When working with an assistant it can be difficult to learn to delegate. One way to practice is to find a task that they can’t mess up. For example, getting quotes on a print job from a handful of print shops. Let them know that there isn’t anything they can mess up and tell them you want them to handle the process on their own. Give them as much info as they need and ask them to clarify if they have any questions. Then turn them loose on the project and don’t interfere. This is good practice for you and good practice for them. It will teach you both how to work together more efficiently.
Vickie Turley says
As a virtual assistant, I find your post degrading and demeaning to the assistants of the world.
VAs are professionals with many years of experience. They do not need to be “taught” as they have learned through many years of working with many different employers.
They have then taken that experience and honed it into a craft. They have become business owners who enjoy providing support at a professional level for others.
If you find it hard to delegate, a VA can help you get past that by providing professional results to the most difficult tasks.
You might want to consider partnering with a VA. They would be glad to help you get past the roadblock of not being able to delegate.
Mark Shead says
I know there are many people trying to use virtual assistants who have never had any management experience. People who have never had to manage anyone else usually struggle with learning to delegate.
Some virtual assistants have years of experience–many do not. Even with years of experience a good VA is going to need to learn how to work with a new client because everyone is going to have different expectations about when they expect the VA to just make decisions on their own and when they need to come back and consult with the client before proceeding. It isn’t a matter of the VA being inept–it is just a matter of learning how to best work with a new client.
Sorry if you feel demeaned and degraded, but after rereading the post, I’m still confident that my suggestion is an excellent way for people to learn not to micromanage a virtual assistant.
If you have other suggestions I’d love to read them in the comments.
Janice Wlodarski says
Sorry, Mark, but I agree with Vickie. Perhaps you didn’t mean it to sound this way but why are you assuming that it’s the VA that’s going to “mess up?” A better suggestion would be for the new manager to discuss with their VA their level of experience and comfort handling the proposed task. I think the fear of someone “messing up” is not so much on the VA’s part but on the part of the new delegator. The new delegator needs to have enough confidence in themselves to trust their assistant and learn to work together.
That said, are there people out there new to the VA business with minimal experience? Absolutely. Will they need a little more hand-holding in certain tasks? Quite possibly. Starting off with the assumption that they are going to “mess up”, however, is not a good way to foster a good working relationship.
Kim Hughes says
You are correct that there are many business owners who do struggle with delegating. This is where an experienced virtual assistant can help the business owner to learn to let go and trust that the VA can be a huge benefit to their business.
Most VAs have years of experience and know how to work with the business owner on what is the best method or procedure for them.
VAs are multi-talented and can organize an office, team, etc., by talking with the business owner to determine the areas they need help with. Each business owner does require specific needs and that is greatest thing about having a virtual assistant. We are able to help them determine what tasks can be delegated and then take the ball and go with it.
Most VAs today work in specifc niches so the business owner should look for a VA who knows the industry. If he/she cannot find a VA specifc to their industry then they can look at the VAs website to see what services they do offer and then contact them to determine if the VA has the experience they are looking for and if not that VA would most likely be able to refer the business owner to a VA that can.
I am real estate specific and I have 10 years of VA experience. I find most of my clients really do not know what they need help with, so that is where my expertise comes in. We discuss their everyday tasks, put together a plan and move forward. No learning curve on my end and I can bring ideas to the table the client may not have thought of. ANOTHER HUGE BENEFIT OF A VA.
VAs are not just “assistants” – we are coaches. mentors, problem-solvers, marketing gurus and so much more.
There are two organizations a business owner can go to find a VA to assist them in achieving their goals. http://www.IVAA.org is an organization where you can find VAs of all niches and if they are real estate specific then I would recommend http://www.IREAA.com
Lynne Walls says
Mark-if you are writing for who have no prior management experience, you are starting them off on the wrong foot by teaching them to assume they are partnering with VA’s who cannot possibly complete a simple task without some serious guidance to keep them from “messing up”.
I managed groups of people for 15 years and have a bachelors in business management. The superior attitude attracts incompetents, since that’s what you expect to deal with. Your job as a manager is to to realize that YOUR goals are accomplished by the people you delegate tasks to and that you want to surround yourself with the most capable people possible, preferably with people who have strengths in areas you do not. In your case, you would want to partner with a VA who is a successful, tactful communicator.
The other observation I would like to make is that the majority of VA’s have been business owners for several years and probably have more experience in delegating than you do. You PARTNER with a VA, they do not work for you, they work with you to your mutual benefit. If that is not how you are looking at the relationship, please don’t council others who are new to the experience. You’re not helping.
