3 min read

Warm Take: Leverage

On delegation.
Red, yellow, blue, and white signal levers near train platform/tracks; caboose receding into the distance.
Colourful Signal Levers, by Helfin Owen, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Management leverage” isn’t part of today’s conversation about people management. It's the idea that effective manager could have an outsized impact, largely through strategic delegation. I might call this an ideal of mid-20th century capitalism.

As an emerging manager, I was taught that delegation was a manager’s superpower. When you delegate ownership for an important project or process, your team members have the opportunity to develop new skills, and visibility; then, you have a stronger bench. This, in turn, positions you for promotion, because you will have developed your replacement. It's a virtuous circle where everyone wins. Ideally.

Today, virtuous circle thinking won’t work everywhere. In early stage firms, rapid growth introduces a need for skills that the organization won't have time to homegrow. Organizations that manage strategic and market changes with mass layoffs are unlikely to appreciate broad development efforts.

It may be more possible to build management leverage in mature, high-trust organizations. The virtuous circle needs people to feel like they’re being set up to succeed. And you can't live in constant fear of getting the boot yourself. Otherwise, why develop your replacement?

Longtime readers may remember my earlier recommendation of a classic on delegation, "Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?" by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. A 1974 Harvard Business Review article, shared with me many years later as I learned to delegate. HBR republished the article 1999, with contemporaneous commentary by Stephen Covey. You can read it online.

HBR should probably update the commentary again. The original article is full of details of an office life that no longer exists — wooden out-boxes, memos, calling your secretary on the intercom. One truth makes the article a classic: you still can’t 10X yourself.

Done well, delegation is managing by coaching, rather than assigning tasks and directing traffic. As your team members develop new skills, you can focus your attention differently. This can increase your team’s bandwidth, and maybe even power — hence the term “leverage.”

Covey's commentary offered an important insight:  delegation effectiveness is limited by the system you’re in. Virtuous circle thinking, and action, absolutely won’t work everywhere. To our detriment.

Though we may not see the term “management leverage,” it’s at play in Amazon warehouses, where technology is being used to attempt to automate and 10X (100X?) people management. This is not how I want to see management leverage applied, or a future of work I want for anyone. It's a good a reason to consider the term today.

3-ish years ago

In 2019, I talked with Fobazi Ettarh about vocational awe, for Minimum Viable Passion, On Management #37. Edited audio of our conversation is here.

I was excited to see Fobazi's work highlighted in Anne Helen Petersen's Culture Study this morning.

Thanks for reading my Warm Take, written this Sunday morning while drinking coffee. May the caffeine have helped me to catch my typos. Otherwise, I'll fix them later, on the Internet.

Thanks also to those of you who have sent questions, notes and recommended readings on some of my recent pieces. More on that down the road a bit.

I love hearing from you – please do send questions, thoughts, suggestions and so forth!

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free,

Anne Libby


Tomlin, Parton and Fonda drinking a toast, from the film 9 to 5
Violet Newstead definitely read Management Time, Who's Got The Monkey