The more things change, the more theystay the same for Roger Byford.
He took over as CEO of Vocollect Inc. inDecember 2007, returning to the positionhe left in 2001. Byford, who is also chairman and a co-founder of the company,finds that while he is facing a new set ofchallenges, there are still some that haven’tchanged at the company when it comes toeffective leadership: He can’t do everythinghimself.
The company posted $100 million in revenue in 2006 and $111 million in 2007, but ifit’s going to reach Byford’s goal to hit $500million by 2015, he’s going to have to relyon those below him to help get the organization to that level.
“That’s the only way you get ... the leverage of having 400 people in the organization instead of one,” he says.
By delegating responsibilities, Byford canfocus on big-picture issues. But handing offpower is never easy and requires hisemployees to trust him to make the rightdecisions while he, in turn, trusts them toget their jobs done with minimal oversight.
“The only way you are going to engendertrust from others is by demonstrating trustyourself,” he says.
And for that to work, it means going alongwith one very important concept: “Beingwilling, under most circumstances at least,to go with the recommendation that you getfrom an individual or a group,” Byford says.
Here’s how Byford is using the power ofdelegation to move Vocollect toward its$500 million goal.
What to delegate
When it comes to what tasks get delegatedand which he keeps for himself, Byford hasa simple rule: If it involves a lot of work,pass it on.
“Which sounds kind of silly to say, but thereare enough things that I am supposed to betaking care of that if there is any single one ofthem that takes up a vast amount of time,then (that) has to be delegated,” he says.
“If it’s a high-level strategic issue thatinvolves our board of directors, then I canspend a lot of time on that. If it’s some pieceof sales analysis that we don’t have that it seems we ought to have, then my goalwould be to say to somebody, ‘Here’s thequestion. Please go away and see if you cango away and figure out the answer,’ ratherthan go and try to do it myself.”
Sometimes, Byford knows he wants tolook at the data on a certain subject, but isn’tquite sure at how he wants to look at it orwhat he wants to get out of it. So, he needsto spend enough time on it until he knowsthe question he needs to ask, and thenhands it off to someone else.
“On occasion, I find I’m digging into something because I don’t know how to ask thequestion, and that’s when it perhaps getsmost challenging,” he says.
The other simple rule Byford uses whendetermining what to delegate is to hand overanything that he can’t help with.
“There are any number of decisions orthought processes that go on in the organization, where frankly there are a whole lotof people who are way better qualified thanme to figure things out,” he says. “The bestthing I can do at that point is to maybe askone or two pointed questions, and then getout of the way.
“For example, my background is a technical one. I’m an engineer. I’ve never been in asales organization; I’ve never been in marketing. So, when it comes to sales and marketing issues, my suspicion is that, ‘Well I’mquite sure that the folks in those organizations are far better equipped than I am tomake those kinds of decisions.’”
He may ask some sort of pointed questions to make sure things are on track, butafter that, he lets them take over.
“Even on the technical sides these days,I’ve been out of the technical business for solong that I can’t usually do anything morethan ask a few high-level questions,” he says.
While trust and delegation are important,you have to be ready to act when a task isgoing awry. Start by talking to the employeeassigned to the task.
“Those are difficult conversations, and it’sall too easy to put them off or to furtherthem or not be sufficiently clear when youare having those conversations,” he says.“Then you get to the point where there isjust a widening gap, if you like, between the perceptions on both sides. If you don’t takethe opportunity to close that gap while it’sstill small, it becomes a gulf, and then it’svery difficult to deal with.
“So, be honest with them. I’ve found that inthe vast majority of the cases, that worksout really well.”
It’s also helpful to ask questions and gettheir side of the argument.
For example, you can ask the employeewhy he or she thinks his or her way is theright way or you can ask the employee if heor she knows the ramifications of his or herdecision.
“Perhaps, at times, you can ask people totake the opposite position,” he says. “We’vedone that on occasion in our internal discussions, which is to ask people to switch sides.Make the case that you don’t believe in andsee how good of job you could do of that.
