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Irial O’Farrell of Evolution Consulting: “Don’t assume anything!”

Don’t assume anything! When I managed teams, my number one rule was “if I didn’t tell them, I don’t know that they know it” and it served me well. I used to set out my stall by explaining that I was going to start at the beginning and if I was covering content they knew, […]

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Don’t assume anything! When I managed teams, my number one rule was “if I didn’t tell them, I don’t know that they know it” and it served me well. I used to set out my stall by explaining that I was going to start at the beginning and if I was covering content they knew, that they were more than welcome to let me know and I’d move to the next point. I can’t remember one person who asked me to move onto the next point. I think they were grateful that they didn’t need to ask me a question that might show up their lack of understanding or experience. This is even more important the more senior the person is. When someone is in a role for a while, it can become uncomfortable to admit that they don’t know something while their lack of knowledge can do some serious damage.


As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irial O’Farrell.

Starting her career in Financial Services, Irial has always been fascinated with how to match the performance needs of the business with the needs of the individual. Her natural curiosity led her to move into management and, from there, into an evolving career in Learning & Development, Strategy & Organization Design, Executive Coach and, last but not least, Change Manager. Irial founded Evolution Consulting in 2006 and adds value to clients by focusing on the four enabling pillars of Strategy, Structure, Culture and Capability. Irial is the first, and currently only, CMI Accredited Master in Change Management in Ireland and is the author of Values — Not Just for the Office Wall Plaque: How Personal and Company Values Intersect and SMART Objective Setting for Managers: A Roadmap.


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?

Given I now work in what is often considered a “touchy feely” area, my undergraduate degree was in Applied Physics and Math. While I wouldn’t say the topics were in my sweet spot, the math did manage to open a door into financial services. My first proper job was in Sydney, Australia, where I was fascinated with the impact two different managers had on the staff. I then moved to Boston, where I worked in Mutual Fund Administration. I had a brilliant boss, who really encouraged me so I moved fairly quickly into management. In 1999, I moved back to Dublin, Ireland, where the funds industry was booming. My first role in Dublin was as Operations Manager but it became apparent very quickly that there was a lot more business available than experienced people to do the work. Having had a little exposure to designing and delivering short training sessions, I figured I’d move into training for a bit and then move back into operations. As it turned out, I found something I loved even more than the hustle and bustle of funds.

I spent six years in that role but, as I became curious about different aspects of enabling performance, the role evolved substantially. For example, I designed a behavioural competency framework from scratch and incorporated it into the recruitment and performance management processes. Looking back, I clearly had an instinct as to how to effect change because I built up a serious track record of actually embedding new processes and techniques into the company’s ways of working.

While training is brilliant for knowledge and skills, as humans, we “know” what we’re supposed to do but very often, we still don’t do it. This observation piqued my curiosity as to what was preventing people from doing what they know they should be doing. This led me to executive coaching and working with people, on a one-to-one basis, to move them from “knowing” to “doing”. That curiosity also led to me examining not just the individual’s performance but the system in which they are performing. The system can have unintended consequences that people — managers, business owners, employees — are often unaware of. For example, training a team on new software, when the process hasn’t been changed accordingly, is very likely to result in the software becoming obsolete or, at best, under-utilized. In short, changing the software while not touching the system won’t necessarily deliver the desired outcomes. Hence my interest in organization design.

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?

Having been in the Learning & Development role for six years, the itch to strike out on my own needed to be scratched so, as part of my Executive Coaching Diploma, I decided to set up Evolution Consulting in 2006. The first couple of years were fantastic and in May 2008, my son was born. Expecting to get back to the business in the November, we took a family holiday to France in the September. I remember watching the television, looking at the financial meltdown happening in front of me, thinking “this is going to be a very expensive holiday!” By the time we got home, the world had shrunk and so had my business.

I did officially return to work in the November but it was very short-lived. Two weeks later, I was in the hospital with my 6-month old baby, who had pneumonia. As I look back on 2009, it was a year of learning and caring. I had to go back to the drawing board with the business. I had to learn how to develop and sell business, in a way I had never had to before. I also had a baby that was sick every second or third week. By September, we were back in the hospital. There were many times when I had meetings set up and was going to have to postpone, due to another bout of sickness. What I observed was that, every time this happened, something would crop up that meant that the meeting would need to be moved for reasons other than me. What I learnt is that sometimes, we get what we need, not necessarily what we want. I also took it as a sign to keep going, even though it was very tough.

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?

