Look before you leap. A stitch in time saves nine. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Beware life lessons that can be simplified into one sentence. But, while we’re at it, here’s one more: Inspect what you expect. As far as aphorisms go, this is a useful one.

Not only do leaders need to set clear expectations, they must have a system for followup. Often, leaders think they provide clear expectations and directions: when you dig into it, though, they may not. They may be that weakest link to which I just referred!

Don’t Jump To: “You Let Me Down”

What happens when something doesn’t work, when something goes wrong? Unfortunately, leaders often look to the individual who was assigned the task, and say, “You let me down.” Or “You screwed it up. What happened?”

It would probably be unwise for that subordinate to respond, “It wasn’t my fault! You screwed up!” But I understand the urge. In many cases, that’s absolutely correct. The leader is at fault because he, or she, did not provide clear expectations of what was required.

Here’s another issue: sometimes, leaders don’t delegate; they abdicate their responsibility. “Here, you own this task. Go. And if something goes wrong, it’s on you.” If our truism is “Inspect what you expect,” the reverse is also true: you can expect what you inspect. So, if you’re not inspecting anything, guess what you’re going to get.

Leaders need to follow up. Let’s say, I delegate a task to a direct report to be done by a certain date. That date comes – and goes. Three days later, I finally remember that I should have the report/presentation/project in my hands. In that case, I am as much at fault as the person who did not get it done. It was my responsibility to follow up, to inspect. The question is, how?

Clear Expectations; Consistent Follow Up

The first step is to be clear – yourself – about what is needed. Next:

  • Slow down. People are moving fast; you’re racing from this meeting to that meeting, and you run into a direct report in the hallway. “Hey, handle this, ok?” They nod, on their way to their own meeting. Sometimes, expectations get lost in the hustle. Slow down, for a few minutes anyway, to explain what you need.

  • Check for understanding with your direct reports. Once you give an assignment or instruction, ask them to repeat it or paraphrase it. “Tell me what you heard, and what I expect.” Then write it down as a reminder and source for reference.

  • Use a system for follow-up. This “system” could be your assistant who reminds you when projects are due or schedules check-ins with direct reports. Or, you can let your assistant get on with his or her work and set up an automated system. FollowUpThen.com lets you schedule reminders that you can email to yourself and, if you want, to others. If, for instance, a deadline is looming, schedule an email to hit your inbox a few days or a week before. It’ll remind you to check up on it.

Clearly articulate your expectations – and then inspect what you expect. Slow down and take the time to check for understanding and implement a follow-up system. That’s a stitch in time that will save you nine for sure.