How To Delegate

A core competency for leaders is delegation. While there are plenty of great resources available on the art of delegation, I will share how I typically handle this competency for myself and the leaders I coach.

Before we begin, let me quickly make sure we are talking about the same thing. Delegation is when another person acts on your behalf.

So I might delegate away going to a meeting, or taking care of an issue, or having a specific conversation with someone. The people I delegate to are acting on my behalf.

Why Delegate?

Look at your calendar. It is a near-universal truth that many leaders I work with are double and triple-booked every day and haven’t got any time for their thoughts or their people.

Delegation is one of several techniques that you can use to get time back.

Also, when you delegate, you are building a broader organizational competency and shared context. When you delegate, the person who will act on your behalf has to handle situations you otherwise would. So their decision-making skill grows, and this reduces the burden on you. Context sharing, in this case, means have the same information, which often raises the bar of quality decisions.

When you delegate, you are sharing valuable information and growing their skills.

The last reason to delegate is purely from a risk management perspective. Before I jump into that, though, how many vacations do managers take who don’t delegate anything? Very few. They can’t get away because of how critical they are to daily operations. From the lens of risk, this is foolish. That manager will get sick or have something come up. When they leave nobody knows what they did or how they did it, and that can wreak havoc on normal operations. The more insidious side is that the ability of that single manager limits excellence. That manager is a bottleneck for improvement.

When to Delegate

I keep this pretty simple. My rule of thumb goes like this:

You can delegate anytime you are comfortable with the consequences.

Realize that this heuristic will move over time as you see people grow and your trust with them grows as well. In the beginning, you may only feel comfortable delegating low-stakes meetings. In time, you may delegate decisions that could significantly impact the direction of your group for months.

The key here is thinking about the consequences. When I delegate, I consider what I want to happen, what is likely to happen, and something I don’t want to happen. The first two often tell me who I want to delegate to, and the last one tells me if I’ll delegate. If I can accept, cope, or counteract the undesirable consequence, I delegate.

It’s shocking how freeing this is. So many consequences, while inconvenient, are ultimately fine.

You also want to consider what you’ve been neglecting that you want to take care of with the time you get back when you delegate. My personal opinion is that two neglected areas are strategic planning/work and the growth of your team. If you’re not sure what to do, schedule a 1:1 if it has been a while.

How To Delegate

Alright, let’s get down to some mechanics. When you delegate, you need to pay attention to a few things. Too often, people delegate by simply saying, “Hey, I need you to go to that meeting for me,” and that’s it.

Don’t do that.

When you delegate, make sure the person you delegate to is aware of the following:

  • Context of the situation
  • What is off-limits or other boundaries
  • Desired or preferred outcome
  • Acknowledgement of trust

So let me rework the go-to-the-meeting into something more preferred.

“Hey, there is a meeting to set a date for the next release I want you to attend. They are going to pressure you for a date. Try not to give one, but if you have to make it at least six months out. You’re helping me out a lot by doing this, and I think you are doing to do great.”

This statement that only takes a few seconds more to say covers all the components and gives the person you delegate to a lot more information than they can use. What is invisible here is the undesirable consequence the manager considered and accepted before delegating.

Where to Start

Now that we’ve covered a bit about delegation, I want you to look at your calendar and find some low-risk things and find some people you can delegate to. Before you delegate, know how you will set them up to succeed. At first, try to delegate maybe one more thing this week. Take time after to debrief with the person you delegated with.

From there, grow those delegation muscles!