Working in the funds industry in Boston, some of the funds were undergoing their annual audit, so the auditors were in the office. I was the team supervisor, so my boss appointed me as the liaison with them, with the instructions to push back on them, if they asked questions that they really should know the answers to. Having been through the process a few times, his take was that we weren’t there to train the auditors.

Duly noting the instructions, as arranged, I went to meet the auditor. We had a bit of a chat and I worked through the answers. Needless to say, the auditor finally worked around to a question that fell into the “we’re not here to train you” category. So, boss’s instructions ringing in my ear, I turned around and said “really, that’s a question you need to bring to your supervisor”, to which she replied “I am the supervisor”. I nearly died and my boss had a field day, laughing at me! My learning? Always take people’s advice with a pinch of salt and never switch off your own judgement!

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

What I think makes my company stand out is the ability to apply a combination of curiosity and high abstract reasoning to making sense of the patterns and cultural dynamics impacting a client’s business. This is then followed up with designing multi-faceted solutions that will really make a difference, while gaining the leadership team’s trust to allow the solutions be implemented. All of this is continuously held within the context of a laser-sharp focus on the desired outcomes.

One of my favorite examples was working with an executive team that were tired of always feeling that they were the ones who had to “sort everything out”. They blamed the managers and pointed out how they weren’t stepping up to their titles of “manager”.

As we worked through the dynamics of what was happening, I was starting to dig a bit deeper into what was really going on between the two teams. Probing into what was happening, we uncovered that, in reality, the executive team was creating the situation whereby issues would arise, managers would bring it to their attention and the executives would swoop in and sort it all out. Asked if they explained their thinking, the solutions, or even what needed to be done next time, there was a resounding “no”. There was a dawning realization that, unintentionally, they were creating their own prisons by not developing their managers or enabling them to sort things out themselves.

It would have been very easy to accept the leadership team’s evaluation at face value and assume that the issues all lay with the managers. In turn, all the focus would have been on developing their capabilities. While the managers did need help in stepping into their management roles, on its own, it wouldn’t have changed the fundamental issue. Instead, the real dynamics had been surfaced in a way that the executive team could understand and accept. That’s no mean feat, as its always a lot easier to blame someone else than accept one’s own role in the situation. We were then able to move on and design a multi-faceted solution that resulted in a shift aware from the unhelpful patterns. This allowed each level of leadership focus on their key responsibilities.

Along with being able to make sense of what was going on for them, they also trusted that I could guide them towards creating a more productive, less-tiring culture, which we did. At times, as regularly happens in such a project, as they lost sight of their end-goal, they would be prompted as to what their end-goal looked like, which was a great motivator to keep them going.

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

Consulting, organization development and executive coaching can be a constant cycle of securing work, delivering it, securing work, delivering it and it can be difficult to keep going. One tip is to create a network and leverage that to pitch for bigger pieces of work. Another tip is to find ways to automate or codify some of the work, so that it doesn’t need to be redone every time. This frees time up for business development. On a personal note, if you find you’re not taking breaks or can’t stop thinking about work, start setting time limits, either for how long you’re going to spend on a task or when you’re scheduling your break. During those breaks, get out for some fresh air. It always helps to clear away the cobwebs.

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?

I always think that a person is shaped by their early jobs and it has a huge influence on how they view the world of work. While my boss in Sydney was fantastic, I’m going to give this accolade to my first boss in the funds industry in Boston. As a team, we really complemented each other. I was forever driving everyone nuts with “why”, “why”, “why” but my boss saw it as someone who was a quick learner and curious. I remember him coming up to my desk one day, about five months into my job, to tell me that I had been given a mini grade-promotion. It didn’t’ mean a whole lot, other than a bit more money, but I was delighted, as it was totally out of the blue.

A couple of weeks later, he was pushing me to go for a full promotion, to Senior Fund Accountant (a first-line management-type position). Being guided by him, I put my name forward. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the promotion. However, I did impress the interviewers so much with my technical understanding (the “whys” were paying off) that when another promotional opportunity arose a month later (the funds industry is very fast paced), I was successful. From there, as far as I was concerned, we made an amazing partnership. I was eager to take over the day-to-day running of the team, freeing him up to put himself forward for value-add projects and raising his profile. We both benefited and pretty soon, we were both promoted.

A year later, I was tapped on the shoulder, as one of two internal managers who were selected to work with an external consulting team. We were tasked with designing the future operating model for the business unit, arising from a merger. Looking back, I had no idea how influential that experience would be on me. Understanding how the system, within which we work, impacts performance was amazing and I was so lucky to get that understanding so early in my career.

