by Carol Milano


When my freelance writing practice exploded, keeping me overbooked for months, I finally admitted I needed help. Luckily, a responsible graduate student nearby, with excellent research skills, was glad to accept a project. But a week into her first assignment, I realized I never confirmed that she understood what I wanted. Nor had I provided a deadline; gasping "As soon as you can!" seemed quite clear to me..

The art and act of delegating are vital to the growth of any small business. No matter how long you've been running yours, it's never too late for this valuable management tool, as Dave Asher learned recently.

He's now president and chief executive of Asher Chocolates in Souderton, Pa., founded by his great-grandfather in 1892. His father and uncle had made every decision for the candy company; the fourth-generation owner prefers to share responsibility. In customer service, "only my uncle could issue a credit. We gave our reps guidelines and leeway, so they can allow up to $200 in credit," notes Asher. The effects have been dramatic. Most callers have minor problems, such as some broken chocolate. By instantly offering credit, the rep calms the client, resolving a complaint that used to take days to settle.

"Our reps were frustrated because their hands were tied: after hearing a complaint, they could only pass it along and wait. I realize the customer's extremely important, but more important to me is our employees feeling they control their own working environment," Asher confides.

At 16-year-old Barbara Levy Qualitative Research in Mill Valley, Calif., the owner always believed, "No one could do what I do, I can do it faster myself -- how could I delegate? I was a control freak," Levy laughs. However, afraid of losing out on assignments while on vacation, she wants messages checked in case a client requests a quote.

"I give a local freelancer my rate schedule. For a minimum fee, she can bid on a project or follow up on one already in the pipeline."

During this year's vacation, two projects were set up in Levy's absence, so she returned to brisk business. "I could have done everything myself, working 10-hour days -- but Cynthia did such a good job while I was away, I wondered why I wasn't allowing myself the luxury of her help when I'm here!" In May, Levy began hiring Cynthia, as needed. "I trust her to do the administrative work, and I review it. I build her freelance fee into my rates, so the client pays for it," she points out.

Delegating isn't always easy. Terry Rosenthal, owner of TSR Consulting Services in Chicago, hired a woman who knew TSR's software programs -- but not quite well enough. Wanting to be with her family after 5 pm, Rosenthal had scant time to train. "To walk her through each step of dealing with a client, I asked her to call when she reached their office. She wouldn't -- she wanted autonomy." That employee lasted four months. "I felt she had the skills to do the job, but I misjudged her capabilities. She didn't listen! You have to make sure someone buys into the fact that they work for you," Rosenthal learned.

Vivian Leslie, owner of Surrogate Family Program in Escondido, Calif., hired two part-time employees in her second year. Letting go was hard after doing everything, but she finally delegated filing: "a thankless chore, so I give much appreciation for a job well done." When that worked well, she assigned larger tasks.

"A big step is going on doctor's appointments with donors and surrogates. One of my assistants was a surrogate mother, and is very knowledgeable," Leslie notes. Pregnancy and surrogate parenting are emotional, so she wants her staff to keep clients calm and provide information. "I share conversations, explaining the rationale for my replies to client questions, so they know how to handle similar situations. Sometimes I coach them before a certain visit, but after a while, I just have to trust they'll do the right thing. It's not easy to delegate, but it's a must," she adds.

Successful delegating has five steps, explains Sharon McAfee of Pro-Action, Inc., an international human resources training firm.

  1. Explain why the activity is important, so an employee sees why it matters to do it well and feels integral to the task.
  2. Name the result you want, but let the worker figure out HOW to attain it. Give a specific deadline and expectation of how the effort may turn out. Let your employees take their own route, as long as it's reasonable and it works.
  3. Define the authority of the person to whom you're delegating -- does she have a budget? What can or can't he do?
  4. Ask for immediate feedback to confirm the other person understands what's needed. Invite questions and discussion.
  5. Set up checkpoints along the way. Allow times for your employee to ask questions, report problems or get help. Don't wait to uncover difficulties. On short projects, check in every other day, on longer ones, once or twice a month.

"Don't just disappear! Be accessible; encourage a phone call or e-mail if there's a glitch. Avoid delegating tasks for which you can't define an objective, and make those decisions which are your own responsibility," cautions the Anaheim-based Vice President.

Mastering the basics of delegating can help your business grow by leaving time to do the things at which you excel -- the activities your clients are really paying for. Once you discover its benefits, you may well echo Barbara Levy, who exults, "I don't have to it all myself!"



Vivian Leslie, Babies Plus 760-480-9952
Sharon McAfee, Pro-Action 714-280-8108
Dave Asher, Asher Chocolates 215-721-3000 X 223
Terry Rosenthal, TSR Consulting Services 847-256-7536
Barbara Levy Qualitative Research 415-388-5105

Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.