To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well

One of the most difficult transitions for leaders to make is the shift from doing to leading. As a
new manager you can get away with holding on to work. Peers and bosses may even admire your
willingness to keep “rolling up your sleeves” to execute tactical assignments. But as your
responsibilities become more complex, the difference between an effective leader and a supersized individual contributor with a leader’s title is painfully evident.

In the short term you may have the stamina to get up earlier, stay later, and out-work the
demands you face. But the inverse equation of shrinking resources and increasing demands will
eventually catch up to you, and at that point how you involve others sets the ceiling of your
leadership impact. The upper limit of what’s possible will increase only with each collaborator
you empower to contribute their best work to your shared priorities. Likewise, your power
decreases with every initiative you unnecessarily hold on to.

While it may seem difficult, elevating your impact requires you to embrace an unavoidable
leadership paradox: You need to be more essential and less involved. When you justify your hold
on work, you’re confusing being involved with being essential. But the two are not the same —
just as being busy and being productive are not necessarily equal. Your involvement is a mix of
the opportunities, mandates, and choices you make regarding the work you do. How ancillary or
essential you are to the success of that portfolio depends on how decisively and wisely you
activate those around you.

This means shaping the thoughts and ideas of others instead of dictating their plans, having a
sought-after perspective but not being a required pass-through, and seeing your own priorities
come to life through the inspired actions of others.

On the surface this advice may sound like common sense; it’s what motivational leaders should
do. Yet too many of us are in a constant state of overextension, which fuels an instinctive reaction
to “protect” work. This survival instinct ultimately dilutes our impact through an ongoing, limited
effect on others.

To know if you’re guilty of holding on to too much, answer this simple question: If you had to
take an unexpected week off work, would your initiatives and priorities advance in your absence?
If you answered no or if you’re unsure, then you may be more involved than essential. To raise
the ceiling of your leadership potential, you need to extend your presence through the actions of
others. Regardless of your preferred methodology for delegation, here are four strategies that
I’ve found work for leaders at all levels.

Start with your reasons. When people lack understanding about why something matters and
how they fit into it, they are less likely to care. But if you give them context about what’s at stake,

how they fit into the big picture, and what’s unique about the opportunity, then you increase
personal relevance and the odds of follow-through. Instead of giving just the business
justification, make it a point to share your reasons. You can’t motivate somebody to care when
you can’t express the reasons why it matters to you, so this essential step sets the table for
effective partnering. Otherwise, you leave people to come to their own conclusions about what
you’re asking them to do and why. The risk of misalignment is highest during the first
conversation, so make sure you articulate your reasons from the start.

Inspire their commitment. People get excited about what’s possible, but they commit only when
they understand their role in making it happen. Once you’ve defined the work, clarified the scope
of their contribution, and ensured that it aligns with their capacity, carefully communicate any
and all additional expectations for complete understanding. This is crucial when you have a
precise outcome or methodology in mind. They can’t read your mind, so if the finished product
needs to be meticulous, be equally clear-cut in the ask. Once clarity is established, confirm their
interpretation (face-to-face, or at least voice-to-voice, to avoid email misinterpretations). “But I
told them how I wanted it done!” will not be the reason the ball got dropped; it will simply be
the evidence that you didn’t confirm their understanding and inspire their commitment.

Engage at the right level. It’s essential to stay involved, but the degree matters. You should maintain engagement levels sufficient for you to deliver the agreed-upon mix of support and accountability. However, there are risks when the mix is not right: Too involved, and you could consciously or inadvertently micromanage those around you; too hands-off, and you could miss the critical moments where a supportive comment or vital piece of feedback would be essential. To pick your spot, simply ask people what the right level is based on their style. This not only clarifies the frequency of touchpoints they will find useful but also gives them autonomy in how the delegated work will move forward.

