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Be prepared to delegate

Delegation is a skill all leaders must master. It's not simple or easy, but it is achievable with the right processes and approach.

7 min read


Be prepared to delegate

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In a previous series for SmartBrief, I laid out my five-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a Productivity Blueprint. This post dives deeper into the second of my five steps, sharing for maximal productivity

What we have been discussing in previous articles assumes that you are prepared to delegate work. Delegation is a critical element to increased productivity because it allows leaders to focus on the things that they are uniquely positioned and/or required to do. It also clears the organizational bottleneck, by not making all work dependent on the leader’s input.

Delegation offers many benefits to managers, direct reports and organizations. And yet it remains one of the most misunderstood and underutilized techniques in leadership practice.

I frequently deliver leadership seminars to executives on the topic of delegation. As part of my talk, I ask participants whether they delegate as much as they should. The majority typically respond to the negative, so I probe further. Using a brainstorming technique, participants are asked to complete the following sentence: “I would delegate more if I …”

The following responses are typical:

  1. Trusted my colleagues more
  2. Wasn’t so controlling
  3. Had more time to think about what to delegate
  4. Knew how

This feedback is not surprising. It is common knowledge that leaders frequently struggle when it comes to relinquishing control and delegating tasks to their associates and direct reports. Why is this so? For one, delegation is a foreign, uncomfortable concept for those who think that they need to hold all of the cards or to have their spoons mixing in every pot. Those who are willing to share responsibility may not invest the time into doing so strategically or may not even know how to go about it at all. Some think that it’s simply more efficient for them just to do it themselves.

We all agree that we cannot do it all alone and admit that delegation can help us become much more efficient and effective. So how can leaders utilize delegation more regularly and effectively to help them achieve their goals? Consider following these important steps.

  • Decide what to delegate. Start with a small project or one that doesn’t have to be completed in a specific way. This keeps the temperature low and the end goal in sight.
  • Pick the right person or group. Take time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Select people you’re confident can do the job well. They should be self-motivated and comfortable working without constant supervision.
  • Provide adequate training. Even when you have the right people for the job, you may still need to offer training to build their skill and efficacy, particularly when the work is new for them. Work with them to figure that piece out, and thus help them feel ready to assume this responsibility.
  • Offer clarity about the expected outcome. Include timelines and deliverables and provide a template or guidelines for the project. The more that you can spell out, in detail, about what a strong outcome looks like, the less the risk of subsequent confusion or error.
  • Grant the necessary authority. Supply the control and leeway for your co-worker to find the best approach on their own. This increases creativity and initiative while boosting self-esteem.
  • Learn to trust your team. Trust is the single most crucial element to effective delegation and teamwork. You have to believe in your people to empower them. There’s a well-known quote: “The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
  • Be prepared to assist. You may need to delegate the task as a whole but can often still assist here or there. This can be a bit tricky. Many leaders want to avoid micromanagement and feel that once they delegate, they need to step back and give over the reins. But a hands-off management style isn’t a very good idea. You need to get the balance right.
  • Create a delegation culture. Give your direct reports permission to remind you when you haven’t delegated something that you should. No one wants to be viewed as criticizing the boss, so emphasize that you are open to and expect this kind of input. Also, make clear to others that if they see a project they want to take on, they should ask for it.

The process of building a well-informed and properly trained team allows leaders to harness various talents and perspectives for the collective good. It may be challenging at first. Over time, you’ll receive great dividends while also alleviating some of the crushing burdens that often sit on a leader’s shoulders.

For those who prefer formulas, you may want to consider leadership expert John C. Maxwell’s 10-80-10 principle. He divides delegated projects into three segments: the first 10%, the middle 80% and the last 10%. Maxwell involves himself in the first and last 10% while the middle work is carried by his team, as detailed below.

Maxwell compares his involvement, which he calls “the bookends of success,” to the process of piloting a plane. The crucial parts of the flight—the most dangerous and complicated—are takeoff and landing. These are the components that most need a leader’s input and attention. The rest of the “flight” is doable by his team.

During the first 10% of the delegation process, Maxwell provides his team with the following so that they can complete their primary tasks (the middle 80 percent):

  • The big picture. As a leader, you often see more than others do. Maxwell uses this time to share his big-picture vision and discuss outcomes.
  • Objectives. Following the initial vision, Maxwell works to break down the goal into specific objectives, typically limiting the number to four or five. These help those involved understand the “how” of the process: as in, “How are we going to achieve the overarching goal?” The simpler the objectives, and the more visual they are made, the easier it’ll be for your team to be able to look at them later and know whether they’re still on target.
  • Direction. After the objectives have been set, it’s important for each team member to know his or her specific responsibilities. This helps to maximize efforts, increase accountability, and avoid conflict.
  • Resources and support. This is similar to what we discussed above. What do they need, in terms of resources and assistance, to make it work?

At the end of each delegated project, Maxwell listens to a full progress report. He then uses his experience to ask questions that will determine what holes exist in the present process, then shares insights about how best to move things forward to completion.

As you can see, delegation is far from a simple process. That’s one key reason as to why so many folks that should be delegating more fail to do so.

By following these steps, leaders can become more conscientious of the need to delegate and better equip others in their workplace to assume responsibility with skill and confidence.


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 productivity blueprint and his e-books, “Core Essentials of Leadership,” “An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing” and “How to Boost Your Leadership Impact.”

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