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Learn How and When to Delegate

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Determine which tasks to delegate to others.
  • Identify the right people on your team to delegate to.

Learn to Delegate

'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' African Proverb

Everyone in Joanna’s department is excited for the weekend, except Joanna. As her reports skip out of the building on Friday, Joanna packs her laptop with a heavy heart because she’ll be working to finish the team’s report for next week. She is constantly drowning under a never-ending pile of emails and data, but she doesn’t believe that anyone else can get the report done correctly.

Woman dressed in work clothes, but on a surf board with many work-related items flying in the waves.

Ever felt like Joanna? Maybe you’ve thought that for work to be done right, you have to do it yourself. Your company probably loves your passion and enthusiasm. But here’s the thing: If you keep up this “do it all yourself” approach and never take a sick day or vacation, the productivity of your group might come to a grinding halt. That’s where the magic of delegation comes in! When done correctly, you can take that vacation without the office bursting into flames.

Many work-items on fire, while man runs away in a panic.

We know it’s hard. One of the reasons you probably became a manager is your top-notch skills as an individual contributor, right? Regardless of the type of work you do, you know how to get the job done—and that’s fabulous! But think back to when you were an individual contributor for a minute. Would you have been able to shine if your manager hadn’t trusted you with responsibilities? Ansar notes when he made the shift to from an individual contributor to manager it was one of his greatest challenges to develop a delegation reflex even when he had a lot on his plate. Click below to hear how he managed to make that shift.

Don’t worry, delegating doesn’t mean that you aren’t as important to your company or that you lessen your visibility in the organization. When you make the shift from individual contributor to manager, you become responsible for your team’s productivity and impact. Delegating like a champ means that you’re maximizing the company’s greatest investment: its people. So let’s look at how to select the right teammates to help you get things done...and done well.

Delegate to the Right People

Smiling pilot saying, 'My first flight!' Passengers look concerned.

Imagine that you find out right before boarding your next flight that it’s the pilot’s first time flying, and no co-pilot is on board. You’d probably be asking for the next available departure, right?

For your clients, it would be just as scary if they thought someone who had never worked in the business was flying solo on their account. When you’re working with newer team members, pairing them with a veteran who has plenty of task-specific experience helps them get the job done. And what’s even cooler, is that both individuals get a chance to tackle a new challenge.

The less experienced employee benefits from hands-on experience in the new role. The more senior employee gets a leadership and coaching opportunity which can be leveraged as management experience later on. Everybody wins! But perhaps you’re wondering, what if I’m handing off a project to a more senior member of my team? Do you use the same approach?

Surgeon prepped for surgery, as is the support staff.

Think of it this way. Surgeons coach medical interns through a procedure based on the intern’s experience level and the type of surgery. Just like doctors change their approach on a case-per-case basis, you can adapt your delegation style depending on the report you’re working with and the task at hand.

Experience Level
Delegation Approach
What That Sounds Like
Conversational, partnering
  • What support do you need from me to be successful?”
Directive; offer a chance for the employee to suggest a solution before giving instructions
  • “What’s your plan for getting the project off the ground?”
  • “What do you foresee being a potential stumbling block to the project?”
  • “What’s your target timeline and outcome for the project?”
Instructional, supportive
  • “Here’s what needs to be done to get the project running.”
  • “I’d like for us to check in daily and weekly to make sure that we’re getting over any potential roadblocks.”
  • “I expect the project to take three weeks to execute.”
  • “Our ideal outcome looks like …”

Picking the right job for the right person is an equally important aspect of delegation. If the circus took a one-job-fits-all approach, you could end up watching a lion tamer trying to fly on a trapeze when the aerialist calls in sick. You can probably imagine how well that would end.

So how does delegation unfold in the business world? When you decide what and when tasks need to get done, you then delegate them based on your reports’ ability and willingness. For novice reports, hand off smaller scale tasks that they can manage from end-to-end to build confidence. These tasks also typically have a shorter execution timeline, so if they need help, you get a warning signal sooner rather than later. Let’s see how approach plays out for other experience levels. You can download Delegating to the Right People in the Accountability & Delegation pack.

Your mid-level reports are best suited for responsibilities that have both familiar and new components. Why? They can feel confident about getting started and excited by the prospect of tackling something new.

When delegating these tasks, make the new challenges solvable by applying existing knowledge. Your reports have the knowledge and tools to succeed, but remind them that you’re available for further guidance.

Person preparing evening meal as others do outdoor activities.

Last, but not least, feel comfortable giving your most experienced team members projects that you’d be working on if you weren’t their manager. Delegation is getting done right when everyone is in a role they are uniquely capable of doing. That means giving much of the highest level individual contributor work to your highest level colleagues.

Okay, deep breath in and exhale. Feeling better already? Now that your plate is a little less full, let’s dive into what to do when you’ve assigned those responsibilities.