Delegation — Engine for Growth or Doorway to Disaster

When I was incarcerated in an MBA program some 45 years ago, lecturers preached delegation as if it was the path to the Holy Grail. Like many of you, I discovered the hard and expensive way that there are some pretty deep mud holes on that path. Skirt them successfully, and you are a heroic winner; step in them, and you can lose a lot more than your shoeshine.

The worst pitfall lies with the delegation target. Most of us learned early on in business —virtually any business — that we were better off delegating floor sweeping, restroom cleaning and most housekeeping tasks to someone who wasn’t needed for generating revenue (and who might do a better job than we would). Conversely, decisions like when to take out a bank loan or drop one boat line in favor of another were pretty near last on our list of delegatable activities. Everything in the middle is more or less a gray area.

Professors and textbooks both told me that I should design the organization chart, including job descriptions, then hire to fill it. That’s probably fine for GE or Home Depot, but it’s tough in the trenches where you and I live. I have found it useful when I hire for a job to immediately examine the successful candidate (sometimes the only candidate) for talents I didn’t seek originally and flaws I had hoped to avoid. Obviously he or she must be capable of doing the basic job function that kicked off the hiring process. However, if you find that they can write for your newsletter, compose sales posters on your computer or some other pot of undiscovered gold; by all means, take advantage of the opportunity to delegate some more of your work load. (As the boss, it’s all your workload.) It may even be the part you haven’t been doing.

It’s fascinating to find out what people can do if they are encouraged in their enthusiasm to contribute to the enterprise. It’s depressing to find out how little they do when they aren’t. As you gather people who are more and more successful at what you have them doing, you will find that delegation can be more sweeping and more profitable — more fulfilling for your employees, too.

I think my dad paid me a supreme compliment and unloaded his working plate almost completely one day after I had been general manager of our first family business for a while. I delighted in running things my way most of the time, but I liked to ask his thoughts on knotty problems when they arose.

One day a real stinker (I forget now exactly what) popped up. Without wasting much time on cogitation, I headed into his office to get his take on the complex subject. He lowered his Wall Street Journal courteously while I explained all the conflicting ramifications. Finished, I mentally sat back to see how he would handle it. “Sounds like a pretty good problem,” he said. “Let me know how you work it out.”

He then raised the Journal and returned to his reading. I’m sure I solved the problem somehow, and I also learned that he considered his job of delegating done.

His confidence stood a good chance of being misplaced. He obviously didn’t know how blank my idea database was that morning — hence my trip into his office. However, he (and I) had reached a level that allowed him to chance it. I know that I have an easy time delegating the routine stuff, but I am very slow to let go of the biggies. I think that’s healthy. You and I must learn the management skills necessary to judge our employees and delegate what they can handle — with just a little stretch in it. (My dad must have felt he was in the “stretch” range.) I have been unfortunate enough to employ some line managers who delegated vigorously without thoroughly evaluating their targets. That cost me money and, sometimes, a potentially good employee. I realized that the fault was mine for delegating those decisions to those managers. They weren’t ready, and if I couldn’t make them ready, I shouldn’t let them delegate.

I have always searched for managers who delegate carefully, with much instruction and thoughtful handholding. Some may call it micromanaging, but I call it survival. You need a lot of confidence, or independent wealth, to toss your subordinates into uncharted waters, buoyed only by your cash. Save it for the highest levels where you pay well for that kind of ability.

With our industry’s Discover Boating-inspired emphasis on doing things right the first time, quick service completion and improved customer satisfaction all around, delegation at your dealership (or manufacturing plant) requires more careful thought than ever. Your customers aren’t supposed to be the trainers or quality control. Delegate to employees that can do the job just as well as the delegator — preferably better, not for your personal convenience.

John Underwood is CEO of Lockwood Marine on the Georgia coast. He has served as chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America (2001 and 2002) and on boards for the American Boatbuilders and Repairers Association and American Boat & Yacht Council. He can be reached at

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