Mark Shead says
@Lynne – I’m not assuming that a VA will mess up. I’m just suggesting that the best way to not micromanage is to practice giving a task that doesn’t have any risk and then stay out of the way. It is a lot easier to stay out of the way on something that doesn’t have thousands of dollars at stake.
Also keep in mind that many people working with a VA are going to be dealing with cultural and language issues on top of everything else and what I’m suggesting is an excellent way to start building a working relationship with someone who grew up in a different country with a totally different set of assumptions that yours.
@Kim – From your description of the work you do I think you are selling yourself short if you market your services as a “virtual assistant”. If you come into businesses that don’t know what they need and help them increase profits, you are acting as a business consultant–not a VA in my opinion.
@Janice – Most people who have trouble delegating are worried that the results of the delegated task will not meet the same standards as if they did it themselves. The best way someone can learn to delegate in this situation is assign a task with minimal or no risk and then staying out of the way.
That way, if they have a good VA, it will be very clear and they will feel more relaxed in delegating other items. If there are cultural or language barriers that need to be worked through, it should be evident very quickly without risking a lot of money.
I’m not saying you should assume that a VA is going to mess things up–but if you aren’t comfortable delegating then you are already making that assumption. This post was just giving an approach to start getting beyond that uncomfortableness and teach yourself to let go and trust your VA.
@All the VA’s reading this – If you perform work like what Kim described above and are actually functioning as a coach, marketing guru or other functions that aren’t traditionally done by an administrative assistant you might want to consider how you are marketing your services.
I am not a “marketing guru” so there may be a reason for promoting your services as “virtual assistant”, but I’d encourage you to consider that the definition of that term is probably going to move increasingly toward the idea of someone working from India or China.
Consider how the difference in perception has changed over the last 25 years for the idea of someone who works at a “call center”. When you hear “call center” now you think about talking to someone with broken English and can’t seem to help you solve your problem. 25 years ago this wasn’t the perception at all.
Even Brickworks India is moving away from “virtual assistant” instead going with the term “remote executive assistant”.
Judy Wilson says
Hi, Mark. I was not as upset as some of my fellow virtual assistants by your post, because I too have a hard time delegating. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told people (like my annoyed husband, who has to listen to my incessant complaints about incompetence of so many in our society nowadays) that it’s just easier to do something myself than to explain it to someone and then wait with bated breath and gnawed-upon fingernails to see if/how badly it will be screwed up.
HOWEVER, a business owner who’s contemplating hiring a VA should feel good about the prospect of delegating, especially if he or she chooses a VA who has many years (decades, perhaps) of experience in the business owner’s field or in the task(s) with which the business owner needs help. I think that your suggestion for a method of starting to delegate for people who have difficulty doing so is a good one; it just could have been written with a less condescending tone and more tact. I would not recommend telling a VA with lots of experience that you’re giving them a project that they can’t possibly screw up, unless you precede that with a comment about your difficulty with delegating. If someone told me what you suggested saying, I would have a sudden recollection of a huge project I must finish, and politely decline the invitation to work with them. I just wouldn’t want to work with someone who implied that they would only give me work which could be done by someone with no experience or a lot less experience than I have. In fact, being able to choose who I work with is one of the best benefits of being a VA, and I would never choose to work with someone who had low expectations of me or who made it glaringly obvious that they consider themselves to be better and smarter than me and others at my professional level.
My feelings about how I would deal with someone who approached me in the manner you suggested are probably moot, because someone who would delegate only simple, can’t-be-messed-up projects would undoubtedly be unwilling to pay my rates, which are based on my intelligence, many years of experience, computer skills/knowledge, the speed with which I work — typing, reading, getting around on the computer — when I can control how quickly things get accomplished, and my geographic location for cost-of-living reasons, of course. (There are times when it is impossible to guarantee speed, such as with the task you suggested delegating. A VA cannot know in advance how long they might have to hold on the telephone to reach the right person, or how long-winded the person on the other end of the phone will be, how quickly or slowly they will speak, etc.)
In any event, if you are looking for a virtual assistant, good luck finding someone to whom you may delegate with confidence! And be careful what you say when you approach them.
@Mark – As another highly qualified VA, with years of prior administrative and office management experience, I had the same
initial reaction to your post as most of my colleagues did – highly offended. My jaw actually dropped. I hope you will heed their advice to exercise a bit more tact and less condescension when attempting to counsel others about our industry. If folks follow your advice and approach us in the manner you suggest, they will likely be shown the virtual door.
