To Delegate is to Lead
The other day, I asked my wife if she had any Valentine’s day wishes. “More time,” she said. Is there a resource more valuable and scarce? It seems there’s never a shortage of things to do and there’s always a shortage of time. We crave more of it, to spend with one another, to breathe, to think, to connect, to create. And there’s never a shortage of things to do because work expands to fill the time you give it.
My grandfather once told me, “Know the things that you do well and concentrate on those. What you don’t do as well, hire or delegate to others.” But what if one of the things you don’t do well is delegation?
Delegation is an art and a science and most importantly, it’s a practice. It’s part of the art of great management — you have to know when someone is ready to take on the thing you’re delegating. It’s a part of the science of time and resource management. And it’s a practice because there are almost always times that you need to get involved more deeply in something you’ve delegated.
Understanding and delegating the things you don’t do well is a great place to start. It’s when you get into the things you are good at but don’t have the bandwidth to do, that things get tricky. At one point this year, I was coaching every leader on my team to delegate more and delegate smarter. We were under a ton of pressure and we weren’t getting everything that needed to be done, done. Instead of managing the work and delegating, their knee jerk reaction was to do the work on themselves. After all, as one of them told me, “I’m in this position because I’m good at what I do.” This argument is very tempting, and very flawed.
Knowing where and when to delegate takes discipline and practice. And it doesn’t get easier with a bigger team and expanded responsibility. We tend to promote great individual contributors into management positions. These promotions are a testament to their abilities and potential, and hopefully to their desire to grow as a leader. We train new leaders to manage people, but rarely do we train leaders when and how to delegate.
Great leaders show up with the right questions and empower their teams to find the answers. But in a crunch, when there’s pressure to get something important done quickly, most folks who have been star individual contributors will respond by taking on more themselves. We know we can do it, we know we can do it fast and we know we can do it well, so we’ll just do it ourselves. I have tried this. It doesn’t work because one person doesn’t scale. It’s a recipe for burnout because there will always be more important things to get done quickly. And it’s less productive because it doesn’t bring the team into the solving work, which is an opportunity for growth.
Delegation is leverage. Some will say that delegating takes more time because of the time spent assigning and correcting or improving/refining the output. It’s true that leaders are on the hook for flawless execution. But delegation expands capacity, even when it is time intensive. If someone else can get something 30% there, that’s 30% less time the leader spends on that thing. Time that can be spent on other important things. Getting started is a step toward completion. And while the team works toward finishing, their leader can start, progress or complete other things.
It is worth noting that there are different levels of feedback, depending on time and state of finish.
- Directive feedback rewrite/edit thoroughly and direct specific changes. This is good when there is a lot of time to work with the team, when it’s a junior team who isn’t used to doing the task at hand and/or when it’s clear that the thing is not headed in the right direction.
- Detailed notes specific direction about the flow, some editorial comments and overall feedback about where the team is headed and why this is correct/incorrect. This approach is helpful for new teams to understand how their manager is thinking about the challenge and solution. It guides and provides specific support and help when needed.
- Input thematic perspective on the overall document, shifts to make in approach and/or general style comments. Most useful when delegating to someone who is ready to drive with their point of view, and to grow into crafting the thing themselves.
Delegation is leadership. When a leader delegates and then engages in a constructive feedback conversation, the team gets stronger and the team members grow and learn. It’s actually a leader’s responsibility to delegate in order to help their team members grow. Feedback is a gift. It’s an invitation into a conversation about how to do something better. It’s a way to share perspectives, understand one another and to connect around the solution to a shared problem. It may seem like a time-suck when the pressure is on, but it is really an investment in a stronger team and better work. Delegating important work engages a team and empowers them to bring their own solutions to the table.
Delegating wisely makes leaders more effective and more impactful. It optimizes time, and empowers teams to go further faster. So to build on my Grandfather’s wisdom: Know what you’re good at and know what you’re not. Hire folks who are good at the things you’re not. And delegate both to scale your impact and level up your leadership game. I can’t promise that you’ll magically have more time this Valentine’s Day, but I can assure you that you and your team will grow. And that is time well spent.