Over half of my executive coaching clients have “improve delegating effectiveness” as a development priority.  All are experienced senior players; each has a long, successful track record.  And yet, they all share a simple, yet profound blind spot that turns them, and the people they delegate to, into jug heads.

Last year, I began work with an especially talented client.  As the new CEO of a mid-sized Chamber of Commerce, her board suggested she engage me to help her “change the Chamber’s leadership culture.”  After she quickly reviewed her background and the Chamber’s priorities, Chris got right to the point:  “I’m not sure I’ve got the right team.  They’re fairly experienced, but they lack urgency. I have to keep following up just to make sure things get done and I really don’t have the time to babysit senior staff.”

After the meeting, I realized that Chris had focused her attention on the inadequacy of her team but never considered her own contribution to the situation. More significantly, I realized her impact on me. I left the meeting feeling out of breath, even a little intimidated. Her thinking was razor sharp, her speech persuasive, her pace fast.  I wondered if I was smart enough to be helpful to her.

With Chris’s endorsement, I interviewed her direct reports. A clearer picture emerged:  Her team raved about their new boss, and said she was perfect for the job.  Then, each admitted that Chris’s towering intellect was intimidating and frequently left them feeling exposed and unsure of themselves.

Chris tended to communicate her directives in rushed calls squeezed in to her hectic schedule.  “Too often,” her staff shared, “Chris doesn’t provide enough detail about what she wants, and she over-simplifies what it takes to get some things done.” They also felt embarrassed by the organizational flaws she constantly discussed. They felt unfairly judged when their attempts to deliver on her requests were so often met with dissatisfaction.

Why the disconnect?

Like many executives, Chris overdid her strengths.  Her intellect and confidence made her a dynamic visionary, but an ineffective change catalyst.  Her communication flaw was something I refer to as the “jug head assumption:” Executives with this condition believe that communicating is like pouring water into a jug.  You just open the lid of an empty mind and pour. Once full, communication is assumed to be complete…no spillage.

Why do people communicate this way?  Time pressure and wishful thinking are part of it. But it is mostly our egos: When most of us communicate, we’re doing so with our own needs in mind. We try too hard to be clear and complete with the message we are sending.  Our real focus should be on the message that is being received. 

I recently witnessed effective delegation between two bank executives. First, the boss stated a problem that she needed to delegate, and asked her colleague about his perspective.  She listened intently after she asked if he thought this was a priority.  Then, instead of giving detailed instructions, she asked him what his initial thoughts were for attacking it.  She again patiently listened and reinforced a few ideas that she had not considered herself.  She asked what obstacles he anticipated and what support he needed from her. Finally, she asked him to summarize his plan, which he did. The conversation lasted 8 minutes; she listened 80% of the time.

Committing to change

When I shared her team’s feedback with Chris, she was deflated.  It had been her intent to bring a higher level of excellence to an organization that was already effective.  But her delegation style was creating confusion and doubt.  The team felt they were being treated like a broken system that needed to be fixed.  In short, Chris was eroding the trust they had in her and in them.

Chris immediately set out to change her own habits and her impact.  She shared with her team what she had learned, and how she intended to communicate differently.  She asked for their support and patience, and she detailed what they could expect from her.

Over the next six months, Chris refined her skill by practicing and seeking feedback from me and others.  Over time, I realized that even our coaching interactions were changing.  She was relaxed.  She asked for my input and listened with curiosity.  For my part, I left our meetings feeling valued and even more committed to supporting her.   As I hung up from our most recent call, I smiled.   I realized I was no longer a jug for her to fill, but rather, a trusted advisor.



Photo of pottery by Greg Patton:  http://www.chickenmanart.com/store/images/T/Greg-Patton-DP949.jpg