Growing a business requires letting go of some of the hats that small-business owners and entrepreneurs have been wearing from day one. That means delegating to other team members.
But there’s more to delegation than simply handing over a task or project. You need a consistent process that includes understanding the outcomes, setting expectations and providing support systems that set up the team for success.
One challenge is that small-business owners and executives lead at a tactical level, says Jeff Dyck, whose firm, Bold Bridge Advisors, helps small businesses and high-growth entrepreneurs scale.
“Many business owners and CEOs in startups, small businesses and even some medium businesses suffer from what I refer to as do-it-all-ism,” says Dyck. “They’re involved in every single business activity and every task or have become the bottleneck because they don’t delegate.”
Delegation, in many ways, requires a shift from operating the business to leading it. Here are the five steps to help get you there.
1. Understand what you want to delegate and why.
If you don’t know what you want to delegate, start by keeping a log for three to five days of all your daily activities. Dyck recommends using 15- to 30-minute blocks and writing down a list.
“And then ask yourself, which of those [activities] really need your time and attention,” he says.
Tasha Booth, founder and CEO of The Launch Guild, says this method helps provide clarity not only on where you spend your time but also on what is not in your “zone of genius” and what you need support with. Booth started her business, which supports online launches, as a hobby blogger in 2016, and grew it to a team of 20 women.
“The things you want to delegate first are the ones that you either don’t feel very competent and confident in, or things that are repeatable tasks that somebody else on your team can do,” she says.
For Booth, procrastinating on a task or falling behind schedule is typically a sign that it requires delegation and needs her team’s support.
“The reason that we procrastinate a lot of times is because we don’t feel confident in it or it’s something that just doesn’t excite us, doesn’t light us up,” she says.
2. Prepare a delegation plan and strategy.
A common mistake leaders make is not spending enough time planning before delegating.
“Preparing for what you want to delegate is huge, and that’s where the process often goes off the rails,” Booth says.
Planning includes defining the desired outcomes, understanding the required steps or process, setting measurable goals and figuring out the support systems needed. Dyck recommends using the SMART method (which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) for setting the objectives and outcomes.
“Most business owners aren’t clear on the expectations themselves, so how can they delegate a task or activity and expect to get a result they like?” he says.
Once you have clarity, create written standard operating procedures, or SOPs, Booth advises. SOPs will help you avoid re-creating a process from scratch when you delegate to a new person or an employee leaves the company.
“The SOP will take a while to create, but once it’s there, you can start from that SOP with the next person instead of starting over,” she says.
3. Choose the right person for the task.
Whether you’re delegating a tactical or strategic activity, choosing the right person will impact the end result. For Monte Williams, founder of ALEU - The Leadership Development Company, this step means spending a lot of time getting to know his employees, including their strengths and weaknesses and their career aspirations.
Williams is currently vice president of customer experience for Avocado Green Brands, a California-based lifestyle brand that offers sustainable products. While many business leaders delegate to improve their productivity, he says his primary motivation is to give employees “the opportunity to gain experience and confidence” so they can further both the business and their careers.
“I make an assignment because I’ve already taken the time to establish a relationship with the employee and to establish trust. Trust equals empowerment,” Williams says. “When you delegate something to a person who’s not empowered to get the job done, it defeats the purpose of delegating.”
4. Set expectations, both for outcomes and the process.
Setting clear expectations at the outset will help you avoid micromanaging a project. Expectations include outcomes, deadlines, deliverable format, checkpoints and communication processes.
“I make sure I’m very clear on what my ask is,” Williams says. “And I make sure I proactively check in to see if support is needed, not to question whether the tasks are done or not.”
Williams sees proactive communication as “extending the olive branch.” “That’s different than reaching out three days before deadline, saying, ‘Is it done yet?’ One message fosters support, empowerment and encouragement—the other adds pressure,” he says.
Dyck recommends asking the employee to repeat back the expectations and desired outcomes.
“There’s nothing worse than the ‘head-shake syndrome’ where everybody’s nodding along—but when they go to execute, you learn quickly they didn’t really understand the expectation,” he says.
Even with set expectations, it’s important to maintain flexibility because the situation may change. Booth says she regularly tells her team members that if they start doing something and realize there’s a better way, they should make changes.
“I give my team full ownership over projects,” she says. “Once I delegate a project, it’s theirs to own.”
Williams likes to first ask the employees how they’d approach the task. Asking them for their ideas, he says, makes them an active partner in the process.
“Because it’s not just the leader’s idea anymore, now it’s a true collaboration,” he says. “Because you’ve taken the time to ask what they think about the work you want them to do, they feel like a partner in the process, not just the executor.”
5. Provide feedback, support and resources.
Whether you’re working with a seasoned employee or someone new to the business, ensure you’re offering the support and resources to accomplish the task. This could include anything from connecting the individual to another expert within the company, to creating a mechanism for asking questions, to setting up checkpoints for providing feedback.
I make sure I’m very clear on what my ask is. [...] And I make sure I proactively check in to see if support is needed, not to question whether the tasks are done or not.
—Monte Williams, founder, ALEU - The Leadership Development Company
“Part of setting yourself up for success is making sure that your delegates have access,” Dyck says. “Do they have access to people, resources, tools, systems and processes they need to be successful?”
Keep in mind that someone new to the job will likely need a higher level of support. But Booth says it’s also important to make sure you don’t overwhelm a new employee by delegating too much in the beginning.
“Do it step by step, and once you see mastery, then delegate more things,” she says.
Lastly, she makes sure to debrief at the end—asking what went well, what questions remain, what obstacles came up and what training may be needed.
“Having active touchpoints is not just about me giving feedback but also asking the employees how they feel about the process,” she says.
Dyck acknowledges that for those new to delegation, all the steps may feel overwhelming. But, he says, it gets easier as you become better at it.
“If you follow a process, you’ll learn from that and next time it feels like it takes a few less steps,” he says. “It’s because you’re learning as you go—and even if you’ve failed, those who choose to learn from failure will be able to grasp what it really takes to be successful in delegation.”
Photo: Getty Images