As the manager of a large R&D department, I had several team leads reporting to me. These team leads were responsible for people management tasks such as approving leave, doing appraisals (mid-year and year-end reviews), helping and coaching people who underperformed and hiring new people. There were, however, team leads that were quite new to the role and there were team leads who possibly could be R&D manager as well. There was a vast difference in experience levels and skills. For example, dealing with underperforming employees. Some of the newer team leads never dealt with such a situation and my most experienced team lead had already dealt with various cases of underperforming employees.
At a certain moment, the HR department asked me to provide proper job profiles for the role of team lead within R&D. Now how to combine team leads with different levels of experience and skills into a single job description or an overview of their responsibilities… I was stuck, but just for a moment.
I did not want junior team leads to handle the demanding cases of underperforming employees without my involvement. Moreover, I did not want to give my most experienced team lead the feeling that they had to discuss every tiny detail with me. Sure, I could have written an enormous job description with all responsibilities and I could have included lots and lots of footnotes. Or I could have told some team leads that they were an exception to the standard job description and that they were allowed to act differently. Another option was to describe nothing, be vague and just let it go… well not my style, if you know me.
I did not like any of these approaches, and HR was again requesting job profiles, I had to write down something… so what to do next?
In his book #Workout , Jurgen Appelo describes the concept of Delegation Boards. These boards can be physical boards or digital boards. In short, just think of it as a spreadsheet that vertically lists the decision areas that you want to delegate to others and horizontally you set the amount of independence a team lead has.
Key decision areas can be things like approving leave, approving training, appraisals, recruitment, you name it. Now on the horizontal axis, the spreadsheet will show seven levels of delegation. The delegation level determines the amount of independence that a team lead has in a certain decision area. So the idea is that for each key decision area, the board will contain a note in one of the seven delegation level columns, thus clearly communicating to everyone reviewing the delegation board how far authority is delegated in that area. For example, are people somehow involved in the decision process (level 3: consult)? Is their agreement on certain topics required (level 4: agree)? Are they expected to inform the manager about their decisions (level 6: inquire)? Note that the delegation levels are fixed but you can add as many key decision areas as you want. For more information please read this webpage and / or get your own copy of the book (Nope, I don’t have shares… I just like the book as it is very pragmatic and inspirational).
Contrary to the book though, I prefer to call it a Delegation Matrix. I discovered that people who are not already familiar with Delegation Boards find it easier to understand (at least in the beginning) the concept when you talk about it as a matrix. The advantage of using a Delegation Matrix for me, was that I could create a matrix per team lead. I could take each team lead’s individual skills and experiences into account.
I first identified several key decision areas for the role of team lead in that particular R&D organization. Some of them were:
As I found out when I explained my plans of wanting to start working with delegation boards to the group of team leads: the actual concept of delegation level was hard to grasp for some people. This was mainly due to the fact that there are three points of view that were being mixed up by some team leads: the point of view of a team member, of a team lead and that of the R&D manager. The delegation matrix is a sort of contract between the team lead and the R&D manager but some team leads could not help but see it as the contract between a team member and the team lead thereby mixing up concepts.
Therefore, I clearly stated that this delegation matrix concerned the agreements between the team lead and the R&D manager and I wrote the following descriptions per delegation level:
Before I started the discussion with the individual team leads about which delegation level they would get per decision area, I made an overview of minimal levels and maximum levels. A team lead could never get outside of this range. Yes, I wanted to make my life easier as a manager but sometimes I simply want to remain in control or company policies just do not allow me to delegate something.
For example, company policies required that I personally had to approve of all expenses. There was no delegation allowed.
I chose for the key decision area Approve Leave to always have it be completely delegated. I even did not want to be informed about the leave plans of more than 50 employees and definitely did not want decide if they can take leave or not. The team leads were 100% capable of deciding that for themselves and we have excellent overviews showing who is on holiday when.