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?

Following on from my understanding of the system, organizations are designed with different functions, roles, levels, etc to collectively deliver the business’s products and/or services. These products and/or services are priced on the basis of certain work being done at certain levels for a given cost. In organizations or teams where delegation skills are an issue, the work starts floating up, which is very bad news for several reasons:

  1. Work that floats up is, typically, more expensive. Let’s look at a simplified example. If a junior person is paid 15 dollars/hour to do a 5-hour task, that task is priced at 75 dollars, which has been captured in the overall price of the product/service. If that task then floats up to the manager, due to poor delegation skills, the cost increases. Let’s assume they’re paid 25 dollars/hour, the cost of the task just increased by 50 dollars.
  2. Now we’re into the opportunity costs of what the manager should have been doing. If the manager or business owner should have been engaged in business development or process improvement or client retention, that’s 5-hours that they weren’t focused on those tasks. Or, another way of looking at it, 5 hours less focused on the future viability of the business.
  3. The more common pattern is a combination of points 1 and 2. Often, the employee starts the task and then the manager or business owner swoops in, when they get stuck. However, even if the manager only does the last 2 hours of the task, that’s still an increase of 20 dollars in the cost of production plus the lost opportunity costs. Keep in mind — this is just an example of one task for one employee. The multiplier effect across a team is enormous.
  4. Another reason it’s so important to be able to delegate is that not delegating is very demotivating for employees. Seriously, who wants to go to work for 40 hours, to have some of your work taken away, feel helpless and not see any opportunities for advancement, because you’re not being given the opportunity or the training to do things through to the end? Evaluating the cost of constant staff turnover is another hidden, and often unrecognized, cost of poor delegation skills.
  5. My final reason is that a tendency to not delegate makes it very difficult (and often costly) for the business to grow. This may not be such a big deal for large organizations. However, for a business owner with ambitions to grow the business, this becomes a limiting factor to growth.

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

Great question. Some of the biggest reasons people can find delegating such a challenge include:

  1. “It will take me longer to explain it to them than doing it myself.” While this is not based on any scientific studies, from my experience, this is the number one reason people don’t delegate. However, it is a false fallacy. It might take you a bit longer today and likely tomorrow (if a daily task) or next week (if a weekly task) but by next week or next month, you will have actually bought yourself back time.
  2. “It’s a task I like doing.” Since many managers have been promoted up from the technical “doing” of the role, they know how to do many of the tasks the team undertake. For a business owner whose business is growing, chances are they used to do all those tasks until they could afford (or needed) to hire someone else to do them. Here’s the thing — “managing” is a lot less tangible than “doing”. When you have a check-in chat or you develop a person’s capability, it doesn’t feel like “doing” anything. There’s very little tangible outputs that can be touched. When you prepare a report or make a product, there is a tangible output that meets our human need to feel like we have achieved something. So, some managers and business owners take select tasks they enjoyed doing into their management role, often as the expense of some of their own tasks.
  3. For some managers and business owners, they don’t feel comfortable in asking people to do something. They haven’t fully accepted the responsibilities of their role, possibly due to their own internal beliefs, values, assumptions, etc. For example, someone who is a “people pleaser” finds it difficult to ask someone else to do a task and hold them to account for the required quality standard, so they just do it themselves.
  4. The final reason why some managers and business owners struggle with delegation can arise from their personal values. Two personal values in particular can impact on a manager’s reluctance to delegate. Firstly, the need to retain control often arises from the value of “Perfection”. For someone who needs to be in control due, to their need for things to be done perfectly, it is very difficult for them to let go sufficiently for the other person to succeed in doing the delegated task. One common dynamic is that they give the task to the individual to complete and they follow up by re-doing it. Very quickly, the individual decides there’s not a lot of point in putting much effort into doing the task, as experience tells them it’s just going to be re-done anyway. The person delegating sees the poor standard and concludes there’s no point in delegating, so stops bothering. Neither person is particularly happy with the outcome.

The other value that can undermine the delegation dynamic is the value of “Trust”. In my experience, people fall into two camps: those that extend trust until proven otherwise and those that require trust to be earned. As one manager shared with me, “I tend to extend trust with an expectation that they know how to do the task, so I don’t give them any direction. When they inevitably fail to do the task right, I then withdraw my trust. I can see now why that’s probably not the best approach!” For those that extend trust, it needs to be supported with some direction or expectations. For those that need trust to be earned, people need to be given the opportunity to earn that trust and, again, within the context of some direction and guidance.

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?

