One of the first things I encountered was a flurry of issues and problems which folks wanted my decisions on. The first decision to make on each of these was simply, "Is this a question I should make the decision on?" Put another way, while I may have strong opinions and questions on a given subject, the decision as to what kinds of questions I would be the decision maker on, versus various of my subordinates, became the first question to be addressed.
My typical response became, "That's a good question, glad you brought it to my attention. If this were your company to run what would you recommend we do?" I would follow with, "Based on my impressions, I think the best person to make this kind of decision is (you, me, someone else). Does that sound OK to you? When you decide how you want to proceed, go ahead and simply let me know what you've decided—but it's your decision."
You'd be amazed at some responses I got. People's jaws would drop in disbelief. Within Latin America there's an inclination toward upward delegation—i.e. give all the decision to the guy at the top and then complain about the bad decisions he made because he didn't listen well enough to your advice. In any case I was remarkably successful in deciding the kinds of decisions which could be best be made by others, and my job was first and foremost to make a quick decision as to whether a given situation required my decision, or some one else's decision with either my concurrence or only with notification to me after the fact.
I found that effective delegation did not happen overnight. It took several months to shake the habit of doing things myself. But given the enormity of the new job, it was critical (for survival, sleep, sanity, etc.) that old tasks be delegated. Problems with delegation generally relate to problems motivating a person, or the attitude/capability of the person, or both.
There's much written on motivating people, and our Hay Management Consultants' evaluation of my senior managers' management styles and "motivational profiles" was quite useful. A simple yet effective approach is not to direct someone to do a task but, rather, ask him/her to help you with a problem. Senior managers resent being bossed around, but they appreciate your humility in asking for help. Thank-yous and recognition at the end are important. This may sound like common sense, but you'd be amazed how often it's forgotten in the heat of battle.
Using the right approach
In my case, the primary criteria I used to determine which issues to delegate early on to others involved these elements: 1) Business urgency: If there's an urgent need to move to a decision, it's more likely that I will take responsibility to push the issue personally. 2) Importance: If there's a high level of strategic or organizational importance to the issue, it's more likely I would want to be more directly involved. 3) Competence: If I believe I have reasonably good competence in the area, it's more likely I would keep the issue rather than delegate. My training has led me to very much like a meritocracy—i.e., regardless of the position of the person involved, whoever has the best idea should ultimately have their idea implemented. 4) Organizational strategy: If in my initial transition strategy I have allocated to myself rather than to others responsibility for certain project or functional areas, then I would be more likely to jump in to make decisions personally in these areas.
On the other hand, if my game plan is to have others take responsibility for decisions in certain areas, it's critical to set the precedent of having them do so as soon as possible rather than delaying this transition. Keep in mind that to me delegation is not a black or white decision.
In some cases I told an individual that the decision was his to make, and to let me know afterwards what he decided. In other cases, I would ask for a recommendation as to the action desired, and I wanted to be aware of the proposed approach prior to implementation so that I could comment or raise questions prior to implementation. In some situations, I would formulate my proposed decision and ask for feedback from appropriate subordinates prior to implementation. In other situations, I would simply indicate the decision I wanted implemented. The trick is to use the right approach in the right situation, and this comes down a little to instinct and personal management style.
Viewing "from the balcony"
How do you deal with the urge to address the daily fires, at the expense of keeping your eyes on the strategy ball? My answer is that if you find yourself drawn to too many daily fires, then you (1) are not properly delegating to your team, and empowering them to deal with those (critical) daily decisions, or (2) you have not put in place the right team.
I trust this urge to deal with the daily fires—micromanage—is greatest among new CEOs who have just been promoted, and who feel no one can do their old job as well as they used to do it. I constantly find myself reminding myself to leave my CFO alone, and let him do his job. That's why he's my CFO. I trust him, I hired him. And no matter how differently I would do things (I used to be CFO, albeit in a different company) I still need to give him room to do his job. On the other hand, after finding myself with the urge to do the job of my VP Operations one too many times, I realized that he was indeed over his head. Therefore, I am now in the market for a new VP Operations and working with my current VP Operations to find him a more suitable position.
The short answer I have for you, is you MUST ABSOLUTELY keep the "view from the balcony," no matter how strong the urge to do otherwise. If you don't successfully understand the reason for the urge, and overcome the urge, you will not be CEO for long.
Testing your managers
I think it's very necessary to exercise self-discipline in driving too far into the details that your managers are supposed to be handling. First of all there is a major likelihood that you will oversimplify, and secondly, if you don't, there is an even greater likelihood that you will undercut your managers. I think there is a subtle process of testing your next level managers to make sure that they are probing the issues and that they are analyzing what is going on with an eye towards action rather than reporting what is going on in order to assuage you.
You will obviously have some anxiety about being removed from the action. I think it is essential to test the managers below you and to confront them privately (preferably) when you find that it is easy to drive them to a point where they lose control of their information or where their logic and analysis seems to give out. The more quickly this happens, the more you have to worry about. So I'm not suggesting a laissez faire approach, but rather a probing approach, probing not so much for the details but for reassurance that the responsible people are in command of their responsibilities.
Tasks as prizes
It is only difficult to assign a task correctly if you do not have confidence in your subordinates. I view important tasks as opportunities for a subordinate to perform, learn, and achieve a sense of accomplishment. Assignment of important tasks are like prizes to be awarded to eager subordinates.
Will and skill
I look at two things in deciding how much direction to give people, best summed up as "will" and "skill." Will is their motivation for the specific task at hand. Skill is their ability to complete the task at hand. I can provide more direct assistance on the task if they lack the skills to get the job done, or more motivation (carrot and/or stick) if they lack the needed drive to get the job done. Some situations call for a combination of the two.
How much to invest in understanding
My recommendation is to avoid becoming the "court of last resort." Being one shifts the responsibility for the outcome of the decision from the people who need to make it happen to the GM. I try to have people own as much as possible.
In terms of determining how much to invest in understanding the background for a decision, I try to get a feel of how much leverage I will get from digging in deeper. This means how much effect the decision will have on the organization, and how much the quality of the decision will improve by deeper digging and understanding. These are counterbalanced by the cost of getting to this understanding, which includes the most precious resource—the time of the people involved (including, but not limited to my time). Another cost to consider is the effect the period of indecision will have (on customers, the competitive position, morale, etc.).
What we are looking at here is the balance between "analysis-paralysis" versus "ready-fire-aim." In my mind, this balance is case specific. I would rather err on the side of making a "less intelligent" yet timely decision, than make no decision at all.