The Secret to Successful Delegation

Everybody in a leadership role knows the importance of delegation. If you’re doing everyone else’s work, you’re not doing your own. Plus, well thought out delegation is a surefire way to develop your people. You need to give them a chance to try new things and grow professionally.

From a purely self interested perspective, effective delegation gives you a chance to recover, work reasonable hours and get to your kids’ sports games.

If the benefits of delegation are so well understood, why is this the topic of a lot of my coaching? Why do leaders report that delegation is such a challenge for them?

Maybe you’ve heard these explanations (or given them yourself):

  • I just don’t have enough high performers on my team. I can’t count on them to deliver without a lot of hand-holding.
  • It’s more efficient to do it myself than it is to teach someone else.
  • I have high standards, maybe even a perfectionist. No one else will do it right.
  • I’m so busy, so overwhelmed, that I haven’t taken the time to figure out what to give to whom.

Do any of those reasons not to delegate sound familiar?

A few years ago, one of my coaching clients was buried in projects. She’d get in to work before 7 am and often stay into the evening. One day I walked into her office for our session and she looked at me and burst into tears.

Whenever we’d talk about the possibility of her delegating some of her work, she’d offered one or more of the reasons not to delegate. I guess this time she’d hit bottom.

I asked, “Do you want to reschedule our meeting or do you want to figure this out?”

She decided to see if we could figure it out.  Interestingly, the key turned out to be identifying a set of clear criteria for the work she needed to personally manage and what she could delegate. She’d been so busy doing everything herself that she hadn’t stepped back and thought through her tacit delegation rules.

While your criteria may be different than hers, these were the questions she came up with:

  • How time sensitive is the action? If it’s urgent, it really may be more efficient to do it yourself. This time.
  • What is the margin of acceptable error? Some things do need to be perfect.  Knowing in advance what mistakes are tolerable will relieve your anxiety and help you decide if you can take the risk.
  • How visible and/or politically sensitive is this?  Some actions require experience and good judgment that not everyone possesses.
  • Do you have someone with the necessary skills? If not, do it yourself but build capacity for next time.
  • Is the action specifically directed at you?  Maybe your boss asked you personally to handle something. Go ahead and take the lead but find someone to partner with on this action.
  • What could be the consequences to your reputation? Are you willing to own the result even if it doesn’t meet your standard?

Using these questions as a guide, we identified what actions she needed to hold onto. The rest she was willing to delegate. We then did an inventory of each of her people for their suitability to accept delegated assignments partially, fully, or with support.

When I arrived for our next coaching session, she greeted me with a smile, looking relaxed and rested. I asked, “What happened?” She said she’d delegated everything she was able to and she was now getting home in time to have dinner with her kids. Obviously, this is not a magic solution but getting clear about what you are willing to delegate and then doing it is an important first step toward getting those delegation monkeys off your back.

P.S. This probably works at home, too!

Please leave a comment about what your delegation rules are. Or, any other delegation tips you want to share.