Updated: Mar 19, 2022
As you become more established in your career, your responsibilities change, as do the expectations that others have of you. Most people start in a role which involves 'doing'; writing reports, selling things, managing relationships, writing code, planting vegetables, teaching children in the classroom. Whatever industry you might be in, you'll learn at the beginning and then spend your early years getting your hands dirty.
What some people want from their careers, is to remain in the 'doing'! I have recently been working with a cohort of 28 coaching clients in a major bank, largely software engineers and when I asked them where they'd like to progress in their career, over twenty of them said that they wanted to remain in a technical line as individual contributors and had no desire to get into people management. That, of course, is absolutely fine! If that's what brings you joy, and it's what you're good at, it makes perfect sense to stay in that field, rather than moving into something that doesn't bring you joy and stops you playing to your strengths. I could talk all day about the importance of organisations finding ways to retain their deep experts by letting them grow and thrive in the organisation without forcing them into line management, making them miserable and diluting their impact (and I might well do in a future blog...) but for the purposes of today, let's focus on those who either aspire to management roles, or at the very least, don't mind them!
So we learn, grow and climb the ladder, and find ourselves moving into a people leadership role - either one with direct line management or leading others through some kind of matrix management structure within projects. Often this involves a promotion, a pay rise, improved benefits and perks, so it's seen as progress - but it's also a change, and navigating change needs consideration.
Because in this new role, you're not 'doing' so much, and you've added 'leading' and 'managing' to the list of responsibilities. Your time needs to be apportioned differently, but that's the first mistake that many managers make - they keep trying to 'do'. Imagine a role where 100% of your time - let's say 40 hours a week - was spent 'doing'. Now you're a leader, you have two choices; reduce that number to make space for the leadership activities, or stick with 40 hours of 'doing' and add another 20 of 'leading'. Congratulations - you're now working a 60 hour week! That's not good for your wellbeing, not good for life away from work and suddenly that pay rise doesn't seem so good, when you're dividing your weekly income by 60 instead of 40!
This is why delegation is such a crucial skill to master. Last week I wrote about productivity and making better use of your time, and one of the things that came up in that blog was the Eisenhower Matrix. This involves ranking each activity in front of you and plotting it on 2 axes - how urgent is it and how important is it. The really important thing to stress, however, is a sub question underneath importance. It's not just 'how important is it that this job gets done?' it's 'how important is it that this job gets done BY YOU?' A subtle but very important distinction. Once you know that a task is urgent but not necessarily something that you need to deliver personally, it's time to start delegating!
Before I go any further - a note of warning. Good delegation is NOT just taking the shit you don’t want to do and palming it off on someone else. I recall the many development opportunities I was 'gifted' as a graduate in financial services, including the day I found myself alone on an empty floor of a building, moving filing cabinets. How empowering...
So why is delegation such a challenge? Well there are a few reasons I've regularly encountered across the hundreds of leaders I've coached:
"I don't want to give up control"
This is very common, especially with startups and entrepreneurs. You've set up a business and it's starting to grow, but you're used to doing it all. So you keep doing it all, your team get nothing to get their teeth into and eventually drift away, exacerbating the problem. That is a fast track to burnout. And if you're struggling with burnout, give my homie Nicola a shout.
"I don't trust my team to do it 'right'"
Being a perfectionist is great, but just because you do something one way, doesn't mean that's the only way it can be done. Your team might find a better way, a more efficient way, or a way that your customers or clients appreciate even more than the way you did it. Autonomy is a fundamental driver of intrinsic motivation so loosen the reins and let them get stuck in!
"If I delegate tasks, people will look at me and ask 'what is it that (s)he actually does?!'"
This has come up a LOT lately and ties in with the idea of imposter syndrome, or the fear of being found out. Having worked with a lot of senior managers and execs, in big money, high profile roles, I can tell you that this is no less common at the top of the hierarchy than it is at the bottom, but I can also tell you that the answer you need to give yourself is simple. When you're not 'doing', you're 'leading' - and that's what the organisation is paying you to do! Remember this simple fact; you're being paid to make sure things get done, not necessarily to do them yourself!
"In the time it takes me to delegate and upskill, I'd be quicker doing it myself"
Absolutely true - and in my very first role as a graduate, I used to go round the office every day offering my time to help others out (because I had fuck all to do!) and this was the answer over and over again. So instead I sat at my desk, feeling bored and dejected and messed around on the internet. And then I got a disciplinary for messing about on the internet - but that's a story for another day!! When you adopt this mindset, you're sacrificing short term time savings for long term losses. What happens the next time that task needs done? You have to do it again. And again and again and again. Was is still quicker to 'just do it' or should you have coached up, delegated and helped someone else grow in the process?
And this is why delegation is important - beside the obvious time saving to reduce the chance of burnout on leaders, there's the fact that it gives others the chance to grow and take on more responsibility. That upskills them, drives their engagement, helps with succession planning and can help you find new (and perhaps better) ways of getting things done. It shows you trust your people and it lets them flourish, increase their value to the organisation (and beyond!) and potentially grow their network.
So now that you've decided you're going to delegate more, how do you do it well?
Have a clear vision
When your organisation has a clear vision that's embedded and understood by everyone, it means that everyone is facing in the same direction. That means that when a question comes their way, or they face a challenge with a piece of work, they have a frame of reference, shared with you, to help them navigate. That makes it much more likely that they'll come up with an answer that's in keeping with what you'd expect.
Develop yourself as a coach
When you won't delegate a task because you think the team will mess it up, that's a reflection on you, more than the team. Work on your coaching skills. Observe, give feedback, help your people build their skills. These things will make the team better and the better they are, the more responsibility and opportunity you can give them.
Follow a simple process to maximise your chance of success
Maybe the single best leadership tool I've ever come across, is Cohen Brown's Success Triangle (TM). It's simple but incredibly powerful and you can use it everywhere. Here's how you can follow it to help with more effective delegation: Firstly you ensure that when you delegate, you give CLARITY. Make sure that when you give someone a piece of work to do, they're clear about what you're asking them to, any processes they need to follow or be mindful of, and your expectations of them (when it's to be completed, how you want to be fed back to on progress, etc). Ensure that they have the CAPABILITY to do the work - this means observing and coaching to make sure they're able to do it, but also making sure they have the access to tools and resources they need to get it done, including enough time! And finally, ensure they're MOTIVATED to do it and do it well. You can impact upon this by showing them why it's important and how it fits into the bigger picture. What is the purpose of what you've asked them to do? Why is it important?
Create psychological safety
Psychological safety is, according to Google's Project Aristotle, the single biggest factor in high performing teams. When you delegate something and someone makes a mistake, if you rip them to shreds for it, you're destroying the psychological safety in your team and it makes them less likely to take risks and try new things in future. Mistakes happen, that's part of life. Use them as teachable moments and opportunities to support your team's growth - not a change to haul someone over the coals.
Nobody wakes up and comes to work to do a bad job - people want to make an impact and add value, so make sure that you're helping them do this and to get better every day by giving them feedback once they've done a piece of work you delegate to them. What went well and what could they have done differently?
Say thank you!
Just because it's someone's job to do something, doesn't mean you should leave your manners at the door. Show you appreciate people and watch how much more eager they are to help you in the future!
Lots to think about today, but some simple tips in there that you can put into practice right now! You know why it's important. You know how to do it effectively. What can you delegate today?