Delegating: why entrepreneurs shouldn’t fear delegation

Image shows a business person delegating work to colleagues

Successful entrepreneurs often fear delegating. But the key to unlocking further growth is resisting the temptation to micro-manage, allowing your most valued employees to embrace challenges and develop leadership skills

Contrary to what many people believe the Queen says when you meet her (I haven’t had the pleasure), she doesn’t ask if you’ve come from far but instead poses this question: “Are you busy?” Taxi drivers and guests finishing breakfast meetings with me make a similar inquiry: “Do you have a busy day ahead?”

The logic behind all of this is that it is good to be busy. Chevy Chase, in the 1990 film Filofax, played an ambitious yuppie (whatever happened to them?) who worked so hard that his wife complained. “Look,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard to work this hard!”

It’s been the hallmark of business leaders through the ages to appear terrifyingly active – rushing from meeting to meeting, always on the phone in between. When I tell the taxi driver or the breakfast guest that no, I don’t have a busy day ahead, they feel embarrassed as if this was an admission of failure. But if I work hard at anything, it is at not working hard.

When I launched my first restaurant, I arrived at work at 6am to talk to fish suppliers and stayed until the doors closed. My PA used to work for [Sir] Terence Conran and she told me that I didn’t need to work in this way – that’s what I employed others to do. Her advice was an important lesson for me, the second part of which I’ve come to understand more recently – if you recruit well, not only can your managers do a lot of what you would normally end up doing but they can often do things better than you.

D is for delegating

When you run a growing and successful business, the key to managing and escalating it is by not doing everything yourself. When you start commercial life as a sole trader, as I did, the D-word – or delegating – has no bearing, as you don’t have anyone to do the work for you.

It’s a legacy that stays with many SME owners and chief executives as their businesses grow – many don’t risk sharing the workload because they believe that the person they ask to do a job would not do the work as well as them. But if you have chosen well, invariably those people can do it better.

At Roast I don’t always attend management meetings; OK, I rarely go… OK, I haven’t been to one in the last year. I read the minutes afterwards but our general manager runs them in a more professional way than I could. So delegating that job frees up my time to do ‘other stuff’.

The other stuff this year for me will be rather different to extra activities in the past, where I chaired boards of charities and social projects, and joined often-pointless government bodies. Instead, I am planning on significantly boosting my business with a few new restaurants and creating a rather sizeable (well, for me anyway) fund which, so far, has attracted a lot of interest from institutional backers.

One question all investors rightly ask is, how am I going to manage running a group of restaurants, whereas previously I just looked after the Cinnamon Club and then Roast? To their relief, I smile and tell them that I won’t. There will be an experienced chief operating officer and operations managers who will do all the running around and managing – after all, those are their specialist skills. And having never darted around, I’ve no idea if I would be any good at it and I don’t intend to find out now.

The successful chief executive has usually climbed the ranks of the organisation and, invariably, then feels the need to micro-manage processes. Luckily, for customers and colleagues alike, I have never served or cooked for anyone professionally. Think Basil Fawlty.

I moved from a media business to hospitality 15 years ago not because I had a desire to cook or oversee a dining room but to run a business with a different set of values.

This involved recognising my strengths (concept creation, customer perspectives and communication) and, importantly, my weaknesses (doing stuff). The point is not for me to show off how effortless this has become because a lot of work goes into my thinking. However, the crucial second part to having strong ideas is to employ excellent people who are able to execute what, initially, is your vision but over time becomes theirs too.

So, Your Majesty, may I request that when your usual question is answered affirmatively, can you please ask this follow-up: Why?

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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