Delegation and Empowerment

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Eric Wohlrab
  • 344th Air Refueling Squadron
In my opinion, we as an Air Force have been optimized for our mission for the past few years. If you have been serving sixteen years or more, you have seen our numbers draw down from a force of more than 600,000 people to a force of about 340,000. 

At the same time, our mission has not diminished in a similar fashion. Instead the mission, or operations tempo, has stayed the same. Some would argue there has been no decrease at all or even an increase in certain areas of our mission. So, if we are doing the same mission with about half of the people, then we are optimized. I would also contend that if we experience more cuts in personnel, or mission requirements continue to increase something will break.

So, how do we accomplish our mission with less people in our optimized state of being? The answer is delegation and empowerment.

Everyone in our Air Force has a role to fill. For some, it is to provide meals or remove snow, for others it is to fix and maintain aircraft and still for others it is to fly airplanes. The mission of our wing is to provide air refueling capability...anytime, anywhere.
We all serve in an important role to accomplish this mission and we should not forget that a team effort is vital to our success.

Let's get back to delegation and empowerment. As many of you have probably seen first hand, we are just too busy to do all the work there is during a normal shift. Delegating some of the workload maximizes the potential to get it all done. Proper delegation involves empowerment. If your supervisor gives you a project, then he or she should also empower you with the authority, resources and time to accomplish the task. In other words, you need the proper tools to do the job.

When I went through basic training many years ago, we had to memorize several quotes. One of those quotes made a lasting impression on me. General George S. Patton once said "Don't tell them how to do it , but [only] what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." I feel this quote, more than any other, truly epitomizes the idea of empowerment. You are given a task and are trusted to figure out how to best get it done. I have heard this described as being a "fire and forget weapon." In other words, your supervisor delegates one of the many tasks to you knowing you are empowered to get it done and thus allowing him or her to work on other tasks so that in the long run, more is accomplished.

Let me offer some recommendations as you perform your delegated tasks. The first involves AFSO-21 and that is to identify any wasteful practices you see in the process of doing your task. Fix the ones you can and tell your supervisor or his supervisor about those you can not control.

The next suggestion is simply to take ownership of a project if you are given one. Start by getting up from behind your desk or getting out of your truck and go meet the people with whom you will be working with face to face. If you cannot meet them in person then at least give them a phone call. After you have set the stage with them, then use email to follow-up.

Let me elaborate on email for a moment. Everyone has too much of it to read, think about, and then respond to. How do we cut down on the time spent reading email? If you have already explained the issue in person, subsequent emails should be short and sweet, without much background. If a lengthy dissertation is still necessary, consider writing a separate memo detailing the matter and attach it to your email for reading at the recipient's convenience.

Knowing your audience is key. Who will read the email? If it is going outside your unit, then your commander should know about it beforehand. Condense the email down for your boss (as mentioned he/she has too much to read already). Try to shed any unnecessary emails in a long trail to get to the heart of the issue. Ultimately, you were empowered by your commander to do a given project or mission, so you owe it to him or her to keep them informed.

The final area I'd like to comment on is the art of follow-up. In simple terms, give a suspense date when you delegate a project or mission. The deadline allows people, empowers them really, to work the tasks necessary to complete the project on their own schedule.

An important part of following up is the human interaction, a team-building function that keeps everyone in step. This also allows you, as the "delegator," to check on progress. You will be able to see if and where help is needed, which may include more people or resources. In some cases, it may be necessary to hold the individual's feet to the fire. By following up, you are showing interest in a successful outcome, staying informed, and are able to be proactive should any changes be required.

In addition, following up provides an opportunity for feedback. Often we let ourselves become too busy to make time for open and honest feedback or constructive criticism. Taking five minutes to discuss what worked, what didn't and what needs improvement, allows for growth. You as a supervisor owe that feedback to the person you empowered by delegation, otherwise he/she will not learn & grow. It is through this growing process that we are able to train our eventual replacements.

So the next time your boss has a job for you to do, do not shy away from it. Embrace the challenge and opportunity. You are helping the Air Force fight effectively as a team during a time when we are optimized for our important mission. Besides, one day when you are a flight supervisor, expediter, or commander, you will be glad that someone took the time to help you grow through delegation and empowerment.