The Big Idea Effective Delegation

Peninsula Team

November 25 2011

"The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it." 

So said Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1901-1909. A century later, add a few women in alongside those men to bring the sentiment a touch more up to date, and you have the essence of effective delegation. 

I’ve written before about time management and how learning to delegate well is absolutely essential to getting better at managing your time. The more you can focus on your own priorities, the more effectively you can achieve that which you need to achieve, concentrate on what really matters and take on the tasks that add more value to your life and your business. As one of my management heroes Stephen Covey points out: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

But delegation isn’t easy. It’s human nature to hold onto things and to think that perhaps we can do them better than someone else. And sometimes the investment of time in training someone up to take a task away from us just feels too great. But learning how to delegate effectively can be one of the skills that elevates you from a follower to a real leader.

So how to do it better? I’ve pulled together a list of some top tips to think about when learning how to delegate and to ensure you get the best results from the process.

1. Take some time to yourself to work out exactly what results you want to achieve from a job. That way you can ensure you identify exactly the right person to handle it. Classic poor delegation technique involves selecting the nearest person in the office who looks as though they have some time on their hands and throwing a task at them. This is not delegation. This is more accurately known as “dumping”. By working out exactly what the task requires, what results you want to achieve and who best fits the profile for the job, then you will get far better results. 

2. Secondly, wherever possible, to try to delegate a “whole” task rather than just a small part of a process. That’s because it’s quite difficult for people to visualise what they are supposed to be doing if it doesn’t make coherent sense to them and they can’t see the end game. If that’s impossible, then take some time to explain the overall project, where their bit fits in and what the final aim is. Also emphasise what value their contribution will make. If people feel empowered and can see that they are making a contribution, even in a small way, they are far more likely to respond positively and do a good job. And take time to emphasise why you’ve chosen them especially for the job – which you’ll already know, if you’ve done your homework on point one.

3. Equip them. Make sure people have the right tools and training for the job you’re asking them to perform and provide them if they don’t.  

4. Don’t expect miracles. If someone has never done a job before then they aren’t going to get it right first time. Try to take a long term view and think about the benefits in the future of training this person up to do a certain task. Leave them enough rope to have some freedom and feel independent in performing the task, but not enough for them to hang themselves with and scupper the project. Try to keep a watchful eye whilst avoiding micro-management. A tough balance but vital.

5. Be open-minded. Just because you’ve done a certain task in a certain way for a number of years, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only way or the most effective way. If you’ve chosen someone you believe in, they may come up with a more effective or more innovative approach. Delegation is far more about telling people what needs doing rather than telling them how to do it. 

6. Communication is key. You need to make it absolutely clear what the project involves, what you expect from the person you’re delegating to and by when you need it to be achieved. Also explain how you like things to be done. If you expect a daily update with a progress report, then tell them that. Don’t expect people to be mind readers. If you’re in a position to delegate, then you’re in a position to teach as well.

7. Encourage upward feedback. Make it clear you want to hear from them if they have questions or feel unsure about something. Whilst you don’t want to nanny them, there’s no shame in double checking if in doubt.

8. Build in some slack. People make mistakes. Things go wrong. Sometimes people tell you things are going well when in fact they’re in a blind panic and don’t know what to do next. So make sure there’s some slack in the timeline to redress the balance if it isn’t perfect.

9. Here’s a good quote. “Delegation is not abdication” (Brian Tracey). Remember the ultimate responsibility is still yours even if you’ve delegated a task. If it fails, it’s either because you’ve chosen the wrong person, haven’t communicated the task well or haven’t explained the results you expect. So stay on top of it even if only from a distance. 

10. Provide feedback. After a task, sit down with the colleague and let them know how they performed against the benchmarks you set up and how satisfactorily they completed the task in hand. Also encourage them to give you feedback about how you delegated and how successful they felt the process has gone. It’s a valuable learning curve for you both.

And finally remember that delegation is not necessarily a chore or something to be feared. It can be fantastically rewarding as a manager to see your team learn and grow in their roles as they take on more responsibilities and develop in confidence, as well as the clear benefits it brings to you to get on with the stuff you want to do where you add more value. As Andrew Carnegie so rightly said: “No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.” 

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses.

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