Dr. Francesca Leithold of Epro: “Have a handover back to the agreed timescales”

Have a handover back to the agreed timescales When the task is done, arrange a meeting to hand it back over. Review progress, document success, and acknowledge (as formally or informally as needs be) the completion of the task — some praise might be called for, as well. Always ensure to deliver positive feedback where you can; […]

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Have a handover back to the agreed timescales

When the task is done, arrange a meeting to hand it back over. Review progress, document success, and acknowledge (as formally or informally as needs be) the completion of the task — some praise might be called for, as well. Always ensure to deliver positive feedback where you can; people who think they have done a task well in the past will make an effort to do it well in the future!

In a business context, this will lead to people feeling reassured about their task delivery, and on a management level ensure all parties are on the same page. A formal record to reflect the task completion will enable any further actions or downstream activities to progress.

As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Leithold, Chief Operating Officer at Epro. Originally from Germany, Francesca has lived across Europe, came to the UK in 2014 and joined Epro, a clinically-led digital solution for healthcare professionals and organisations. Francesca looks after the operations team at Epro and manages the client delivery of the product suite from start to finish, to deliver safer patient care and a paperless NHS across the country.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I don’t think most people plan their careers, and I certainly fall into the ‘kept doing what I enjoyed and ended up here’ camp!

My masters degree is in Information Management, and my interest in usability, software ergonomics, and the performance of distributed teams led me to complete a PhD at Munich School of Management. But I wasn’t a career academic, and after receiving my doctorate, I took some time out to travel the world and consider what I wanted the next stage of my life to look like.

By complete chance, while travelling I met some Brits who invited me to Epro, where I met the founder, and the rest, as they say, is history! The company’s purpose, to use digital transformation to support clinicians and protect patients, really aligned with me. The small but growing size of the company also appealed, and over the last six years, I have worked my way up from usability expert to COO.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

While my upbringing wasn’t exactly working class (Mum worked as a secretary at the airport, Dad was an engineer at a sand and gravel plant), there wasn’t a tremendous amount of money when I grew up, and so the idea that you have to work continuously and sometimes hard for what you want in life settled in quite early with me. Giving up has — for this reason — never really been on the menu, although the path hasn’t always been clearly laid out.

Me ending up in the UK and working for Epro was the accidental result of a series of choices and coincidences at the time (take a gap between PhD and career, travelling internationally, bumping into British people on the journey, coming to the UK, finding Epro, getting a job, deciding to stay) which in their entirety still boggle my mind. It never fails to amaze me how much of our life is driven by coincidence!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Visiting a client on site in a hospital can lead to very long days, and that level of tiredness alone can lead to some very funny situations!

I think looking back, my favourite one was when Epro’s founder and I were driving back after a long day. Instead of attempting to drive all the way in one go, Adam and I decided to stop at a motorway service station to eat, use the facilities, and then get back on the road.

It was one of those huge motorway services that has shops and restaurants on both sides of the road, connected by a large bridge. We ate, I visited the bathroom, and agreed with Adam that we’d meet in the carpark.

As I walked back, I thought back on our meetings at the hospital. It had gone well, but there were plenty of actions for us, and I considered them as I waited for Adam in the car park.

He never arrived.

I gave him twenty minutes, and then thought I had perhaps misunderstood and Adam was waiting by the car. I decided to go over to it, to see if he was there.

The car wasn’t there.

I have never had a moment like it, when you are honestly questioning whether you have walked into a parallel universe. It simply didn’t make sense: here I was, in the same car park, with the same signs, at the place we had agreed.

Opening up my phone, I called him, and to my relief, he picked up — sharing that he was waiting for me by the entrance. I looked up. I was by the entrance, and he most certainly wasn’t there.

Only after heading back inside and a slight panic did I remember the footbridge. It turned out that we were both standing outside different entrances before identical restaurants. I have never known relief like that moment!

It was only because I had continued to replay that meeting over and over again that I hadn’t noticed. Next time, I’ve made sure to only focus on one thing at a time!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are plenty of tech companies who describe themselves as fast moving, innovative, creative, but all of us here at Epro actually live that day to day, which makes a huge difference to our ability to serve our customers. Each person here is truly talented in their area, and there’s lots of crossover — as there always is when you have a group of clever people.

A company like that has quirks, and one of ours is that we have a frightening devotion to accuracy and attention to detail. Whatever you’re imagining, double it. For example, a ‘simple’ redecoration of our office meant working over long periods of time with the company to show them what we wanted, multiple meetings to review plans, and requesting updates if the final work wasn’t quite final.

The results look great, but even better, it demonstrated to me one of the reasons why our clients love us so much. We pay attention to everything, and if something isn’t right, we’re already working closely with them to understand precisely what they want.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

One of the most essential things I would recommend, although it might be an obvious one, is to keep a healthy work life balance. The importance of rest for the body is an essential key to success, and without rest, the body starts to draw on essential resources quite quickly, leading to decreased performance and a steep drop in mental well-being.

