Letting go Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

It’s been so long since Kathy Lehne had to do basically everything at her company that she can’t really recall if it was hard to let go of some of her power.

“We were growing,” says the founder, president and CEO of Sun Coast Resources Inc. “I just realized there are certain things you can’t do that you once did. You’ve got to trust someone else to do it.”

It may not have been a huge challenge for Lehne to delegate, but it was necessary. After all, who has the time to be making all the decisions in a company that now employs more than 500 people?

Certainly not someone who took a modest wholesale fuel and lubricants marketer founded in 1985 to revenue of more than $1 billion in 2008.

Lehne didn’t have an epiphany telling her she needed to begin delegating. It was just a gradual process when she began to see the need to share responsibility.

“Some of the things that you can delegate give you more time to think about the overall business than doing some of the day-to-day things that someone else should be doing,” she says.

Though she still admits to doing day-to-day tasks that maybe she shouldn’t, she realizes, as the leader, she needs to look at the overall picture of the organization.

“Delegation is one of the most important practices a CEO must adhere to in order to be successful,” she says. “Along with delegation comes accountability but not second guessing. In order to prosper, delegation must be the cornerstone of every growth strategy. Without delegation and support for their decisions, team members will not offer their insight and creativity in fear of retribution.”

Don’t hire alone

One area to start the delegation process is with hiring.

Lehne could overwork herself, do all the interviews alone and make the decisions, but that wouldn’t be productive.

In addition, having candidates meet with multiple employees in the beginning will help them in the end.

“By enlisting the support and perspectives from others, the candidate stands an improved chance of being accepted into the organization, compared to a situation where the CEO simply brings them on board without the prior blessing from other managers,” she says.

In the beginning, letting go of some of the hiring powers was a challenge, but it eventually paid off. You have to involve multiple people in an interview process to get other opinions besides just yours.

Lehne may have a potential hire interview with three people just to get different notes to compare.

“Many perspectives in the hiring process (are) important because the candidate will have to fit into the unique culture of the company and be able to work effectively with all the other members on the team,” she says. “All too often, companies hire candidates without proper questioning and scrutiny from others with whom they will work. That is prescription for failure.”

First, the process starts with the human resources, and then the candidate would meet the manager that was actually doing the hiring for that department. Finally, the candidate would complete a third interview with Lehne or one other person involved in the process.

“It’s more just to get a feel of the person because you have their resume or you have their history,” she says.

When all the discussions have concluded and a decision needs to be made, Lehne allows the human resources manager and the direct manager who the candidate will be working for to make the decision.

“At some point, you have to trust your managers,” she says. “That’s why you have the managers.”

While you may be tempted to make the decision for your managers, don’t do it. If you struggle with micromanaging, gradually work yourself into delegating things instead of just sharing responsibility all at once.

“Micromanaging can and often will act as an impediment to productivity and ingenuity,” she says. “The fastest way to kill teamwork is to second-guess and micromanage your department heads. CEOs reluctant to let go of the reins and delegate more should do so in small steps. Once they have done so and see the positive results, delegation will be embraced much easier.”

Don’t overstep boundaries

Delegation is a balancing act between allowing others to make decisions while still keeping tabs on what’s going on with the company.

“A president must be intimately involved in daily operations in order to make the proper decisions, which could dramatically impact the company’s future,” she says. “I believe those that stay behind closed doors and do not visit with their troops and customers are setting themselves up for failure. Many corporate insolvencies we have witnessed over the years are a direct result of CEOs not being aware of the detailed operations of their company, competitive initiatives in the marketplace or what it takes to keep their customers satisfied and loyal.”

Communication of expectations is the key to achieving goals while allowing managers to exercise authority.

“A CEO must set the guidelines and parameters upon which their executives will be judged,” Lehne says. “This must be communicated personally and embraced by each manager. Results management is the key here. There is no ‘best’ method for managing every department, so each department head needs to be able to utilize his/her own unique style. Nothing will kill the productivity and enthusiasm of company management faster than second-guessing or micromanaging. In fact, by so doing, the human resources placed in roles of extreme responsibility will not perform at an optimum level and, most likely, won’t tell their CEO when the train is about to fall off the tracks.”

