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How to Become a Successful Delegator: Five Major Strategies

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When the Gallup organization studied 143 CEOs, they found that a high ability to delegate had significant benefits to the company: a growth rate of 112 percentage points greater than CEOs with low delegation skills achieved, 33% greater revenue; and greater hiring and growth goals.

Clearly, delegation is a leadership skill that every leader should develop—and yet, it continues to be difficult for many reasons, including the delegator’s own:

  • Poor communication, including unclear expectations and deadlines
  • Fear of losing control
  • Overdependence on a few employees, leading to burnout or charges of unfairness
  • Procrastination, so that you end up delegating too much too late.
  • Habit of forgetting to praise or recognize the delegate’s contribution
  • Conviction that delegation takes too much time and energy
  • Feeling that you have to step in when you would be better off stepping back.

So what strategies make a successful delegator, and how should they be implemented?

Share Tasks and Responsibility

Among the SMaRT strategies that improve your willingness to share your workload, never underestimate the power of optimism coupled with self-confidence. You need to be optimistic about other people having the dedication to their careers, desire to succeed, and interest in the work that you have—and you need the self-confidence to let them succeed and perhaps even outdistance you.

If you have trouble sharing your workload, first let go of low impact/high effort tasks or ones where someone on your team has demonstrated greater skill. If you are not sure which team member would be best for a particular task, trying them out on those tasks will allow you to recover quickly from mishaps while giving you the freedom to attack high impact/high effort major wins with less stress.

As well as sharing the responsibility for the task, a successful delegator also needs to share whatever authority team members will need to see the task through. If you refuse to allow anyone to make decisions or talk to the people they need to talk with; the delegated work will bounce back to your desk over and over again.

TIP: Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to delegating. If you stress about deadlines, assign the team member a deadline that gives you a little leeway without adding stress to the team member.


Mentor, Not Micromanage

It is important to give the team members a chance to succeed, struggle, and recover on their own. You want to oversee, not overmanage. To enhance their chances of success, make sure your instructions are clear; the goal, deadline, and expectations are understood; and your need for any periodic reports will be met in the quantity and form you favor (email, voice mail, brief meeting).

Delegate tasks that will allow the team member to learn or attempt something new. If you delegate the same low-level and tedious work over and over, you are not sharing—you are dumping. While it takes time to transfer your knowledge to someone else, you will reduce your own stress in the long run, increase your opportunities for undertaking high impact activities, and possibly prepare someone to take your place when you yourself rise through the ranks.

TIP: If the person knows why you are delegating—because of the opportunity, the learning experience, the fit with their skill set, their potential—they are more likely to commit.


Focus on Results, Not Methods

Once there was a librarian who was left-handed. Because she sorted all her documents to her left, she instructed her team to always sort to the left, even though they were all right-handed and sorting to the left was inefficient and annoying. She lost sight of the goal: to sort the documents.

When you are delegating, concentrate on what you want the team members to achieve, not how, unless they require specific training (for example, in the Dewey decimal system) to succeed. Once team members have the necessary skills and training, a successful delegator lets them handle delegated tasks in the way that is most efficient, comfortable, and logical for each of them.


Communicate in Both Directions

For all but the simplest delegations, it never hurts to ask for or send an email summary of what was discussed at that first meeting. After that, you should check in periodically if needed just to find out if the team member needs help overcoming a snag, is going to meet an imminent deadline, or has spoken with the necessary people. Again, micromanaging and hovering are not checking in.

Be careful about indulging in the common perception that anything you do yourself is better simply because you were involved in it—and don’t let the team member indulge in beating themselves up over minor flaws. A successful delegator accepts that the goal is not imagined, unattainable perfection but a job well done, on time, on budget, and on goal.

At the end of the project, ask for feedback about what you could change about the delegation process or the check-ins. Thank the person for their efforts and help.

TIP: Recognition that specifies everyone’s contribution to a project is motivating and builds the team’s appreciation for and trust in each person’s unique skills.


Handle Regret

Some delegation problems do not originate with the delegator, but the choice or attitude of the person delegated to. If you delegate work to a difficult employee, you may find that the person constantly cites an overloaded work schedule, blame you for bad directions, and miss timelines. You may have to spend extra time working with the employee on prioritization, documenting conversations, and tracking progress. Only you can determine if the employee is worth the effort—if not, it would be better to consider outside professional help or even termination rather than allowing the employee to get away with a poor attitude, lack of accountability, and other behaviors that disrupt the entire time.

You may also be delegating to people who lack the training or resources to complete the task. One of the benefits of check-ins is to find and correct problems early on. However, if the individual keeps referring problems back to you, you may have to  encourage their independence by asking questions such as “How do you think we should handle that problem?”; “Can you come up with an alternative solution?”; and “Who else might be able to help you with that?”

Sometimes you simply choose the wrong person for the job and do not realize it until too late—a major error has been made or a major risk ignored. If a failure occurs, your responsibility is not to simply CYA. You are accountable for the task and you are accountable to your team. You share in failure as you share in success.

Make sure you use and relay SMART strategies for rebuilding self-confidence and trust for yourself, the team, and the team member you delegated to. You may need to take over the task yourself to finish it correctly, but that is a hazard of delegation that every successful delegator assumes for the better good.

Key Takeaways

Delegation may be stressful in the short run but in the long run it allows a leader to take on those high-value projects that lead to recognition and promotion. It also enables the team to feel like they are growing and contributing, which augments trust, motivation, and productivity. Among other skills, a successful delegator knows the importance and strategies for delegating responsibility as well as tasks, communicating clearly, and being able to handle regrets.

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