Deciding what (and when) to delegate

In our last post on delegation, we focused on situational leadership and how it affects the role a school leader plays in transferring work and responsibility to others. In this post the focus will shift to when one should delegate, and when one shouldn’t.

Choosing tasks to delegate can be trickier than it seems. There are some tasks, such as high-risk or crisis-related activities, that educational leaders should never delegate. Other responsibilities, including those that will be performed once or rarely and require much guidance and direction, should also not be delegated.

So how do you know when to delegate? Before you hand off a task, consider these questions:

  1. Is this a task that someone else can do, or is it critical that you do it yourself?

  2. Is there someone else who has (or can be given) the necessary information or expertise to complete the task?

  3. Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person's skills?

  4. Is this a task that will recur with some frequency, in a similar form, in the future?

  5. Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively and stay on top of things? Time must be available for adequate training, for questions and answers, to check in on progress, and to reimagine/rework when necessary.

Let’s look at an example.

Tracy, the principal, has become bogged down recently by discipline referrals to her office. Her school, which began as a K-2, has grown to include a middle school and has more than quadrupled in enrollment during that time span.

For the first few years, Tracy was the all-in-one administrator, running the school while attending to many functions that typically are assigned elsewhere. But even as she started to task these functions to others, she remained the school’s disciplinary go-to. And that needed to change.   

While she is okay with managing an occasional disciplinary situation, Tracy recognized that she needed to start delegating such interventions elsewhere. But because the school had not yet grown to the point where she could justify hiring an associate principal, Tracy needed to think creatively.

She turned to her teachers for ideas. It was decided that two teachers with some free time in their schedules and the right personal attributes (respected, even-keeled, thoughtful and consistent) would support Tracy in this process. She met with them to develop guidelines and protocols and then let all constituents know of the teachers' new roles. Tracy also sat in on some meetings to observe and provide feedback. The team agreed to meet weekly, during the initial phase of the rollout, to iron out any issues. They would eventually pare back the meetings as the process solidified.

Turning this disciplinary responsibility to her colleagues freed Tracy up to do more of the work that needed her specific attention. It also empowered her teachers to take more ownership over their work and school community.

You can also delegate other operational duties, such as schedules, logistics, ordering and handling materials, reports and record keeping. Tasks like these follow a straightforward process—for the most part!—and can be easily managed by others with limited guidance and oversight.

In contrast, elements of school function that have a direct impact on student learning should be viewed as opportunities for principals to share leadership. These include curriculum development and modification, classroom instruction and instructional assessment.

So when should you not delegate? Here are some tasks and projects that should only be handled by you.  

  1. Ultimate responsibility. The principal should retain final say on important matters that affect basic school function, such as authority to spend resources, admission of new pupils into the school, and on policy issues and changes in the school. At the end of the day, the buck must stop with you.

  2. Decisions that affect the entire school. No single person outside of the leader should ever be empowered to make decisions on that scale.

  3. Vision. Vision is the essence of leadership. Delegating your vision for academic excellence or workplace culture is tantamount to delegating away your leadership.

  4. Leading transformational change. Any large-scale reform initiatives need you at the helm.

  5. Praise and recognition. When your teachers and staff do good work, make sure you're the one handing out the kudos. Your acknowledgement goes a long way.

  6. Hiring decisions. Hiring talent is one of the most important things a principal does. You may not do the entire process yourself but you should sit in on interviews and related tasks, and help steer the final hiring decision.  

  7. Onboarding. Leaders should take an active role in the onboarding and training process and clear their schedules as much as possible to make time for new employees. This builds capacity and efficacy while also boosting engagement and morale.

  8. Discipline and dismissal. When things aren’t working, it’s the leader that should say so. Anything less is completely disrespectful to the employee.

  9. High-risk activities to untested talent. Developing others is critical, but when the risk associated with a task or project is high, it is unwise and unfair to leave it to unproven personnel.

  10. Modeling behaviors that express values and build culture. The leader needs to set the tone. Others can help, but the direction is set and then reinforced at the very top.

  11. Developing direct reports. A leader’s own reports need to be developed by the leader directly. No one else can be tasked to that responsibility, as they ultimately answer to you.

  12. Crisis management. Crisis situations demand leaders’ full attention and focus. Others can help but responsibility lies entirely with you.

  13. Public relations. When it comes to public relations duties, such as when working with parent and booster groups, don't delegate the external components such as meetings. Your direct involvement tells stakeholder groups that their involvement matters.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) ) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog, and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new eBook, “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing.”

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