The first pivot all managers need to make is to shift their mindset from “getting the work done” to “getting the work done through the team”. For people moving into their first managerial role, be it team lead, supervisor or business owner, this is the biggest mindset shift and the hardest. I’ve seen many managers move into very senior roles in their organizations and never make this shift. The unintended consequences can be enormous.

The next pivot I would recommend is for managers to have a very clear idea of what the purpose of their role is and how it fits with the other roles within the team. If the manager isn’t sure what their role is and what the practical tasks and skills of it are, then they need to research, talk to other managers or attend a course to find out. Then they need to practice the skills and tasks until they become second nature.

For managers who nodded their heads knowingly at not feeling comfortable asking someone else to do something, I would strongly recommend that they take the time to reflect on the impact of their internal tensions and seek out an executive coach, to help them surface and unpack those triggers.

For managers who suspect that their personal values might be holding them back from delegating, I’d recommend booking a session with an executive coach, one who does a lot of work in the values space, and start exploring those values. The focus won’t necessarily be to change the values but to fully explore them, the costs of them and perhaps to reframe, redefine or re-rank them.

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.

Five Things You Need to Know to Delegate Effectively and be Completely Satisfied with the Results are:

  1. My number one thing you need to know is that delegation is an outcome of training. In reading books and articles or attending courses focused on delegation, this point is rarely mentioned. They tend to focus on “do this” or “try that” but all of it is irrelevant if the person you’re delegating to doesn’t know how to do the task to your standards.

One of my all-time favorite delegation stories is about a friend who worked in a recruitment company and was promoted to manager. It was coming up to year-end and the CEO tasked her with putting together the budget for her area for the coming year. My friend reasonably, she thought, pointed out that, while she was more than happy to do the budget, she didn’t know how to go about doing it. The CEO’s response was “well, you’re a manager now, you should know how to do it”. While the CEO might have been “delegating”, it didn’t produce the desired outcome. Instead, it resulted in “an effort” being made while the actual work of doing the budget still had to be done during the budget meeting with the CEO. It just left a bad taste in my friend’s mouth and a great story for me to share.

2. If delegation is an outcome of training, a key skill for a manager to develop is effective on-the-job training skills. This means being able to break the task down into its stages, understanding the knowledge and inputs required to execute the task (or aspects of the task), explaining the context of the task and its importance in the wider work of the team, function or organization and to set out the expected quality, deadline and volume requirements. For more complex tasks, it may mean having to focus the training on the easier parts of the task, to start with. Then, when those parts have been mastered, a second round of training can focus on the more complex aspects of the task.

For example, if you needed to delegate the preparation of a complex report, it could be broken down into two or three stages. The first stage could focus on preparing for the initial analysis, by gathering and inputting the data. Once they’re comfortable with that and understand the terminology, the next stage could be to start analyzing the data — trends, meanings, etc. The third stage might be to get them to write up the report. When faced with a large, complex task like this, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of “it’d be easier to do it myself” but by breaking it down into its parts, we can more easily see how we can train someone up on parts of the task, resulting in being able to delegate those parts and saving us some time.

As a rule-of-thumb, it takes approximately 30 minutes to properly train someone on a 10-minute task. That allows sufficient time to set the context, explain the terminology, inputs, process that will be followed, explain the task, show them or have them do part of the task, allow them take notes, and set out standards, volumes that they will build up to in time, rough indication of how long the task should take (taking the pygmallion effect into account) and the deadline. Don’t forget to support them the next time they’re doing the task too. Have them do it while you watch and answer questions (subject to point 5 below), to ensure understanding.

3. As humans, our brains are incredibly efficient. So, once we’ve figured out, and have become comfortable with, a task, our brains tuck all the knowledge and experience away in a short-cut file and we do the task on automatic pilot. The impact of this little habit is that, when we are explaining something to someone else, we have forgotten key points of information that are required to properly execute the task or to recognize some of the emotions that might arise in doing it for the first time.

A good trick is to bring ourselves back to when we were learning the task. What did we struggle with? What questions did we have? What emotions were we feeling? Was there a load of information and fiddly bits that took us a while to get our heads around? The best example of this is when we were learning how to drive. For an experienced driver, we regularly get out of the car and can barely remember how we got from A to B but, if you’re now an experienced driver, remember back to the first time you sat in the car and thought “I’ll never remember what to do when!” It was scary, nerve-wracking, maybe even frightening. Having someone to break it all down, explain the various parts to it, and allaying our fears that we couldn’t do too much damage, eventually, it all came together.