One of the most unhealthy habits of our time, fuelled by the ubiquity of technology, is to check emails outside working hours — and then in some instances, expecting others to do the same. Blurring the boundaries between work hours and private time leads to a continuous state of alertness, resulting in fatigue.

The same goes for holidays and weekends. As managers, we have a responsibility to create a culture and an environment of resilience within the business. People need to be able to cover for each other’s workload, and feel safe in making autonomous decisions while their colleagues and managers are away, so that in turn they then can have a break and rely on other people to do the job when they are on leave.

Beyond that, doing something in your free time that complements your job or your day-to-day tasks is something I would definitely recommend. During the lockdown pandemic, I have explored my skills in alcohol ink art production (enthusiastic, but limitedly talented), epoxy resin crafting (rewarding but with too much environmental guilt), and amateur woodworking (electric table saws are THE best! Mind your fingers though!).

All these have been rewarding, as it takes your mind off your day-to-day business in the most satisfying fashion! If you get a lot of screen time during the day, try to listen to an audiobook or get creative! If you sit all day, go for a walk or cycle after work. Take a break once in a while. Ensure to take your mind off work. Recharge.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

As I mentioned, money was short when I was younger, and both my parents ended up having to entertain me in turns during the school holidays when I was younger. As an obvious solution to keep an eye out for me was taking me to work. There is nothing more intriguing for a younger child to be onsite at a sand and gravel plant one week, then running around the airport terminal the next!

That means some of my earliest memories are actually of engineering and industry, airplanes and neon lights, and the excitement for technology and industry has stayed with me ever since.

My father instilled in me a love for screws, the smell of petrol, and power tools of any sorts (welding was definitely the highlight!). My mother chose a school for me where higher education was combined with a strong focus on languages, and a) yes — Latin grammar is dreadful but b) it DOES open the door to the world (thank you mum — I’m aware it was not as appreciated at the time!), and my love for travel has always been fuelled by curiosity for languages across the world.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?

Delegating work is a no-brainer. The fundamental rule applies, that if someone else does the work, you don’t have to do it yourself, right?

Jokes aside, distributing the workload and empowering people to make their own decisions is an essential part of business. For a company to centre both decision making and the implementation of tasks into few selected individuals is unhealthy (because it creates single points of failure) and inefficient, (because people await instructions, rather than owning a task or project).

As the business grows, both workload and complexity will increase in scope, and the only way to address this is to break larger projects into smaller chunks of work who then have allocated individuals accountable for them.

This frees up time at management level to focus on the wider business strategy, while creating ownership at operational level. It avoids micromanagement and focuses resource at where it is best placed

Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?

Fundamentally speaking, I would think that delegating a task, no matter how big or small, can be a challenging thing to do because it sends a message on many levels. Technical support is a good example, because it interfaces with many elements of the business.

The customer reports a problem, and I am giving this problem to you to resolve. This means I am entrusting the business relationship with the customer to you, as the customer will remember later whether you were accommodating or a bit short with them, whether you were efficient or slow to respond, went out of your way to make yourself clear, or whether your reply had spelling mistakes.

I am relying on you being familiar enough with the workflows and product to understand the customer issue fully, and that you will get help from the right technical people if you are not. I need to assume that you will do the task I have given to you with the same level of dedication, motivation and efficiency as I would have done myself, and that you will report back about success in a time you see appropriate. I give up control over the task at hand, and, more than that, agree not to get involved unless you ask for help.

That is a big ask for anyone. Smaller companies such as ours, where knowledge and skill are concentrated on a small number of people, may find this a bigger challenge than large corporations where workflows, tasks, and processes are meticulously documented and standardized.

When you’re delegating to junior members of the team, this will have to come with an acceptance that people will make mistakes along the way. This can be particularly challenging for experienced members of staff, or high visibility responsibilities, but this is part of learning. Again, we as managers have a responsibility to ensure that we make people succeed in the tasks we are giving them by clearly outlining what is expected.

In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?

Three things. We need the presence of trust, the acceptance that mistakes will be made, and an understanding that not everyone will do a task the same way.

I talked about trust earlier, and I remain convinced that nothing enables people more than a trusting relationship with their coworkers and managers: where people can feel safe, supported, and have all the necessary prerequisites to deliver the job well. A lack of trust usually manifests itself in micromanagement and over-exertion of control, leading to inefficient workflows (if you re-work every single spreadsheet a member of staff has produced, then you may as well have done the work yourself) and disengagement from employees who feel that they are being overly monitored.

A good working relationship requires two things — a clear understanding of what everyone is doing, and a shared understanding of what good looks like. To come back to our excel spreadsheet example — if you have to rework every single sheet, is this because genuine mistakes were made (which may need addressing elsewhere) or were the requirements maybe not quite clear enough? Responsibility for success is always shared between the person allocating the task, in making the requirements clear, and the employee delivering that task and being accountable for it.

