Most every leader I work with finds successful delegation to be a significant challenge. The problem with not being able to delegate well, however, is that delegation is central to effective leadership.
“Getting things done through others is a fundamental leadership skill. Indeed, if you can’t do it, you’re not leading,” declares Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.
The first secret of successful delegation is redefining our concept of it. In most of our minds delegation is an act where someone is given something to do. In this way we view it as an event where a task I was doing is now being done by someone else.
This is not, however, delegation. This is dumping, the primary reason for its failure. Successful delegation follows each step in the process below. Only by arriving at the last step is delegation complete.
STEP ONE: Realization
The first step in the delegation process is realization. We must come to the point where we are aware of all the things we are doing and the price we are paying for doing them.
We pay a price personally by overloading our list of things to do, doing none well and coming to the end of a crazy busy week burned-out and exhausted. Only to start the process all over again on Monday.
We pay a price organizationally, stunting the development of our people by doing things for them they could be doing themselves and creating a bottleneck of work that can only flow through us.
Exceptional leaders view themselves as an orchestra conductor skillfully bringing out the best in others to create a wonderful symphony of sound. Stop, right now make list of the things you need to delegate and the people you would like to delegate these things to.
STEP TWO: Observation
The next step is a simple yet powerful practice. Have the person to whom you are delegating watch you do the task. Many times when someone is given something to do, they have never seen it done before. So they stumble in the dark with no idea of what good looks like. Identify the things you want to delegate and have the people you are delegating to watch you do them.
When I do this, I have a debriefing session immediately afterwards and hold my observer accountable for asking me ten tough questions about what he or she just saw. These are great, real-life learning sessions that vastly exceed anything you could do in the classroom.
What this means, then, as a delegating leader is that you should rarely, if ever, be doing anything alone. Always have someone with you, watching and questioning.
STEP THREE: Collaboration
The next step in successful delegation are also simple, but generally ignored. After a person has observed you doing a task, start letting them do it with you. Tag team the task: doing a part of it yourself and having them do the other part. Think pilot, co-pilot in an airplane.
STEP FOUR: Evaluation
Then, once a person has enough flying experience, you sit in the co-pilot’s seat and let them fly them plane on their own, giving them feedback along the way. This is step four, evaluation. Don’t neglect this important step. The corrections you’ll make will be small (if you’ve done your job up to this point), but vital to the long-term success.
STEP FIVE: Delegation
Then, when evaluation is complete, the responsibility for the task is handed over fully and completely. Delegation. The rate at which you move from observation to collaboration, from evaluation to final delegation depends on two things. The first is the complexity of the task–flying an airplane as opposed to turning off the office alarm system–and second is the ability and experience of the person being delegated to.
Be attentive in each step and be willing to speed things up, or slow things down, so effective learning takes place. And, yes, I know this takes time. But the time you’re spending right now putting out fires from poor delegation practices pales in comparison to the time you’ll save preventing those fires in the first place.
As the grizzled mechanic says in the old Fram oil filter commercial, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”
Finally, do not interpret the word “I” in the chart above to mean you personally. That is, you alone are the one who must personally complete all the steps outlined above. Interpret the word “I” as plural. In others words, delegation can be delegated.
A new salesperson can go on calls with a seasoned salesperson and complete the observation step. A less experienced trainer can have a more experienced trainer in the room to evaluate her presentation and complete the evaluation step. Your job in delegating is to conduct a great symphony, not play every instrument in the orchestra.
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