Divesting authority – over lunch

Mark Robinson gets his teeth into the trend for managers to go beyond delegating and on to divesting.

Reading time: 4 minutes

I have been around long enough as a manager to feel that many ideas which are hailed as ‘new’ and given specific terms are ones that, when you strip off the packaging, look pretty familiar.

One debate in management that has been going on for a long time is about the risks and rewards of getting people throughout the organisation to take more responsibility.

Some call this divesting or decentralising authority, some call it empowerment – others dislike this word and some even go as far as to ban it.

In a recent blog, Ann Hudock of the global development organisation Counterpart, wrote: “I banned the use of ‘empower’. I took a red pen and deleted any sentences in proposals that read that we ‘empower’ citizens to take control of their lives.”

That’s not of course, because Hudock doesn’t want people to be in charge of their own destinies, it is because she sees the word ‘empower’ as patronising – someone giving people what they already own.

‘Divesting’ is a new way of expressing a similar idea to empowerment. It is a word that has connotations of ceasing to invest in certain types of business. It is also used to mean to get rid of or to pass on, and in this sense, it means going one step beyond delegating.

For example, as a business leader, I might delegate to someone the task of fetching lunch for attendees at our customer conference – stipulating that I want them to buy tacos from the food truck outside.

But when I divest my authority over food provision at every customer conference to someone else, let’s call them Charlie, they will agree a budget and then order pizza or hire a chef to make hibachi.

On the whole, I am an advocate of the second option – not the hibachi, although I do enjoy Japanese food, but the giving over of the whole task. This is for many reasons.

The company where the CEO takes all the decisions is the company where the CEO doesn’t sleep.

One, business leaders don’t have the time or energy to take every decision in the business. As a colleague of mine puts it: “The company where the CEO takes all the decisions is the company where the CEO doesn’t sleep.”

I don’t want to risk realising halfway through the meeting, perhaps shortly before my keynote presentation, that I forgot to order lunch and everyone is getting hangry.

Second, bringing in tacos from the food truck might be fun when the company is in its early stages and there are only seven people, all of whom I know fairly well, attending. But as the company grows and scales, this obviously becomes impossible.

At this stage, I may know fewer of the customers. But Charlie is part of a team who deals with customer events on a daily basis and will know much more than I do on what kind of refreshment goes down well. If Charlie’s team is in charge of the process, they can also be held accountable for getting it right.

A third issue is that if tasks are delegated without authority being ‘divested’ it means that every decision has to be pushed upwards and scrutinised by someone high up in the organisation. That slows everything down.

It would be as if Charlie goes and gets quotes for different food options and then forwards them to me and has to wait until I have had time to look at each one and give my feedback – excuse the pun. That creates what you might call a decision-making bottleneck – or a jam.

But what are the risks of this approach? Some organisations may worry, can we trust Charlie? Charlie doesn’t have as much experience as I do of eating lunch. How will the team manage without chewing everything over with me? There are a few points to digest here.

One is that to make this decision in the most-informed way, Charlie will need to have access to the information that is relevant, not just how many delegates are attending and how many are likely to be gluten-sensitive, but what is the average amount that is spent on meals at these events per head.



Second, employees like Charlie are the biggest asset of any organisation. Charlie is more likely to have new and innovative ideas about this than I do.

It is also more engaging for Charlie to have responsibility for the whole task. What I can do is to help clear obstacles out of Charlie’s way, ensure that the mission statement is clear and that the task is handed over at an early stage?

And third, maybe Charlie will make a mistake – maybe there will be too much vegan food and the chicken will run out. But that’s a learning experience.

As long as we have an organisational culture that is about learning from mistakes and improving, and isn’t about criticising Charlie for this rookie error, then that’s fine.

Charlie is gaining a better understanding of our customers’ tastes and also developing confidence and skill.

Over the longer term, this will provide a better result than we will get from not letting Charlie get on with this. And the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.


About the author

Mark Robinson is CMO at Kimble Applications





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