Ken Rona: How to Delegate Responsibility and Empower Employees

In Chapter 8 of 15 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, digital media executive Ken Rona answers "What Has Been Most Challenging About Handing Off Responsibility to Others?"  Rona describes himself as an "aggressive delegator."  Learning from working at McKinsey management consulting, Rona carries an "assume benevolence" approach to giving trust to others and empowering employees. 

Ken Rona is a Vice President at Turner Broadcasting, where he leads teams across advertising sales, big data software development and business strategy.  Rona earned a BA and MA in Political Science from Stony Brook University and a PhD in Behavioral Economics from Duke University. 


Erik Michielsen: What has been most challenging about handing off responsibility to others?

Ken Rona: I gotta say I am ruthless about it. I am ruthless. I do not find that challenging one bit. I assume that people are gonna do a good job of it. So I think there are people who manage folks who say, well, I don’t trust you so I’m going to—I’m gonna keep—I’m gonna keep this, right. Keep the task, I’m going to keep responsibility, I’m gonna manage it very closely. That’s not my style at all. I actually am aggressive. I describe it literally as I’m an aggressive delegator. And what I’ve found is that when you trust people, and that’s my MO, right, is that I trust people. My first reflex, right, in these situations is to trust that people are going to do the right thing. 

And that comes from McKinsey. It comes from—there was this notion of assumed benevolence. Assume that people are good. And that’s—don’t make up a twisted story of why they’re messing with you. Just assume like something happened or, you know, why didn’t they get back to me? Because their kid was sick. Right? Not because they’re trying to make you look bad. I found that to be true. So one of the things I do when I take over a team and I’d say that I’ve done this 3 or 4 times where I’ll take over a team and they maybe hadn’t been the most highest performing team, the first thing I do is just empower them. And in almost every case people don’t wanna disappoint. They appreciate the opportunity and, you know, it takes sometimes a little while for them to say, oh, you mean I don’t have to check with you? But I like that, I mean that—I like that I go “no, why would you? This is something you’re perfectly capable of making a decision on.” Part of my strategy for delegation is I only delegate things that people can fail on. So I try to be really careful about that. 

It’s something I learned from—Actually l learned this from Donald Trump, I learned this from watching The Apprentice. So the story on The Apprentice is when Donald Trump shows up, if you’re the project manager of the show, you know, of that day. You show up to his limo, you open the door, “Hello, Mr. Trump, welcome.” And you escort him to wherever he needs to be. That’s an important thing that needs to happen. You can’t delegate it, in that show. So what I’ve learned is that—that’s how I think about these things. There are some things that the CEO makes a request, you know, I’m paying a lot of attention. The chief research officer makes a request, I’m paying a lot of attention. Some parts of the company who are looking to make a big decision, really important decision for the company, I’m paying a lot of attention. What I want is for the staff to be in a place where if they fail, it’s safe. That I can kind of take the blame, or that I can remediate it. I can throw another person at it. I can take them away from—Like you know whatever I gotta do to help them fix it, that’s what I wanna be in a position to do. What I don’t want them to be in a position is that where something had to go to, you know, someone very senior or something very visible and it was a spectacular flame out and I wasn’t involved. If I’m involved, then it’s my responsibility. Oh, I’m sorry. If I’m involved, it’s my responsibility. I mean it’s my responsibility anyway, but like, I can get in front of it. 

So what I try to do is construct environments where it’s safe for them to fail and I actually have some people, I call them trusted hands, where there are some people who, you know, if I’m super busy, and I can’t do something that should be delegated, I will—or you know, that I’m a little uncomfortable about delegating, I will put—I will give it to one of these folks. And they will—I probably have 3 or 4 of them floating around, that can handle very complicated things that have very high emotional intelligence, very high, you know, IQ, and that I just trust that they’re gonna deal with things the right way and I of course make myself available, but I’m not worried about them—I try to like—other people, I’m willing to tolerate failure in a safe way because that helps them grow.