purpose. “If I left for a week, my people could put off all the decisions until I came back. When it gets to two weeks or more without phone contact, they have to make decisions themselves. This builds their confidence and develops stronger leaders.”
This delegation strategy was tested when Nancy and I went to the mountains of North Carolina during one summer when I led Epcot. Cell phone coverage was non-existent. We were having a relaxing, wonderful trip, when we returned to our room after dinner and the message light was blinking. As I picked up the receiver, I hoped the message was from the front desk and not from work. Unfortunately, it was the leader that I had left in charge of Epcot, with the terrible news that a four year old boy had died on our Mission: SPACE attraction. As I called him for all the details, my immediate thought was to call off the vacation and return to Epcot. However, he gave me the confidence that he had the situation under control. I also thought that being in charge in a crisis could be a major boost to his development as a leader. I had significant crisis leadership experience from the Navy, 9/11 and other events, and he could benefit from this much more than me. The other leaders on the team would also have to step up and support him in my absence. Primarily for his benefit, I decided to stay on vacation, even though it was incredibly hard to be at the fitness center watching Epcot all over the TV screens wishing I was there. When I returned, he thanked me for the trust I had shown him, and I was very gratified a few years later to see him promoted to a major Vice President position.
Successful delegation frees you and your organization to do far more than you could imagine, and exceed beyond expectations.
• For every task, ask yourself “Do I absolutely have to do this or can someone else do it?”
• Don’t rationalize doing everything yourself.
• Create a follow-up system to ensure delegated work is completed.
• Give your people the opportunity to do your role while you are gone, and give them the freedom to make decisions.
Personal success, high morale, strong and capable successors
This excerpt is from Chapter 32 in The Surpassing! Life: 52 Practical Ways to Achieve Personal Excellence. To purchase the book with a 20% Summer Reading Discount or sign up for the free weekly tip, go to www.thesurpassinglife.com.
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