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Leadership Lessons on…delegation

Learning to let go is management 101, so how can leaders in (re)insurance empower others while staying in control?

Teenage athlethes on a relay race passing relay buton
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One of the best things about taking a managerial position is relinquishing the tasks you didn’t like in your previous role: compiling that regular report, meeting with that awkward team, picking up your own dry cleaning – all gone.

However, it also means you have to give up the tasks you do like – and arguably the ones in which you excelled and that put you in the top role to begin with. This is much less inviting.

But being able to delegate tasks is a key part of being an effective leader. It is management 101, as it is only by letting others take on these jobs will you have the time and headspace to think about the bigger picture and grow into your new role.

Why, then, is it so difficult for many in the (re)insurance sector to do this?

For Paul Clark, managing director and partner, Boston Consulting Group, much of this comes down to a lack of understanding that there are different ways of leading – and that different leadership styles are appropriate in different circumstances.

“In the past, you’ve seen the organisations that have done well have been led by people with a very clear leadership style,” says Clark. “You see that particularly in the London market, where there have been legendary leaders.”

If you want something doing…

This old model of leadership was quite directive and top-down, says Clark, and while it might have worked back in the day, things have distinctly moved on for workers in 2020 – especially with all the new struggles we have had to face in the past few years.

Clark cites the British Army as having made great strides in breaking free from this old style of leadership mould, and having learned new ways to govern and delegate.

“You can’t tell everyone what to do when the people on the front line are having to improvise and make decisions,” he says. “You can’t pre-programme them to do the right thing. You have to give them guidelines and empower them to respond.”

That the army has moved to this “much humbler leadership style” that tries to facilitate and support teams in performing is a big step, says Clark. He notes that many businesses have been slow to follow the trend, which may be holding them back from performing.

“Nowadays the level of uncertainty is so high, the whole organisation needs to be agile and responsive to opportunities,” he adds. “Businesses are increasingly complex, meaning often senior people are not best placed to understand the detail, or even to understand the opportunities and the challenges.”

Delegation’s what you need

Jim Cornwell, senior vice president at Argo Construction, is a believer in Clark’s mantra that, with delegation, one size does not fit all and that different times call for different measures.

“I will evaluate the urgency and importance of the item, as well as assess the person I might delegate to,” says Cornwell. “For instance, what skill sets are required to effectively and efficiently complete tasks and who on my team has these abilities – and, more importantly, the interest to take on the responsibility?”

As a leader, Cornwell sees delegation as a balancing act – and when done well it leads to positive outcomes for various stakeholders.

“Setting clear expectations and providing guidance, support and feedback are all key in ensuring successful delegation,” he says. “The best scenario is delegating an item that offers an individual a challenge but does not hinder their ability to learn and develop through the assigned task.”

On the flipside, the worst thing to do is to blindside someone with a task beyond their scope or to withhold the support and guidance needed to navigate what needs to be achieved.

“This will only deflate someone’s interest, waste time and destroy any value,” he says.

Speaking from just outside San Francisco, Pete Chandler, president and CEO at BMS Re US, understands his position in the company and what is expected of him.

“First and foremost, I can’t delegate responsibility for the business, our colleagues or clients – that has to begin and end with me,” he says. “But as a leader, there are aspects of the day-to-day business where, if I try to micromanage everything or be responsible for everything, it ultimately can’t be healthy for the organisation.”

Chandler advises leaders to reflect on what they can, can’t and shouldn’t do.

“Don’t think that you know everything,” he says. “Just because you’ve got a title on your business card or a placard on your desk, don’t take that to mean you’ve got the answer to every single question, and therefore you won’t take advantage of the wonderful resources, human and otherwise, that you’re affiliated with to go and find a better or more appropriate answer.”

Instead, Chandler looks at delegation through an analogy of a sporting team – with communication a key priority.

“The best head coaches surround themselves with the best assistant coaches,” says Chandler. “To me, business is like a team sport and we’re in it together. I want to make sure that communication is first and foremost in everything that we do. I want to have those conversations where I seek and solicit input.”


No one says learning to delegate is easy. It took Cornwell time to accept the benefits of delegating, as he says he had “always been accustomed to handling projects from the beginning to end”. Yet once he found the right people to delegate to, it became a lot easier to let go of the reins.

“The art of delegating requires that you listen and understand the interests of your team and match these interests to what needs to be done,” he says. “I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who embrace challenges and view these tasks as an opportunity to develop.”

Delegating is now something he enjoys – which may sound strange to those who (so far) do not.

“There is a lot of satisfaction in identifying an opportunity that can help your team member grow in their career and increase their interest in the work,” he says.

Chandler has been in his role for around nine months, and “can see where the initial, human instinct is to hold everything even more tightly, but in practice the exact opposite is helpful”, he says.

Unexpectedly, the present pandemic might seem the time to do just that, but canny operators will already know that now is the time to empower others.

“It is in times like this where we need to be more transparent and more open-minded,” says Chandler.

While the industry has been through hard markets, political challenges and dramatic interest rates before, 2020 is a whole new world.

“When you overlay a global pandemic and an increase in frequency of catastrophic events, we don’t necessarily have an exact playbook,” says Chandler, “So there is a great deal of learning and education that has to go on.”

For Cornwell, delegation can provide relief during stressful periods, but it’s even more important to establish guardrails to ensure success.

“Setting clear expectations supported by ongoing guidance and remaining available to provide advice throughout ensures a positive outcome and a beneficial experience for your staff,” he says.

“Finally – feedback. Check in during and after a task is finished and provide constructive comments and advice on the staff’s process and progress. Delegation is not about dumping and running!”