©2015 Terry H. Hildebrandt, PhD
January 30, 2015
I frequently coach managers and executives on how to reduce their workload and develop their employees using effective delegation techniques. While everyone has heard of the importance of delegation, many managers fear that handing some of their work over to their subordinates is too risky. By following the five steps of delegation you can effectively grow your team to support you in getting more work done and maintain the quality and timeliness that your organization requires. Below I will elaborate on each of the five steps.
Step 1: Inventory
The first step is to create an inventory of all the activities that you currently engage in on a regular basis. I recommend that you create a list in either a spreadsheet or a table with the first column being all of the specific tasks that you are currently doing. You may also want to include tasks that you should or would like to do if you had more time. One way to create this list is to look back at your calendar and document meetings, projects, and key decisions that you have made in the last six months. Another approach is to keep a diary of the next month’s activities adding them to the list as new items show up in your workload.
Step 2: Who
The second step is to look at all your activities and decide who you would like to hand each activity off to an ideal world. You will also need to decide which items you want to keep doing yourself and items that you may need to start doing going forward. I strongly suggest that you be ruthless in your approach to move things off your plate. Another consideration is strategic development of key staff members by assigning them activities that will support them in their career growth. For example, is there a member of your team that might be ready to learn how to create and present a monthly management update or lead a project that you are currently leading?
Step 3: Expectations
The third step is to set specific expectations of deliverables, quality level, and timeliness for each activity with your delegates. This step is critical in order to give the delegates a clear picture of what success looks now that they are responsible for the activity. One best practice is to document the expectations in a one-page summary including outcomes, metrics of success, and frequency of reviews/updates. This step is frequently overlooked by busy leaders thinking that their delegates will figure out what needs to be done on their own. Remember that your direct reports cannot read your mind! You need to spend the time with them to ensure they have a clear picture of what you want from them.
Step 4: Mentor, Coach, Review, Revise
In step 4, your delegates will begin the process of working their actions and creating the desired outcomes. Along the way, it is important for you to mentor and coach them to ensure they have adequate support in learning the new skills, knowledge, and organizational dynamics required to be successful. For highly technical activities, you may want the delegates to shadow you while you perform the task yourself, so they can learn as an apprentice would. You will want to build in cycles of review and rework/revision into the timeline for the activity. It is important for you to set the expectation that the delegate will not have everything perfect the first couple of times. They need to understand that you will provide feedback and give them a chance to revise or rework their output until it meets your expectations. A common pitfall for leaders is to underestimate the time required for coaching, mentoring, and the cycles of review and rework. Another common pitfall is for the manager to rework the delegate’s work. Not only does this demoralize the delegates, it also prevents them from fine-tuning their skills by having the delegates rework the outputs.
Step 5: Monitor and Audit
Once the delegate is able to consistently deliver the required outcomes, you can move into the monitor and audit phase of delegation. In Step 5, ask the delegate to keep you informed of status, issues, and concerns regarding the activity. You will also need to monitor and audit their work on a regular basis to ensure they are maintaining the quality and timeliness of the required outputs. I frequently tell my coachees that “delegation is not abdication.” As long as you are held accountable by your management team for the delegated tasks, you will need to ensure that your subordinates are delivering as expected. It is not acceptable to pass on the blame for missed deadlines or substandard work, because senior management will hold you accountable. One best practice is to ensure that you have regular check-in meetings and formal reporting systems to stay in touch with the work that your team is doing on delegated tasks. This also will give you an opportunity for ongoing mentoring and coaching to ensure that your delegates are continually improving.
Common Pitfalls with Delegation
There are a number of common mistakes that leaders make when delegating. These include:
- Holding onto tasks that they should have let go of long ago.
- Not trusting their staff to be able to rise to the occasion to learn a new skill.
- Giving only vague instructions or unclear expectations of what success looks like.
- Failing to build enough time into the schedule for cycles of review and rework.
- Being too busy to provide real-time mentoring and coaching to delegates.
- Failing to monitor the ongoing work of subordinates, assuming that everything will be taken care of as planned.
- Losing touch with the current issues and concerns with delegated projects.
While delegation in the long-term will dramatically improve your ability to reduce your workload, in the early phases of delegation you may actually have to spend more time mentoring and coaching than it would have taken you to do the work yourself. I call this the paradox of delegation in that one must invest more time to save time. Failing to delegate will limit a manager’s ability to develop their subordinates and will limit their own options to move on to new assignments, since there will be no successors.
The five steps of delegation hold promise of reducing workload, developing staff members, and creating successors. Delegation requires an investment of time and energy to mentor and coach delegates to ensure they maintain the quality and timeliness required. Failing to delegate creates a downward spiral of ever-increasing workload, lack of mobility, and limited staff development. While the five steps are straightforward, working the five steps requires diligence and commitment.