Servant leader?!... most owners become slaves to their businesses

Here’s the delegation lesson from big businesses you must know
Birgit Breitschuh
Birgit Breitschuh

Recently the concept of the “servant leader” has become fashionable.  But many directors seemingly take the wrong end of the stick and become servants to their managers and slaves to their business, working all hours fixing the problems they pay others to be solving! 

Why?  Part of this is because generally CEOs want to be supportive and help.  When there is a problem, they feel they need to find a solution. In fact, perpetual fire-fighting and micromanaging are the comfort zone for too many. 

Finding solutions to every problem may make you feel indispensable, but it is disempowering your team and lowering your effectiveness as a leader: everything else you should be doing to steer or grow your business is sidelined when you jump in to solve someone else’s problem. 

Our experience from advising 100s of businesses is 90% of the problems that consume CEOs’ precious time could have been prevented if others had made tough decisions earlier.     

And what is the difference between those businesses where the senior team is focused on the big decisions because employees are nipping problems in the bud, and those where the CEOs days are spent fighting once-small problems that have been left to escalate?  

Effective delegation...but, of course, that is easier said than done.  It’s how it’s done that matters. 

Let’s be clear that firing-off lots of orders and tasks to your people is NOT delegation, it’s micromanagement. 

One step is insisting anyone with an issue comes armed with options and recommendations.  It's certainly a start, but it doesn’t tackle the core problem… not only are you still making too many decisions, but the problems have worsened by the time they reach you. 

A clear and robust process for creating thought-through solutions is needed for employees to be willing to make decisions, and also for you to be willing to let them make them.  

One well-known approach used for decades by many large businesses is Integrated Business Planning (IBP), and there are other approaches too. 

Typically, elements of such approaches include ensuring a business has its own template approach to decision-making so that each time your people know what is needed, and collaborate to consider such things as what are the options, resources needed, and the impact on operations and other business areas.   

Managers are armed with the necessary data and a good understanding of priorities in order to do this. There are set boundaries and clarity around who needs to be involved, as well as authorisation levels, so they know whether they should get on and take the initiative or seek approval. 

It also requires a thorough and standard approach across the management team, including the discipline at the senior level to provide a roadmap of where the business is going over the next three years with clear priorities, and boundaries on when to escalate... and when not to.  

This shouldn’t simply mean the decision is sent to the CEO with more paperwork!  It should instead mean that decisions are made lower down in the organisation and the CEO can have the confidence not to be involved because decisions are being made by accountable employees within a clear framework.  And the more they do it, the better they get at it and the more the process can be simplified. 

An example of the difference is, on the one hand, managers having a weekly call to discuss managing the details of the problems they face right now from insufficient inventory, compared to getting managers working together to anticipate potential bottlenecks, running scenarios, creating viable plans and fixes as a group, and implementing these changes before major problems occur that drag in the CEO.  

Of course, large businesses need an elaborate approach.  But the key principles of having a template process for making decisions, sharing the necessary big picture and access to data, clarity on when to act and when to escalate, and getting teams working together to identify problems while they are small and ideally preempt then, are lessons on successful delegation organisations of all sizes can apply. 

About the author 

Birgit Breitschuh is a partner at consultants Oliver Wight EAME - a leading consultancy that has been helping businesses, including many of the world’s largest ones, successfully transform business processes and leadership culture since 1969. 

Written by
Birgit Breitschuh
Written by
January 11, 2024