The Art of Delegation

Learn to delegate.” It’s the most fundamental management advice, for good reason. When you delegate well, you empower your staff and build their competence, experience, and confidence. You spend more time thinking about strategy and watching the organization at a high level. You create an amazing management team. And the organization becomes more nimble and able. When time and resources are scarce (and when aren’t they?), delegation is the most crucial leadership skill.

But having people always tell you “delegate more” doesn’t get you there, does it? Here are some tips.

The most crucial skill is learning to recognize the opportunity.

More often than not, whatever needs to be delegated is something you have done before, that you know how to do, that you like doing, and feel satisfied when you get it done. You may be so enamored of your skill in doing this, that you think no one else can do it, at least not as well as you can.

This is the competence trap — the belief that no one else can do this as well (if at all). It is hubris that will keep you from growing and worse, it will quash the motivations and growth of all your staff.

The organizational efficiency trap is the belief that because you can do it faster and better, you will cost the organization resources if you hand it off to someone with less skill. That may be true, but it may not be and as others gain experience, it will become less and less true.

Then, there’s the closely related personal efficiency trap, the notion that teaching someone to do the task will take more time than just doing it yourself. When you fall for this trap, it’s because you think of the time you’re spending as an expense — but training others is an investment.

The next question is how to delegate. On one hand, you want to give it away, to empower. But on the other hand, this is something you have done before, that you know how to do, that you like doing, and feel satisfied when you get it done! Naturally, that makes us reluctant to delegate. Rather than just toss it over to someone new, try these steps:

  1. Choose someone who you think can probably do it. You do not need to be absolutely, 100% sure they can handle it — failure is an option, and you’re there to help if something goes awry. Operating on edge, in the presence of risk, helps people grow.
  2. Tell them what you would like them to do. Describe the outcome you want — what results, by when, what it will look like. Give them good detail but do not tell them a lot about how they will get there.
  3. Very important: Tell them why we want this. Why you want it, why they want it, why the company and the customers want it. This is critical context.
  4. Only now, do you get to the how — and you should tread lightly here. Rather than telling them how to do it, tell them how you would do it and then make clear they have no obligation to follow your idea. Something like this: “I’ve done similar projects before and the approach I would take is (1, 2, 3…). But please do it your way — I am interested in the results.”
  5. Agree on progress reports. How often will they advise you of progress? This is a mutual agreement. You want them to be empowered but you also have the need to know what’s going on.
  6. Ask them to keep notes and document their work as a best practice. One of the results you should specify is a set of policies, processes, and procedures for next time.
  7. Ask them for their agreement. Are they bought in? Anything they need? Are they ok with the specs, resources, and the timetable?
  8. When they report on progress, remember to praise results. Give greater autonomy as they succeed, more oversight and guidance when they miss targets. Try not to provide unsolicited help and if asked, encourage them to find their way.
  9. Then, the hardest part of all: Get out of the way. Do not let yourself be tempted by something you have done before, that you know how to do, that you like doing, and feel satisfied when you get it done.

Over and over in my career, I was surprised and thrilled by employees who exceeded my expectations. I shouldn’t be surprised, really. After all, they had the benefit of my experience (remember, I told them how I would do it) plus their experience, plus they are not encumbered by my limitations!

When the project is complete, do a complete debrief. Give the employee public credit when it succeeds, discuss in private when it doesn’t. What worked, what didn’t? Why? How can we do it better? Update the process and procedure to capture what we learned.

Then repeat.

And once they get really good at it — once it becomes something they have done, that you they how to do, that they like doing, and feel satisfied when they get it done — guess what you will ask them to do?

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