Regular Sick leave was also fixed. Employees had to call their team lead when they reported ill. No texting or whatsapping, simply calling your team lead. There is not much to decide in this area… it is not that I or a team lead can decide if somebody is ill or not… I do want to be informed when people report themselves ill though. Just to get a sense for when a flue wave is going around or when people in a stressed team are starting to report in sick. I did add this area to make it clear that team leads were responsible for handling employees reporting ill.
An important key decision areas was Salary. Determining new salaries and communicating them. At the end of the day, it would always be my decision: I was 100% responsible. I did want to have input from the more experienced team leads. Just to make sure to take their opinion and feedback into account.
One of the most interesting key decision areas was Structural underperformers or long term sick leave. As you can maybe imagine, it can be very challenging and complex (and also rewarding!) to work with team members who do not perform as expected. This definitely requires some management experience in my opinion. A junior team lead with no management experience can get into a lot troubles when they have to manage this without any support or guidance in the way we usually deal with these things. One team lead even clearly stated that he did not want any responsibility in this area for the coming years. Therefore, it could happen that in some cases I completely managed the situation myself and that in some cases my most experienced team lead handled the situation and just kept me posted.
The end result was a unique delegation matrix for every team lead. Here you see the delegation matrix of a junior team lead and a senior team lead.
The final step was to make HR happy and to provide a job description for all team leads. I simply based the job description on the delegation matrix. I started with describing a profile for a team lead with the lowest delegation options. Next step was to describe a profile for a team lead with the most delegation options. Below you will find the descriptions for the areas that I already mentioned earlier.
“You approve all leave days, including vacation and special leave days. You take in account minimum availability of team members and make sure the team has enough capacity to deliver what they are expected to deliver.
All your team members will report sick to you. You inform the R&D manager and make sure the reporting sick protocol of HR is followed.
You will give some basic input to the R&D manager and he will effectively determine the new salaries. The R&D manager will hand over the salary letters to the team members, as team lead you are not involved in this process.
As soon as a team member is a structural under performer or long term sick, the R&D manager will step in and take responsibility. He will discuss the situation with the team member who is not performing and take any necessary actions to improve the performance.”
“You approve all leave days, including vacation and special leave days. You take in account minimum availability of team members and make the team has enough capacity to deliver what they are expected to deliver.
All your team members will report sick to you. You inform the R&D manager and make sure the reporting sick protocol is followed.
The R&D manager will consult you to determine effective new salaries for your team members. The R&D manager will decide about the salaries. You or the R&D manager will hand over the salary letters to the team members.
As soon as a team member is a structural under performer or long term sick, the team lead will take responsibility. He will discuss the situation with the team member who is not performing and take any necessary actions to improve the performance. The R&D manager is informed regularly about the progress.”
I wrote a job description for every team lead, copying descriptions from the junior or senior description and making adjustments to make the description fit the selected key decision area. HR was very happy and satisfied with the job descriptions :).
I reviewed the delegation matrix several times a year with the team leads, making adjustments if necessary. At the end of the year I would create a new job description for HR.
A big plus for me was that the delegation matrixes allowed me to define a clear growth path for the team leads. By becoming more skilled and experienced they could get their notes in the delegation levels moved. I could easily discuss the level of delegation based on examples and slowly move notes to the right when a team lead had proven that they were ready for the next level or I could lay down expectations for the next year. In the end, I found that I regarded it as my goal as a manager to always get the team leads to move as many notes to the right over time as possible. Made my life easier as a manager and made my team leads develop themselves as well.
I talked to a team lead from that group last month and one of the things he really appreciated in this approach, he told me, was that he always had a very clear description of his responsibilities. He knew exactly what to expect from me, where to take the lead himself, etc. He really liked it and still uses it with his people.
For me the biggest advantage was that I could fulfill the request of HR and still be very flexible because of the different levels of experiences with the team leads. One of my personal challenges, as a manager, is sometimes to trust people and delegate things more often. Yes, I am also not perfect :). The delegation matrix helped me, I did not have to delegate everything immediately. Together with the team lead I could decide in which areas what to delegate and to what extent. Furthermore, by reviewing the matrix several times a year, it continued to be a very flexible approach, giving the team leads the opportunity to grow their skills and to delegate more responsibilities to them over the course of a year.