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Don’t reel it back

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Hire people who are better than you are, then leave them to get on with it … . Look for people who will aim for the remarkable, who will not settle for the routine.”

— David Ogilvy


I’ve never been much of a fisherman; I walk right past the rivers and lakes on my way to climb the mountains. But on several occasions I have given fishing a try.

A friend was an expert high-country lakes fisherman, and he coached us on where to go and loaned us the gear, including a bobber.

As usual, the hike to the lake made the whole trip worthwhile with stunning vistas. We set up camp and I pulled out the fishing gear. Standing on the banks of the lake, I cast my line — complete with bobber — out into the lake, over and over again.

Clearly, I was not doing it right. The bobber landed only 15 to 20 feet into the lake. Exasperated, I decided to give it one more try. With all my might, I flung that bobber toward the center of the lake.

And it flew. And flew. It landed about 60 feet into the lake. How did I do that? What did I do differently that made that cast so much more successful? Then I saw what the difference was: the line had disconnected from the bobber allowing it to fly a great distance, unimpeded by the line connecting it to the pole.

There are endless metaphorical lessons that can be drawn from this experience, but the one I address here is this: When we delegate a task to a member of our team, if we do it well, the task will be done much better, and with a greater sense of fulfillment, if we refrain from regularly reeling it back in.

Many of us might delegate a task in this way: Sales are down. As the sales manager, I need you to come up with a program to increase them. Do this and let me know what results are achieved.

Then we walk away, but not for long.

The sales manager may come up with a sales contest to inspire the sales team to sell more. But some supervisors might respond in this way: That’s not what I had in mind. We need to come up with a way to inspire customers to buy, not to inspire our sales team to sell. Try again.

A bit confused, the sales manager develops a sales campaign that rewards customers for larger purchases with a larger discounts. The supervisor’s response? Anyone can sell more just by lowering prices. Try again.

Now very confused, and very frustrated, the sales manager decided they’d rather get in trouble for not coming up with another sales campaign than get in trouble for making another unanticipated mistake. The sales manager gives up.

The supervisor had two serviceable options:

1. Give the sales manager a wise berth to come up with creative ideas — ideas that the supervisor might not think of — and let success speak for itself, or

2. Give very specific direction, explaining expectations in detail, and establishing clear boundaries for how the outcomes can be achieved.

Instead, the supervisor picked the worst of both worlds. The supervisor gave vague instructions, then jumped in to redirect when the sales manager failed to comply with unstated parameters. The supervisor kept reeling the project back in.

Such tactics harm morale and impede results. They will drive good employees out the door, and encourage complacency among those that remain. And those tactics take the supervisor away from the more important tasks they should be taking care of.

Some pointers:

Think before delegating. On any assignment of consequence, take the time to identify the outcomes that would make for a successful assignment

Think about what parameters need to be communicated regarding methods, costs or schedules

Anticipate what questions might come up, and include the answers in the assignment

Consider writing down the specifics of the assignment — memories often fail

Establish check-in points to facilitate proactive problem solving

Emphasize that you are available whenever there are questions or problems

If you do end up having to intervene, apologize that you did not properly anticipate the need to do so

Celebrate a job well done!


Dave Bartholomew is the founder of Ascent Advising LLC, working with “corner office” people around the globe to define and achieve their unique definition of success. He and is wife, Nancy, co-founded Simply Living Farm, a shop in Leavenworth providing goods for a sustainable life. He can be reached at Dave@AscentAdvising.com.