While you want to stay in contact with employees after gearing your leadership style toward delegation, you want to be careful not to interfere when an issue arises.

“Typically, if there’s an issue with the middle manager, usually their direct supervisor ... would take care of the situation,” she says. “I may have some input in that, but I’d leave it up to them, because I don’t try to overstep them because that kind of devalues their position.”

While you want to allow the direct supervisors to make decisions, you don’t want them to forget to work as a team.

“They sometimes come to me or I come to them and say, ‘I understand, or hear this. What do you think about this? Have you thought about that?’ We bounce ideas off of each other and it’s just kind of a team effort I would say,” she says.

If you are working on a project with a middle manager, don’t feel guilty skipping over your executive team and speaking directly with the middle manager.

However, if there is an overall issue with a middle manager, Lehne lets the direct supervisor handle that.

That can be problematic because of the open-door policy Lehne stresses. Because her door is open, sometimes employees might come right to her with a problem.

“I’m in the office; my door is always open,” she says. “I don’t work behind a closed door. I’m right by dispatch where the drivers come and go. Other people are walking around, so it’s not that you have to have an appointment. People just come in, and if they have an issue, they just com

e in and talk about it.”

While you may want to try to solve the problem right away, don’t forget about that person’s direct supervisor.

“It depends on the topic,” she says. “I may say, ‘Have you discussed it with your manager?’ If not, I’ll say, ‘Well, let me talk with them about it and I’ll get back to you.’ I don’t usually make a lot of decisions without talking to the manager first because I’m not sure what they may have already discussed with the employee.”

To avoid uncomfortable situations where employees are skipping levels to come to you with a problem, you have to stress to a new hire that, while there is an open-door policy, there is chain of command.

“It’s understood when they are hired and with different meetings,” she says. “They are told, ‘The manager is the first point of contact. If you have an issue with that, please go to HR. If you have an issue with that, go to the owner.’

“It’s probably communicated some when they first get here, then through working here. I think a lot of that is pretty common sense. You go to your managers first.”

Do lunch

Another way Lehne keeps up with the details of her company while not getting in the way of her managers is by taking employees to lunch.

This allows formal and informal discussions to occur and also sets the precedent that you want strong communication in your organization. You can also use this opportunity to show them the appreciation you have for the work they are doing.

“Since the ultimate success of any company depends in large part on the hard work, ingenuity, productivity, enthusiasm, loyalty and teamwork of its valued staff, little things like taking them out to lunch, recognizing them for their years of service and extra special performance is very important — not only to the employees but also to our bottom line,” she says. “When employees feel like they are appreciated, their productivity increases. When they believe their opinion counts and are encouraged to participate in the management process, employees tend to offer all sorts of ideas to make things operate more efficiently and effectively.”

Lehne tries to take groups out to lunch about once a week. Of the 60 employees working in the main office, Lehne will rotate groups of three to eight people to make sure she stays in touch with all employees. Do the lunches in groups to avoid awkwardness with an employee who might be a little nervous talking to the boss.

Don’t make the lunches mandatory, and don’t come in with a set agenda. If something in particular needs to be addressed, have a meeting in the office.

“A lot of it is on a casual basis,” she says. “Sometimes we talk about things in the office ... but a lot of that I try to keep on a personal level just to make them more comfortable.”

In addition, mix up groups from time to time to build some cross communication between departments.

“We are always trying to build teamwork within our company,” she says. “We have our separate departments, but you are always wanting everybody to work as a team.”

Delegation is never easy, but just remember that nobody is perfect and be proud once you’ve taken the first step and actually delegated.

“I would encourage every CEO to delegate and make those who have been given the authority responsible for the performance,” she says. “The CEO must set the direction and mission statement; from there, management’s responsibility is to see that the goals and objectives are carried out.”

How to reach: Sun Coast Resources Inc., (713) 844-9600 or www.suncoastresources.com