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Leadership Moments

The Subtle Art of Staying in Control While Also Delegating Work to Others

September 18, 2019

It is one of the many challenging paradoxes of leadership: how to empower people without delegating so much that you’re in the dark. My colleague Akira Hoshino, one of our mentors at Merryck & Co., an executive mentoring and senior leadership development firm, shared with me a key lesson he learned about delegating during his time spent as a CEO and in other senior executive roles.

Q. What themes come up most often when you’re advising senior executives?

A. It’s about relationships. My belief comes from a Confucian concept called Shu, which means that you put yourself in somebody else’s position and try to think from their point of view and try to understand and accommodate their thoughts. That way, you can forgive somebody for doing something you cannot understand. Or you understand their problem so you can help solve them.

That approach originated for me from my parents, who always encouraged me to think of others. Don’t put your ego first, they said, and try to accommodate what others are thinking. When I was a student, I became interested in Chinese philosophy, and that is how I came across this idea of Shu.

Q. I find that people who act that way are pretty rare.

A. Yes, especially in the business world, where egos can be very strong, and particularly in the United States. A strong ego may help in the short term for some things, but over the long-term, you’re always working with human beings, so you have to understand what they’re thinking and the situation they’re in.

Q. What has been an important leadership lesson for you?

A. Put as much as possible under your control. Of course, you can delegate a job to somebody else, but you have to retain control. You have to understand what’s going on and you have to understand what resources you have. You have to try to make sure that, in a sense, you are controlling all the things you do.

For example, when you acquire new companies, like I did many times, you have to make sure that you can control that business, maybe through somebody else or through some way of getting information. But my lesson is not to go into an area where you don’t have control. That means you don’t rely on somebody else’s words, and don’t give complete autonomy to somebody to work on a project.

Q. But some people might hear that approach and say, “Yes, but you have to let go and delegate as you move up.”

A. Of course, you have to delegate, but you have to really understand what’s going on. Part of it is having the understanding and experience to solve a problem if anything happens. If there’s a problem you want to solve and you know what needs to be done, you can get somebody you trust and who specializes in that area to solve it. And if you can do that, I interpret that as having it all under your control.

Q. How did you learn that lesson?

A. In my late 30s, I was assigned to find a new line of business for a company. I was excited to go into a new area, but I failed because I didn’t have the control or knowledge in the new area. That was disappointing, and it was a tough lesson, a tough time. I learned that if you don’t really have ways to get to know and understand a new business, you shouldn’t go into it.

Q. What was the hardest aspect of being a CEO?

A. The responsibility for thousands of employees, including their families. That was a big weight on my shoulders. And when you sell a business, there are so many people who don’t want you to do it, but you have to sell the business for the good reason of the company. But you can’t just cut the business and tell people they’re finished.

I had to go through that even before I became CEO, when I once had 50 people in my division, and we had to sell the company. I felt really bad. I met each of them face-to-face and tried to make them understand why we had to sell the company. It still haunts me today.

Q. That’s a powerful story. Let’s shift gears to hiring. What questions do you ask? 

A. The questions I ask most frequently of each candidate are, “What are the most important values in your life?” People often say love or family or something like that. Then I ask, what’s next? And I’ll just keep asking, what’s next? The longer we talk, the more I get a sense of their priorities and whether they’ll fit into our company culture.

Somebody once said that when he turns 50, he wanted to quit the company and try to move to some island and run a camping site. That was very unusual. And I wanted to hire him because he was interesting. He had the courage to speak his mind.

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