‘Set and Forget’ Leadership: How to Delegate So You Won’t Get Burned

‘Set and forget’ leadership:  Hand off the task as fast as possible, move on to other things.

It’s what we tend to do when we’re in a hurry, but the biggest speed advantage this approach confers may be how quickly it can get us into trouble.  Here’s a way to think about how to delegate that task we’ve cooked up so that things function smoothly in the kitchen, and nobody gets burned.

Set and Forget Leadership

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How Much Would You Pay?

Do you know Ron Popeil? 

Maybe the name doesn’t ring a bell, but I bet you’ve heard some of the phrases he’s famous for.

          “All your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear.”

          “With this machine you can slice a tomato so thin it only has one side.”

          “How much would you pay for all this?”

          “But wait, there’s more…”

Starting to sound familiar?  Ron is an inventor, salesman, and for as long as I can remember, a fixture on late night television infomercials selling the gadgets he’s come up with.  Malcolm Gladwell profiled him as “The Pitchman” in his book What the Dog Saw.  

Whether it was the Pocket Fisherman, a hair spray to hide your bald spot, or myriad gadgets to make kitchen work more tolerable, you could usually find him on the small screen pushing product.  His engaging smile and infectious enthusiasm was enough to keep his studio audience on the edge of their seats and reaching for their credit cards.

His most famous phrase is so memorable that he only has to say the first half, and his audience automatically chimes in with the rest.  As he slips a whole chicken into the Showtime Rotisserie BBQ Cooker and turns the dial, he would call out to the audience with a smile,

          “Just set it….”  And the audience would shout back, “…and forget it!”

But I’m glad Ron was a salesman and not my leader, or he’d be guilty of a mistake leaders at all experience levels frequently make.

Set and Forget Leadership

When it comes to managing the work load, as leaders we know it’s delegate or die.  But all too often we don’t put any thought into the process beyond figuring out what we can get off our desk, and how quickly. 

Like Ron, we want to just toss that chicken in the oven, set it and forget it.

We come out of the meeting and see Fred in the hall.  We say, “Hey, can you take care of that Hasselmeyer thing?  Thanks.”

There.  Chicken’s in the oven, we check it off our list, and we shift our attention to other things.   It doesn’t register to us that Fred was on his way to lunch, has other things on his plate, and sadly lacks mind-reading skills.  Who knows, he might even be vegan.

Time passes, and then suddenly the phone rings, and the boss wants to know what’s up the Hasselmeyer account.  Or it’s Hasselmeyer himself, and he’s upset.  The ball has been dropped, results fell short, people are not happy.

Not In This Kitchen

Our first impulse might be to stutter in self-defense, “But I told Fred…

Yet we already know better, and if we are foolish enough to keep talking in this vein, any words that follow amount to an abdication of leadership. 

A leader is responsible for everything his team does, or fails to do. - U.S. Army axiom Click To Tweet

Worse, if any of our teammates hear us, their respect for us is sure to drop several notches.  We’re not protecting the team, demonstrating loyalty, or building trust; we’re hanging them out to dry.

No, if it happened in our kitchen, our fingers are scorched.  We have to own it.

Best thing to do is roll the infomercial back to the beginning.  And instead of thinking of delegation like putting a chicken into one of Ron’s Five-in-One Pocket Fry-O-Matic All-Purpose Cookers, think of it more like a barbeque.

Just Set It…

Before we can put our chicken on the grill, there’s prep work to be done, like gathering fuel, lighting the fire, spreading the coals, and trussing the bird.

In the same way, to delegate well, there’s a lot more to “Just set it” than turning a dial.  Before we give this “chicken” to Fred, we should have the answers to some important questions:

  • Who is the best fit for this task?  How hard will it be for them?  Where does it sit in priority with the other tasks they are doing?
  • What resources or training will they need to be successful?  What is our role in making them available?
  • What decision authority will they have, and what triggers do we need in place to ensure they bring certain decisions back to us?
  • What does the final product look like?  How will we know we have achieved that?  What do we do with it when it’s done?
  • What signs of progress or trouble along the way should we be watching for? 

That’s a lot to think about, but we don’t have to do it alone; one way to make this easier is to bring Fred in and have him participate in the discussion.  Once you can answer these questions clearly together, it’s finally time to give him the chicken and get him cooking.

…And Forget It

We also know that once the chicken is on the grill, we can’t just walk away.  If we want this meal to turn out right we’ll need to check on it once in a while:  Is it browning evenly?  Does it need seasoning?  Will it be done on time? Is it thoroughly cooked?

As Fred is cooking his chicken, if we’ve done the “Just Set It” part well, it shouldn’t take much more than the occasional check under the lid to make sure nothing is burning or the flame hasn’t gone out:

  • Schedule follow-up meetings to check on progress.
  • Walk “the floor” to get a sense of what is going on.
  • Double check that the resources and training we were supposed to provide came through.
  • Look for ways to reduce obstacles that may be holding things back.
  • Coordinate with the other “cooks” so that all parts of the meal are ready on time.

The caution here is to not over-supervise the cook – micromanaging our teammates can erode trust and foster disengagement almost as fast as blame-shifting can.

Micromanagement can erode trust and engagement almost as fast as blame-shifting. Click To Tweet

When the chicken comes out of the oven, it’s our chicken, regardless of who the cook was, but if we’re careful with our kitchen staff, it’s much more likely to make for a pleasant meal for everyone.

Set and Forget Leadership – The Takeaway

Set and forget leadership - the resultsRon Popiel gave us a memorable phrase that has become part of our cultural lexicon.  But “set and forget leadership” is no way to run a kitchen, not if we want to avoid sullen chefs and dissatisfied diners.

One last thing:  now that the chicken is done, we need some feedback – a taste test.  Happy taste buds and satisfied customers are how we know if we succeeded.

Smart leaders hold an After Action Review to capture what went well and learn from missteps in the cooking process.  That way, the next time we are tempted to “just set it and forget it” we’ll think twice about how we plan to roast that chicken.

And when Mr. Hasselmeyer calls, it’s to say “Thanks” and maybe to ask for seconds.

Lead On!

Photo Credits Pixabay and Evan Wise on Unsplash

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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