Practice saying “yes,” “no,” and “yes, if.” This is the art and science of being selective. Successful
investors don’t divert their money into every opportunity that comes their way, so we should be
equally discerning with our time. Start by carefully assessing every demand that comes your way,
and align the asks with the highest-valued contributions that you’re most skilled at making. For
those requests that draw on this talent, you say yes and carve out the time and attention to be
intimately involved. But for those requests that don’t align, you say yes, if… and immediately
identify other people to accomplish the goals through their direct involvement. You may still
consult, motivate, and lead — but you’re essential as the catalyst, not as the muscle doing the
heavy lifting. This discerning approach may mean delegating some tasks to others, negotiating a
reduction in your direct contribution, or just saying no while making the business case for why
your effort and attention will have a greater impact elsewhere.

To illustrate these strategies in action, consider Anika. The word no was not in her vocabulary,
and as a result she involved herself in every team priority. As demand continued to rise, Anika
could no longer remain credibly engaged in everything. But since she staked out her territory in
the middle, various initiatives began to stagnate. As members of her team stood idly by waiting
for some of her precious time to consult on, review, or approve various items, their frustration
grew. Anika found herself on the edge of burnout, while confronting a potential loss of credibility
with her team.

The first step for Anika was challenging the definition of her leadership mandate. Up to that
point, she defined her core responsibility like this: “I’m the one in charge of getting the job done.”
As she reflected on this, she recognized it as doer’s mindset that lowered the ceiling of her
potential impact. The proof was that in recent months her peers were included in various
strategic conversations and business development opportunities with senior leaders, yet Anika,
with no energy or space for these endeavors, was dealt out of these opportunities to
demonstrate her upside.

She recognized that her focus on executing work was not only holding her back from the bigpicture work of leading but also was the source of frustration among her junior staff. Although it
was uncomfortable, she wanted to start giving them more rope. As Anika considered her
obligation to develop others — upskilling, providing tangible leadership experience, and so on —
she redefined her leadership mandate to avoid being involved and not being essential: “I lea
people, priorities, and projects — in that order — and the work will get done because the right
people are focused on the right tasks.”

With this refreshed vision, her next step was to reassess her portfolio. She looked at her calendar
for the two weeks prior and two weeks ahead, then she counted the hours devoted to each effort
(for example, through meetings, working sessions, and conference calls). Once she finished the
time count, she ranked each item on a 10-point scale to assess how important the initiative was
to the team’s overall success.

This two-column exercise quickly revealed a few mismatches where Anika was devoting too much
time and energy to priorities that were not in the top five. These were candidates for delegation,
so her next step was to consider each team member’s unique mix of skills and development
needs in order to make an intelligent match regarding who could take on more responsibility.
Some of the initiatives could be completely handed off, while others could be broken down into
a few smaller pieces in order to involve others without a full transfer of responsibility.

With these new assignments in mind, she devoted 15–20 minutes preparing for each
conversation. She brainstormed ways to share her reasons for the change, as well as how she
could inspire their commitment. With eight team members, this was a significant investment of
time on an already overloaded schedule, but Anika recognized it as a short-term cost to create
long-term benefits.

Within a short period of time, Anika became considerably less involved in the details, but she
remained essential to the purpose and momentum of each critical initiative. Said differently, her
influence was ever-present, but the bottleneck dissolved.

Finally, with the additional bandwidth she created for herself, Anika was concerned that her
knee-jerk tendency to say yes could quickly erase the gains. So moving forward she made a
commitment to apply the strategy of saying yes, no, or yes, if to new requests in order to avoid
diluting her impact through involvement in areas that didn’t align with her desired growth and
personal brand. And to ensure an objective perspective, Anika asked a colleague to act as an
ongoing sounding board for her when the factors were ambiguous and the right answer wasn’t

Staying mindful of these four strategies, working out the kinks like Anika did, and becoming
proficient at empowering others to deliver their best builds your capacity to get the job done
through the contributions of others. With this momentum you’ll be able to focus on the
secondary potential of your deliberate collaboration: to leverage each delegated task as an
opportunity for others’ development. Then, over time, they too can be more essential and less

Successful Delegation Using the Power of Other People's Help

How to Delegate

Start by specifying the outcome you desire to the people you trust to deliver it. Establish controls,
identify limits to the work and provide sufficient support, but resist upward delegation. Keep up
to date with progress, and focus on results rather than procedures. Finally, when the work is
completed, give recognition where it’s deserved.

Even "Super You" needs help and support. There is no shame in asking for assistance. Push aside
the pride and show respect for the talent others can bring to the table.

