Delegate to Lead Well

The more senior you are in the organizational hierarchy, the more you will need to rely on delegation to be successful.

Senior managers serve their organizations most effectively when focused on strategic planning and other high-level activity, including getting the most out of their people — in other words, leading. In most situations, they do not have the luxury of direct involvement with the actual “doing” typically completed by associates or direct reports with specific skills and responsibilities. Many managers struggle with how to delegate effectively. It’s not easy. The biggest offense: micromanaging or delegating without sufficient or specific consideration to establishing accountability. The greatest challenges for most leaders are determining under what circumstances you can (and should) delegate, to whom you can delegate and how to establish accountability.

Effective delegation can help your people develop and deliver to their highest potential. Most professionals credit their greatest growth to someone delegating to them along the way. Most workers are eager for more challenge, autonomy and responsibility (aren’t you?).

Yet many managers are uncomfortable delegating for fear of having tasks out of their direct control. Individuals who pride themselves on their high performance can particularly struggle with the paradox of “no one can do the task as well as I could” (i.e. as fast, thorough, insightful, creative) and recognizing that the key to leadership success is leveraging the skills and talents of others in the organization.

What kinds of tasks can you delegate? The answer is, of course, it depends. However, generally speaking, you can comfortably delegate most routine duties and questions, relatively minor decisions without great risk or consequences, and minor staffing issues (scheduling and coordinating). Another rule of thumb — you should be able to delegate anything you would expect your employees to do when you aren’t there. From there, it’s trickier and you will need to rely on good judgment.

One important step is identifying the right person to take on the delegated task. According to Ken Blanchard, author of “Leadership and the One Minute Manager,” responsibility and authority should be given to those who have demonstrated both commitment and competence in the skills and abilities required to complete the task. To determine commitment, consider their motivation, enthusiasm, trustworthiness and confidence. Evaluating relative competence involves taking into account their relative education, knowledge, skills, experience and track record. Understandably, new or inexperienced hires often need more training, direction and supervision. The “unproven” will generally need to prove their commitment and competence to you first, especially for projects with the potential of significant impact to the organization.

I encourage managers to think of delegation as a process. Don’t just automatically turn everything over to someone. Do it in stages; this will increase your comfort level and theirs. To be successful requires ongoing communication, feedback, confirmation and monitoring. Recognition, accountability, defining and supporting required authority and defining consequence (both for achievement and non-achievement of delegated tasks) are also important.

Truly effective leaders understand that delegating does not mean abdicating. You are still ultimately responsible so remain involved. Let the employee know you are available and willing to answer questions. Communicate expected outcomes — what you want done by when (what success looks like) — and provide the necessary resources and feedback for success. Don’t forget to tell them why you chose them for the task (what skills and talents you see in them that give you confidence they will be successful). I recommend that managers also ask one final question after delegating a task: What else do you need from me to be successful?

A common delegation pitfall — when leaders fail to assign or relay the necessary authority required to be successful. Employees want (and need) clarity about authority, responsibility and expectations. While important, personal authority in many cases is not enough to get multilevel or complex tasks accomplished. As a manager, delegates will look to you for protection and direction, as well as the authority they need to be successful.

Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), remember that accountability and delegation go hand in hand. If you aren’t willing to hold someone accountable, don’t delegate. It’s a mistake (and unreasonable) to delegate something important and then walk away and never look back. Ask the person you are delegating to how they will communicate back to you that the task is completed successfully, or if they are having trouble. Make them a partner in defining how you will know they have completed the task successfully. Engage in a collaborative discussion to define success parameters and expectations that both of you are comfortable with. This will greatly improve the chances for success and positive growth of the employee.

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