Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
May 2, 2018

The Problem of "Upwardly Delegating"

Delegation is often thought of as providing responsibilities downward to one’s direct reports. However, there’s another more pervasive, yet unconscious, delegation that occurs on senior teams all the time: “upward delegation.”  Let me explain further.

Every member of a CEO’s team wears two hats, reflecting two main areas of responsibility:

  • Operational/functional responsibility for a specific function or operation (e.g., manufacturing, sales, engineering, finance), and
  • Senior team responsibilitywhich involves leading with the CEO and others on the management team to set direction, ensure broad execution and help the organization perform at its best.

Leaders in these top roles recognize unambiguously their operational/ functional responsibility to drive results. This takes considerable, time, effort and focus. To do so, most leaders work to be as efficient as possible, letting go of many of the “pulls” and “drains” on their energy and effort. 

With so much on their plates, one of the first things that typically occurs is an “upward delegation” of their senior team member responsibilities to their boss, in this case, the CEO. When this happens, senior team meetings become “expensive” report outs rather than “shared leadership” meetings that drive value for all stakeholders. For example, one industrial company CEO told me recently that he was wondering why he feels like his team is doing so little together without his initiative, guidance and questions. When we helped delve into the issue, we found that, indeed, the team was waiting for the CEO to take the lead on these shared senior team responsibilities, rather than engaging on the issues themselves.

Is this tendency toward upward delegation overt? From experience, not usually! We see it happen most often in a few specific situations, such as when senior leaders feel a bit dismissed by their own CEO — for example, because of a CEO’s command-and-control style — or when there is uncertainty about their senior team responsibilities. In fact, while a team member’s functional/operational responsibilities usually are made quite explicit in terms of imperatives, outcomes and success measures, the “shared leadership” of the team is more implicit, making it easier to overlook. Finally, some senior leaders simply view the function and performance of the team/organization as their boss’s responsibility.

Effective senior teams require a concerted effort. As with all leadership roles and functions, everything that one does matters! For a team to function effectively, everyone must be adding value at every stage — from setting strategic direction, monitoring and driving the collective efforts, and ensuring a healthy team dynamic. One’s leadership function may be taxing, yet this team responsibility is vital. The senior team sets the pace for all others in the organization.

As the industrial company CEO learned, upward delegation does not have to be a permanent condition. After we worked with the team on a few concrete interventions, the CEO reported that they were more engaged and proactive on senior-team responsibilities, for example, proactively developing recommendations for the company direction. Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Establish new norms: Addressing the problem of upward delegating starts with the team collectively discussing the issue. Senior leadership team members should discuss and agree on expectations for one another, scoping out team norms. Often, this occurs together as the team discusses and decides on guidelines for how to engage with one another. However, this is just the first step.
  2. Commit to shared accountability: The more important step is for each team member to commit to holding one another accountable for their team member responsibilities. When are team members not weighing in on important topics? How might each of us invite more reticent colleagues to actively participate? Are we openly discussing the hidden costs of silence? The remedy to a reserved team is the team itself. Each member must bring out the best in their colleagues.
  3. CEO intervention: Finally, the team’s leader has a role in changing upward delegating behavior. When the CEO or other team leader observes upward delegation happening, one of the best tactics is silence and patience. Let silence stir the team to discuss issues. Everyone on the team knows the leader is there, but by waiting to express an opinion, the leader can encourage others to get involved and work through issues. The leader also can encourage engagement by helping team members see the points others are making and asking questions to spur additional conversation. Leaders also should reinforce the importance of the team member function with senior leaders in one-on-one discussions.

Michael Milad, Ph.D., J.D., M.B.A., is a licensed psychologist with a dual Ph.D. in industrial/organizational and clinical psychology. He advises clients on CEO succession, C-level executive development, senior team effectiveness, board effectiveness and organizational culture. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.