As busy entrepreneurs, we all have too much to do. While delegation is the obvious answer, it’s much harder than it sounds. (It’s also a pervasive problem: A study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity revealed that nearly half of the 332 companies polled had concerns about their employees’ delegation skills.) It takes time to train others to take over responsibilities, and the awful truth is that sometimes, they really don’t do the task as well as we would.
But if you want your company to grow and thrive, you simply can’t keep doing it all. Here are four strategies you can deploy to start handing off some of the tasks on your plate so you can improve your overall productivity.
1. Delegate Things Outside Your Core Business
“My core business is songs,” says Austin, Texas-based musician and entrepreneur Darden Smith. That’s why he chooses to outsource his marketing to a PR firm. “The marketing's there to serve my music,” he says. Smith believes the more time he spends where he excels, the more successful he is.
San Francisco-based entrepreneur Ritika Puri agrees. “Every moment I spend on something that isn't my core strength is an opportunity cost for growing my business,” Puri says. Similarly, I write my own books and articles, but I've hired virtual assistants to help with preliminary research, transcription and uploading my blog posts.
2. Delegate When the Stakes Are Low
There are times when you can’t afford to make a mistake. Maybe you’re working with a new client for the first time. Perhaps it’s a time sensitive, high-impact project. If you don’t already have a delegating system in place, these are definitely not the times when you should start assigning key tasks to your employees.
Instead, begin by slowly testing out the skills of your employees or virtual assistants. Give them an assignment with a deadline—but one that can be pushed back, if necessary. “I delegate tasks that I know aren't deal breakers if they're not completed or screwed up,” a colleague once told me, “and I delegate with a timeline in mind for the cleanup work, if needed.”
Your plan should include enough leeway so that if the assignment is botched, you can still recover easily—and if your staffer comes through, it’ll be a pleasant surprise. Then next time, you'll know you can rely on them during crunch time.
3. Delegate Where Your Own Skills Are Weak
Sometimes we delegate because others can do the work faster or cheaper than we can. Other times, it’s because they can simply do it better. “I’m not that skilled at Excel, for instance,” says freelance writer and consultant Julie Donnelly-Mathews. “This is something where the quality would go up, not down, by delegating.”
Many entrepreneurs use similar logic to outsource bookkeeping, tax preparation or even semi-technical challenges like IKEA furniture assembly (a popular category on the personal assistant site Task Rabbit).
4. Delegate What’s Not Visible
The more visible the task, the more important it is for you to own it. For instance, you’d never send a temp to meet face-to-face with your client. But for more "invisible" back-office tasks, no one's going to mind or notice when you get assistance. As one colleague noted, “No child ever said to their mom, ‘Thank you for cleaning the toilet for me.’ ” That’s why hiring help for cleaning and other household chores is a popular option; what matters is spending time with your family, not the mechanics of how the food was cooked or how the floors were cleaned.
In a professional context, entrepreneurs commonly delegate basic administrative tasks. “I give first-pass research [assignments] to virtual assistants,” says social entrepreneur Sarah Schacht. “ 'What are the Airbnbs in a particular city that meet the following criteria? Who are the experts on a certain topic?' That saves me an hour or two, then the rest of my research or decisions are faster.”
Along similar lines, many entrepreneurs outsource travel planning; as long as your instructions are clear (always book the aisle seat; try to get a direct flight whenever possible), your virtual assistant can easily winnow the options down for you, and it won’t matter to your client who booked the ticket.
If you want your business to scale, delegation—painful though it may be initially—is the only answer. Once you’ve developed your systems (writing out detailed instructions for your virtual assistant or testing out your employees’ ability to get marketing tasks done on time), it’s almost certain you’ll wish you’d done it sooner.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.
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