It’s a matter of getting a well-justified decision. Who knows, you may find out, and Ithink it’s often true, that the decision thatyou are hearing may, in fact, be the correctone. But, what you haven’t really heard isthe justification for it. If you can poke andprod a little bit ... to get the justification tocome out a little bit, you may find that, ‘Oh,OK, now I get it.’”
Delegation in action
Delegating important tasks is never easy.One of the most challenging aspectsByford has faced is when it comes to hiringmanagers, especially if it is a hire two levelsdown from him in the organization. Theprocess he uses is a good example of howyou have to set up a system you can believein and live with the results it generates.
“When the group consensus, and particularly perhaps led by the hiring manager, isfor candidate A and my personal feelingmight be that I have a preference for candidate B, that’s a tough one to step back from,”he says. “But, I think if you’re going toexpect that manager to manage the individual, then you better let them make the decision unless you have a really strong rationale to put forward to say that, ‘I don’t thinkyou are making the right decision here.’”
Byford created a system that has numerous people involved within the organization who have a say on who is hired.
When hiring to fill a manager position, thecompany’s interview process includes thatpotential employee’s direct manager andsecond-level manager, employees who willbe reporting to the candidate and perhaps ahigher-level manager, if warranted.
There is first a telephone-screening interview, then there’s usually a one-on-onescreening interview with the hiring manager.
Once it’s down to two or three finalists, thefirst part of what’s usually a full-day interview for any management-level position atthe company is a presentation by the candidate to the entire interview group, whichcould range from a handful to as many as 15or so people on some occasions.
“We ask the candidate in 30 minutes towalk through their resume,” he says. “Notjust to give us the facts but to tell us particularly what they found about organizationswhen they entered it, what they learnedwhile they were and what, with the benefitof hindsight, they’d do differently if they hada chance to do it over again?
“That process does a number of things. Itobviously saves us some time bec ause a lotof the background information gets out atonce rather than having the same questions being asked over and over again during the course of a day’s interviewing. It’salso quite revealing about how good candidates are, first, in front of a group; second,in being a bit introspective about beingwilling to look back and evaluate their ownperformance.”
After the presentation, there is a mix ofone-on-one and either pair or team interviews. The group, ahead of time and particularly for higher-level positions, will sitdown and make sure each person understands who’s focusing on what aspects ofthe candidates, such as their credentials,attributes and personality.
They then have about a 45-minutedebriefing session after the candidate hasleft to gather the positive and the negativesof the applicant.
“You don’t want to make it too long,” he says.“It’s an information-gathering exercise for themost part. To some extent, it’s a discussion,but largely information gathering. You can usesome tricks like putting up a big spreadsheeton the projector and then just typing in thecomments as you hear them on the plus sideand the minus side maybe. That tends to prevent too much repetition in the course of theexercise and allows everybody to see what isbeing said. Sometimes people will chime in; sometimes people will disagree.”
In the end, it always comes down to thehiring manager’s decision.
“They’re the person who’s responsiblefor making the final decision,” he says.“Everybody else provides input and the hiring manager goes away and makes the call.”
Though it can be hard for Byford if thechoice is not what he wanted, he simplywalks away and has faith in his managers.
“It’s one of the things you can’t afford to doin this position is to second-guess or to over-worry about decisions,” he says. “It’s thetrust thing again.”
You have to trust in the systems you’vecreated and the people that work with you.
“Will people be 100 percent right? No. Ismy hiring record over the course of mycareer 100 percent right? No,” he says.
“But you have to have faith that if peopledo occasionally goof, they’ll figure it out andthey’ll fix it, and also, sometimes that they’llbe perfectly right. A candidate that I perhapswasn’t particularly enthused about will turnout to be one of our star employees.”
HOW TO REACH: Vocollect Inc., (412) 829-8145 or www.vocollect.com