As a manager or business owner with a task to delegate, you may be busy and think “it’s easy to pick up and learn that task” but once, it wasn’t. Bringing yourself back to that state will make you more patient, more open to sharing your knowledge and better able to reassure them that it takes a few goes for it to start making sense. Sometimes, the longer route is the faster one.

4. Don’t assume anything! When I managed teams, my number one rule was “if I didn’t tell them, I don’t know that they know it” and it served me well. I used to set out my stall by explaining that I was going to start at the beginning and if I was covering content they knew, that they were more than welcome to let me know and I’d move to the next point. I can’t remember one person who asked me to move onto the next point. I think they were grateful that they didn’t need to ask me a question that might show up their lack of understanding or experience. This is even more important the more senior the person is. When someone is in a role for a while, it can become uncomfortable to admit that they don’t know something while their lack of knowledge can do some serious damage.

5. Last, but by no means least, the fifth thing to know about delegating effectively is the power of questions. Many times, managers will ask questions such as “does that make sense?” or “are you following?” and are convinced that they have checked in with the other person. Taking a close look, what types of questions are these and what are the most likely answers? If you’ve done a communications course, you’ll immediately recognize they are closed-end questions but I’d go so far as to say they’re closed-end leading questions. The most obvious answer to the question “does that make sense?” is “yes”, regardless of whether it does or not. It’s only a very confident employee who’ll turn around and say “no”. So, when following up on their understanding of the task and what’s expected, ask open-ended probing questions such as “what is your understanding of x?” or “can you summarize what you need to do next time you’re doing this task?” Now they have to properly engage with the content and give you a detailed answer.

One story that gets a regular outing was the time a team member asked me how to do something. I gave him the answer, asked if he understood, to which he replied “yes” and off he went, while I thought all was good. The same issue arose the following day (we worked in a daily environment) and we had the exact same conversation but I noted the pattern. Next day, same thing happened and I thought “Hhmm, something’s not right here” so, after answering the question again, I asked him to repeat back what he was going to do. He started off telling me, got stuck and said “when I get here, am I doing X or Y?” I answered Y and he continued on until he got stuck again and asked “and when I get here, am I doing A or B?”. This continued until we got to the end. That was the end of that conversation and the issue never cropped up again. So, it’s not just about asking questions, it’s about asking questions that engage the brain, which in turn, reinforces the understanding and learning.

There’s a lot in this but, with practice and reflection, they combine into a very powerful way to develop the team’s capability, allowing the manager or business owner to delegate a lot more and free them up to focus on the higher-value aspects of their own role.

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?

With a true consultant answer, I’m going to say “it depends”. There are a few points to consider when evaluating the truth in this saying. If it’s a five-minute task that doesn’t need to be done with any regularity e.g., it’s a once-off or might happen once a quarter, then work away. You would be better off doing it yourself. However, if it’s a task that is going to be done with any regularity e.g., a daily, weekly or monthly task, then it’s better to take the time to train them up properly and then delegate the responsibility to them. As for “doing it right”, as described in point 2 above, in the context of training them, it’s important to note the expected standards and deadlines. An understanding of these expectations can often be assumed, only to be cruelly dashed upon the rocks of reality, when the delivered task doesn’t meet the expected standards. However, this is an outcome of unspoken expectations which can very easily be rectified by just stating them out loud.

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. 🙂

I’ve watched he erosion of common frames of reference coupled with knee-jerk reactions based on little or no consideration, in dismay. Maybe it’s always been there but the amplifying effect of social media platforms along with the pace of the 21st world has made it more obvious. The world is going through so much turmoil with very few, if any, principles or guidelines, that arguments are circular or contradictory and senseless. We need to start making sense of what our future world is going to look, feel and sound like. We need to start deciding on what the guiding principles of the future are going to be. If it’s inclusion, then it needs to include all, so what are the principles to enable that? If it’s access, it’s access for all, so what are the principles to enable that? Are there boundaries and if so, what are they? I’d love to see a movement where we start having these debates at this level of sense making. That we move the discussion from the generic principles to the specific and back up again, so that they are thorough and robust and can see us through the next 50, 100, 200 years, as how we organize society. That would be truly amazing and liberating from the current feeling of groundhog circular debates taking place today and free us up to focus on our collective future.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Readers can follow me on the following:

Blog: https://www.evolutionconsulting.ie/blog/

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/evolution_ary

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/irialofarrell/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Irial-OFarrell/e/B007GX1QIO

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMIj-oXr0I_7PC53VSx6jUg

www.evolutionconsulting.ie

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


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