How to Delegate Effectively

You can’t own today on your own

You can’t own today on your own

After my most recent emotional post, a colleague asked me about a more practical skill set that they wanted to develop. Although they realize they need to get better at delegating, they aren’t sure how to start. And, once started, how do they ensure that they continue to delegate in a way that is effective?

I appreciate the question. Delegation is a critical skill to cultivate no matter where you are in your career. For those more experienced managers, it’s worth reviewing your task list periodically to see where you can offload work to others and therefore free yourself up to take on new challenges. For those interested in becoming managers, understanding what and when (and to whom) to delegate can help catapult your career. And, if you don’t have anyone to whom to delegate, you can still apply these strategies to help you prioritize where you spend your time.

Here are five steps to take to delegate effectively:

  1. Understand where you are spending your time. You can’t decide which tasks to offload if you don’t know where your time goes every week. A lot of productivity experts will recommend tracking your time for a week to assess this, but I find that notion puts a lot of people off, so don’t worry if you don’t take that step. Tracking your time can be as simple as making a list of everything you are working on or plan to work on in the next quarter. Don’t forget to write down the “little things” that people signed you up for that only take “a few hours” a week. Your list might include team building activities, expense reports, mentoring meetings, project work, business development, etc.

  2. Categorize each item on your task list as “ditch”, “delegate”, or “do yourself.” If this is your first time doing this exercise, you are probably going to rationalize why everything on that list has to be done by yours truly. Trust me, I’ve been there. Going through this exercise with an outside observer with knowledge of your work/your company can be invaluable. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with that person’s recommendations, because you know your work better than anyone. I have found, though, that talking this over with another person can help reveal those aspects of your job that excite you the most. If you’re reluctant to give something up, it shows your fear (and those areas that require further staff development.) If you can’t wait to drop something else, it likely means that you’ve either outgrown that task, or that it didn’t inspire you too much to begin with. This helps you figure out what types of projects you should take on in the future.

  3. For the “delegate” tasks, decide who will do it. This exercise requires equal parts knowledge of your team’s strengths and weaknesses, faith that they will do the work, and creativity in execution. You can’t simply assign everything on your list to the same person—that’s not fair to them or to the rest of the team. But, at the same time, you can’t continue to hoard tasks because “you feel bad” pushing more work to someone else. Think through your team’s goals for the year. Who has expressed interest in doing what? If they haven’t asked, who has the potential to do this work based on their areas of strength (or areas of growth?) If you don’t have a team, who in your network would benefit from this opportunity? If you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask others. Then, figure out how to “sell” the opportunity to this person and to leadership (as necessary.)

  4. Debrief the new task owners. Set up time to meet with your chosen delegates to review their new task(s). The structure of these meetings should cover what the task is, how it aligns with project/company goals, why you picked them for this task, expectations for how you will be involved, and the details of execution. Managers tend to neglect the “why” in favor of the “what” and “how”, so make sure you give the context needed for that person to be successful. Depending on the delegate’s level of experience, the “what” and “how” may not even be necessary—you may simply give guidelines that, in your experience, contributed to the task’s success.

  5. Monitor progress—and then just fade away. Pro tip: nine times out of ten, the person you pick for this task will not be 100% ready to take it over. If they were, they’d already be doing it. They are going to struggle initially to match your more experienced standards. They are going to put a new spin on the task that you may not like. They will likely make a mistake that negatively impacts the project and/or irritates the client. Guess what? You need to get over it. If you’re perpetually lurking in the background, ready to save the day at the first inkling of a misplaced comma, your delegate will pick up on this and never bother to try to get better. Set up regular check-ins at a predetermined interval for a period of time to keep on top of the details—and then get out of the weeds. Once you do, instruct your delegate to keep you apprised of the task in a manner that is mutually agreeable. This will be a struggle for both of you for a while. Most of the time, unless your team is comprised entirely of rock stars that are your clones, delegation can feel like jamming a square peg into a round hole. With time, the resistance erodes, and both of you become more accustomed to the contours of your new arrangement. Be patient.