For those seeking a virtual assistant:
Instead of proposing a meaningless low-level task, ask for an initial consultation. Many VA’s offer these free of charge. Provided language is not a barrier, you should get an immediate sense of their level of intelligence and competence. Ask plenty of questions, and answer theirs candidly, as this is a mutual exchange. You should discuss working and communication styles, hours and availability, typical turnaround times, etc. If your confidence is not inspired, move on. If they don’t seem to be a good fit, politely ask for a referral. It is our nature to be generous and collaborative.
Once contracted, the VA will help you with the steps to begin delegating. They are already expert at juggling multiple clients and projects. Although there is a period of getting to know each other, as long as there is good communication flow things will be running smoothly in no time.
@Mark – I also disagree with your opinion that VA’s are selling themselves short by marketing as virtual assistants if they “come into businesses that don’t know what they need and help them increase profits”. That is exactly what good assistants do and have “traditionally done”. We are the “go to” people who get things accomplished. We’ll plan it, organize it, coordinate it, do it, find it, solve it… you name it. We are trusted advisers and sounding boards. That is the tradition.
Katie Baird says
Congratulations, Mark, on putting up a post that’s getting a lot of comments. Great discussions are what we all strive for in our blogs.
My view is different than most who have already spoken.
I was a teacher in a specialized field for many years. Part of my job was supervising an instructional aide. I had to learn on the job how to delegate, teach techniques to my aides, and pick and choose tasks that my assistants then implement accurately. It was very tricky: I was very young and through several different schools in which I worked, all of my aides were older than me, and came with varying backgrounds and skillsets.
When I became a VA, I had to put on the hat that had been worn by my assistants. It was up to me to learn how the client wanted things done and there were times when I probably “messed up” in a particular client’s eyes.
As such, I don’t take offense at your description of how to start a working relationship with an assistant.
In fact, I think that starting with a simple, no-brainer task is a GREAT way to find out about one another’s workflow and communication style when starting out with a new VA. Why start with a multifaceted complex assignment until you know how to read one another.
Mark Shead says
@Katie – Thanks for your comment. I wasn’t suggesting that you should give them a pointless task as some of the VAs implied. Just give them something that doesn’t have any financial repercussions if the get it wrong for starting out. Chances are a mistakes is going to be more the fault of the person who assigned the task than the virtual assistant.
AMVA - Amanda Moore Virtual Assistant says
I think your post is spot-on though I think you could swap the term “new employee” with assistant. Whether the person is the new EVP or EA, odds are you’re not going to let them just walk into your business and take over with no transition or training period, no matter what their background. Whenever you start a new working relationship (at any level) you have to build trust and figure out how you each work.
Delegation is not a skill that comes easily to many people, particularly those who have been employees for most of their career instead of management. Testing the waters with smaller, less important tasks is a good way to become comfortable with the process of letting go and building trust.
And for those who would assert that this kind of project (getting quotes) is something you can do in your sleep and don’t need to be trained on, I respectfully disagree – and from your responses, so do you. You may be the best quote-getter in the world, but unless you’ve done it for this client, you may not really know what they want or need. What you call “conversations about needs” others call training. It’s the same thing, no matter what terminology you use and if you don’t do it there’s a very real chance that you’ll “mess up” even the simplest task.
Allowing your client to teach you at the beginning of a relationship allows you both to benefit. You benefit by learning what your client expects in the way of communication and results and the client benefits by you teaching them a different, and potentially better, way to do a project.
That’s what running a business is all about. Learning and teaching – both how to do new things and how to work effectively with others. Any business owner who stops learning will soon be facing a stagnant, if not dead, business as others who are open to education of all kinds pass them by.
Adam Rice says
I realize that VAs are people too. But why get offended if offered a simple first task?
I’m sure all the VAs that commented here are also completely offended when people like Tim Ferriss say the same thing.
Paraphrased “Give the VA a small task, something that isn’t worth a whole lot or something that’s a small first step in a larger project and see how they do. It’ll teach you to delegate and test their competence at the same time.”
And we all know that Tim hasn’t helped along the VAs of the world at all.
Mark Shead says
@Adam – Well according to some of the VAs I encountered, Tim, A.J. Jacobs and I all need some “re-education”. :)
Actually I find this tactic works well for anyone you have just hired as well as someone you are trying to stretch into a new area. Give them something to do and tell them to give it their best shot, but make it clear that there are no negative consequences if they do something wrong. That way they can feel comfortable making decisions on their own. It doesn’t mean the task is meaningless. It might be very important. It just means they are only going to have you review it before going to the next step that might be expensive or where a mistake would cause harm.
Sometimes it is a lot easier to train someone by having them do their best and then showing them how to think through any issues they didn’t handle the way that was needed. This helps teach them to think in the needed manner instead of just teaching them a series of steps.