When Delegation Fails: A Case for Change

What happens when delegation fails?  

Contrary to popular thinking, most CEOs do not like to fire people.  They often struggle with holding their associates accountable.  This was the case with one of my coachees, Tom.  Tom was hired from outside the company to improve financial performance and the corporate culture. What he inherited was an executive team that was underperforming and not being held accountable.  Even worse, there were no clear goals to hold them accountable to.  In my first meeting with Tom, he aired his frustration with all but one of his team members.  His company had a reputation for not letting people go, even when their performance was subpar.  How was he going to improve performance under this constraint?

From a coaching perspective, there was already a great deal of tension within his team.  Blaming others for poor performance was commonplace.  One particular person who was not liked by the others was the human resources director.  He had the reputation of undermining other team members when Tom’s predecessor had been in charge.  Tom identified him as his biggest challenge.

The first agenda item in coaching Tom on how to manage his HR director was to establish clear goals. One goal that Tom was particularly strong about was a strategic HR plan that laid out both succession and labor needs.  In his meetings with the HR director, Tom made it clear that this was an important planning tool to meet company needs for growth in sales and technological changes in production. Yet, months went by with no plan.  Conversations between Tom and his coach focused on the tension created not between Tom and his HR director but between the delegated goal and the lack of success in accomplishing the goal.  This created tension in Tom, who did not like confrontation.  The coaching dialogue led to the decision by Tom to put an absolute deadline on completing the strategic HR plan.  The deadline was not met, and in the next meeting, the HR director offered his resignation. 

Why did this happen?  I believe the HR director was not getting cooperation from other executives, and he was not able to produce the expected plan.  By setting a deadline, Tom was able to increase the tension on his HR director.  In this case, the tension was resolved with a resignation.

Having success with his approach to delegation and accountability, Tom was able to create clear goals with other executives, leading to two more resignations–one a firing for gross incompetence and the other a change of jobs from an operations position to a special projects position. The latter was a case of matching the assets of the executive with a job that she was highly qualified and motivated to perform.

When delegation fails, change is needed.  Tom was able to make changes in his team by creating clear goals and setting deadlines for their completion.  This created tension that would either lead to success or failure, the latter being the catalyst for personnel changes.  Could Tom have succeeded without coaching?  Perhaps.  If nothing else, coaching gave Tom a model to hasten the process and create the rationale for needed change.  This allowed Tom to create a much stronger team and accomplish a company turnaround that won him praise from his corporate bosses.  He did this without violating the norms of the company.  

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