This ties in with the creation of a culture where people feel that it is okay to make mistakes, and who then can learn from what went wrong. Without mistakes, there will be no learning and sometimes sitting around the (virtual) table with the team going through lessons learnt can be hugely beneficial. There is a reason each Prince II project is supposed to have a lessons learnt log! Moving away from a culture of blame and instead implementing an environment of learning where, as a business, we encourage all to be open about mistakes to use them as an opportunity to learn is where I feel we need to be.

As a very last not least, accepting other people’s way of working is key to effective delegation. Not everyone completes a task the same way. Some people write meticulous lists and some people keep it all in their head until it is done. Some people report back on progress every day, and some people at the end of a week. Again, it is essential that there is a joined understanding of what is expected and what the outcome needs to be. In between, have some trust in your employees to own their task and let them get on with it!

Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Thinking about it, delegating effectively actually has a lot in common with project management where the same principles apply, and you need to end up at a result all parties are satisfied with. So some readers may find my point reminding them strongly of a Prince II project 🙂 
 (I apologise — it comes with the profession!)

  • Define your task

Think about what you want people to do. More importantly, think about whether there is anything you definitely don’t want them to do. You want a new window? Make sure to tell whether you want double or triple glazing. If you can’t stand sash windows, but a tilt turn model is fine, make that part of your brief. You need to know what the task at hand is, before you give it to someone else, otherwise you run into danger of both of you trying to hit a moving target

  • Hand it over and have reflected back to you what you both think the deliverable is

Once you have your brief in place (preferably in writing — nothing worse than both of you coming back to a task finding you remember different requirements), arrange a meeting or a handover with whoever it is you want to do the task. Explain what you want them to do, and, more importantly, have them reflect it back to you to ensure there is joint agreement.

Misunderstandings are immensely common in human interaction and within the business context, there can be a direct impact of miscommunication on business performance. To stay with the example, if you get single instead of triple glazing because of a missing specification, this will directly affect your energy bills. If you get round copper handles rather than the brushed steel ones you secretly desired, you’ll still have a functioning window but will still be unhappy with the outcome.

  • Define success or acceptance criteria

Make sure people know what good looks like when you give them a task. What are the must have / should have / must not have criteria? Are there any “nice to have” features? What would exceed expectations? Is it essential that your window is completed before November in time for winter to arrive, or are you not fussed and right after Christmas might actually be a better time, because all has quietened down after the departure of the guests? Document your criteria — formally proportional to the task at hand — and share them.

  • Accept other people’s way of working and don’t micromanage

If you entrust people with a task, there needs to be agreement (first and foremost with yourself) that you are confident in their skills to deliver the task you are delegating to them. If you do not have that confidence, don’t delegate. It’s as simple as that. On the receiving end, there is nothing worse than having a task handed over to you, then someone else checking in every five minutes to confirm you’re doing it correctly and presenting alternative ways to implement it. As part of your handover, it should be agreed how and when progress will be reviewed. Any corrective action, if necessary, can be taken then.

  • Have a handover back to the agreed timescales

When the task is done, arrange a meeting to hand it back over. Review progress, document success, and acknowledge (as formally or informally as needs be) the completion of the task — some praise might be called for, as well. Always ensure to deliver positive feedback where you can; people who think they have done a task well in the past will make an effort to do it well in the future!

In a business context, this will lead to people feeling reassured about their task delivery, and on a management level ensure all parties are on the same page. A formal record to reflect the task completion will enable any further actions or downstream activities to progress. The window installations are completed and signed off? Time for the decorators to be called in!

One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?

I would argue that one would have to consider what constitutes ‘right’.

If you’re set on the idea that the right way is the way you’d do it, and you’re the only person able to do that would be yourself, then yes, that would be a ‘my way is the highway’ approach and the saying would be true. While you can be sure it will be done to your satisfaction, the downside of that approach is that it does not scale. Over time, more and more tasks will come your way, and trying to do them all alone will lead to an unmanageable workload, tasks not being completed, and errors being made in the end anyway.

The better — in my opinion, the right — approach would be to start distributing the work, and then allow room and space for people to shine. You may learn something new from the way they work, and you will have less work in turn. Everyone’s a winner!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Crisps need to disappear from the shelves. Yes, really. I would like crisps to cease being a part of those meal deals in supermarkets, and I would like cafes, snack shops and other providers of food that keeps our kids going to consider the choices they make by offering meal options. It’s always surprised me in the UK that crisps are more often a part of lunchtime meal deals than fruit and vegetables which are so much better for you. The way crisps are on display and made available normalises their presence on the lunch menu, and where eight varieties of crisps are displayed, who would opt for the humble hummus on the corner shelf? Exactly. Few people. Also — side note — crisp bags are NOT recyclable!

In a similar vein, I’d like those meal deals which are less healthy to be more pricey. That margin doesn’t have to line the pockets of supermarkets, but can instead be used to fund early prevention programs for childhood obesity and other health challenges. The perfect mixture of dis-incentive and additional funding for the health sector. It would be within the government’s power to change this, and they should.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn, and follow Epro on Twitter and LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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