And, remember that there is no such thing as a single-handed success: when you include and
acknowledge all those in your corner, you propel yourself, your teammates and your supporters
to greater heights.

Do you feel stressed and overloaded? Or that your career seems stalled? If so, then you may need
to brush up your delegation skills!
If you work on your own, there's only a limited amount that you can do, however hard you work.
You can only work so many hours in a day. There are only so many tasks you can complete in
these hours. There are only so many people you can help by doing these tasks. And, because the
number of people you can help is limited, your success is limited.

However, if you're good at your job, people will want much more than this from you. This can
lead to a real sense of pressure and work overload: you can't do everything that everyone wants,
and this can leave you stressed, unhappy, and feeling that you're letting people down.

On the positive side, however, you're being given a tremendous opportunity if you can find a way
around this limitation. If you can realize this opportunity, you can be genuinely successful!
One of the most common ways of overcoming this limitation is to learn how to delegate your
work to other people. If you do this well, you can quickly build a strong and successful team of
people, well able to meet the demands that others place. This is why delegation is such an
important skill, and is one that you absolutely have to learn!

Why People Don't Delegate

To figure out how to delegate properly, it's important to understand why people avoid it. Quite
simply, people don't delegate because it takes a lot of up-front effort.
After all, which is easier: designing and writing content for a brochure that promotes a new
service you helped spearhead, or having other members of your team do it? You know the
content inside and out. You can spew benefit statements in your sleep. It would be relatively
straightforward for you to sit down and write it. It would even be fun! The question is, "Would it
be a good use of your time?"

While on the surface it's easier to do it yourself than explain the strategy behind the brochure to
someone else, there are two key reasons that mean that it's probably better to delegate the task
to someone else:

  • First, if you have the ability to spearhead a new campaign, the chances are that your skills are better used further developing the strategy, and perhaps coming up with other new ideas. By doing the work yourself, you're failing to make the best use of your time.
  • Second, by meaningfully involving other people in the project, you develop those people's skills and abilities. This means that next time a similar project comes along, you can delegate the task with a high degree of confidence that it will be done well, with much less involvement from you.

Delegation allows you to make the best use of your time and skills, and it helps other people in
the team grow and develop to reach their full potential in the organization.

When to Delegate

Delegation is a win-win when done appropriately, however, that does not mean that you can
delegate just anything. To determine when delegation is most appropriate there are five key
questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Is there someone else who has (or can be given) the necessary information or expertise to complete the task? Essentially is this a task that someone else can do, or is it critical that you do it yourself?
  • Does the task provide an opportunity to grow and develop another person's skills?
  • Is this a task that will recur, in a similar form, in the future?
  • Do you have enough time to delegate the job effectively? Time must be available for adequate training, for questions and answers, for opportunities to check progress, and for rework if that is necessary.
  • Is this a task that I should delegate? Tasks critical for long-term success (for example, recruiting the right people for your team) genuinely do need your attention.

If you can answer "yes" to at least some of the above questions, then it could well be worth
delegating this job.


Other factors that contribute to the delegability of a task include:

  1. The project's timelines/deadlines.
    • How much time is there available to do the job?
    • Is there time to redo the job if it's not done properly the first time?
    • What are the consequences of not completing the job on time?
  2. Your expectations or goals for the project or task(s), including:
    • How important is it that the results are of the highest possible quality?
    • Is an "adequate" result good enough?
    • Would a failure be crucial?
    • How much would failure impact other things?

That being said, having all these conditions present is no guarantee that the delegated task will
be completed successfully either. You also need to consider to whom you will delegate the task
and how you will do it.

The Who and How of Delegating

Having decided to delegate a task there are some other factors to consider as well. As you think
these through you can keep record of the tasks you choose to delegate and who you want to
delegate them to.

To Whom Should You Delegate?

The factors to consider here include:

  1. The experience, knowledge and skills of the individual as they apply to the delegated task.
    • What knowledge, skills and attitude does the person already have?
    • Do you have time and resources to provide any training needed?
  2. The individual's preferred work style.
    • How independent is the person?
    • What does he or she want from his or her job?
    • What are his or her long-term goals and interests, and how do these align with the work proposed?
  3. The current workload of this person.
    • Does the person have time to take on more work?
    • Will you delegating this task require reshuffling of other responsibilities and workloads?


When you first start to delegate to someone, you may notice that he or she takes longer than
you do to complete tasks. This is because you are an expert in the field and the person you have
delegated to is still learning. Be patient: if you have chosen the right person to delegate to, and
you are delegating correctly, you will find that he or she quickly becomes competent and reliable.

How Should You Delegate?

Use the following principles to delegate successfully:

  1. Clearly articulate the desired outcome. Begin with the end in mind and specify the desired results.
  2. Clearly identify constraints and boundaries. Where are the lines of authority, responsibility and accountability? Should the person:
    • Wait to be told what to do?
    • Ask what to do?
    • Recommend what should be done, and then act?
    • Act, and then report results immediately?
    • Initiate action, and then report periodically?
  3. Where possible, include people in the delegation process. Empower them to decide what tasks are to be delegated to them and when.
  4. Match the amount of responsibility with the amount of authority. Understand that you can delegate some responsibility, however you can't delegate away ultimate accountability. The buck stops with you!
  5. Delegate to the lowest possible organizational level. The people who are closest to the work are best suited for the task, because they have the most intimate knowledge of the detail of everyday work. This also increases workplace efficiency, and helps to develop people.
  6. Provide adequate support, and be available to answer questions. Ensure the project's success through ongoing communication and monitoring as well as provision of resources and credit.
  7. Focus on results. Concern yourself with what is accomplished, rather than detailing how the work should be done: Your way is not necessarily the only or even the best way! Allow the person to control his or her own methods and processes. This facilitates success and trust.
  8. Avoid "upward delegation." If there is a problem, don't allow the person to shift responsibility for the task back to you: ask for recommended solutions; and don't simply provide an answer.
  9. Build motivation and commitment. Discuss how success will impact financial rewards, future opportunities, informal recognition, and other desirable consequences. Provide recognition where deserved.
  10. Establish and maintain control.
    • Discuss timelines and deadlines.
    • Agree on a schedule of checkpoints at which you'll review project progress
    • Make adjustments as necessary
    • Take time to review all submitted work.

In thoroughly considering these key points prior to and during the delegation process you will
find that you delegate more successfully.

Keeping Control

Now, once you have worked through the above steps, make sure you brief your team member
appropriately. Take time to explain why they were chosen for the job, what's expected from them
during the project, the goals you have for the project, all timelines and deadlines and the
resources on which they can draw. And agree a schedule for checking-in with progress updates.
Lastly, make sure that the team member knows that you want to know if any problems occur,
and that you are available for any questions or guidance needed as the work progresses.

We all know that as managers, we shouldn't micromanage. However, this doesn't mean we must
abdicate control altogether: In delegating effectively, we have to find the sometimes-difficult
balance between giving enough space for people to use their abilities to best effect, while still
monitoring and supporting closely enough to ensure that the job is done correctly and effectively.

The Importance of Full Acceptance

When delegated work is delivered back to you, set aside enough time to review it thoroughly. If
possible, only accept good quality, fully-complete work. If you accept work you are not satisfied
with, your team member does not learn to do the job properly. Worse than this, you accept a
whole new tranche of work that you will probably need to complete yourself. Not only does this
overload you, it means that you don't have the time to do your own job properly.
Of course, when good work is returned to you, make sure to both recognize and reward the
effort. As a leader, you should get in the practice of complimenting members of your team every
time you are impressed by what they have done. This effort on your part will go a long way toward
building team member's self-confidence and efficiency, both of which will be improved on the
next delegated task; hence, you both win.

Key Points

At first sight, delegation can feel like more hassle than it's worth, however by delegating
effectively, you can hugely expand the amount of work that you can deliver.

When you arrange the workload so that you are working on the tasks that have the highest
priority for you, and other people are working on meaningful and challenging assignments, you
have a recipe for success.

To delegate effectively, choose the right tasks to delegate, identify the right people to delegate
to, and delegate in the right way. There's a lot to this, but you'll achieve so much more once
you're delegating effectively!

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