Whether you have grown your business from the ground up or have risen through the corporate ranks, you got there by excelling at your job. As an executive leader, you know that there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. Yet delegation is not always intuitive—after all, it may be faster and easier to do things yourself.
Adding new layers of employees and managers as the organization grows helps distribute the work and frees up the C-suite to focus on the big picture. But too often, leaders get stuck on the day-to-day details instead.
“A lot of times, leaders create a bottleneck because they get too hung up in continuing to do the work," says Halelly Azulay, founder and CEO of leadership consulting company TalentGrow LLC, based in the Los Angeles area.
Azulay hosts the leadership podcast TalentGrow Show and is the author of two books on employee development. She says that leaders in growing organizations may be stuck in the cycle of doing the work they love themselves because as high achievers, they have developed high standards of perfection. Plus, it's easier to make the short-term decision of getting something done yourself.
Delegating, on the other hand, requires long-term thinking. You have to invest more time upfront into understanding the strengths of your team and empowering them to take on new responsibilities.
“In the beginning, you have to go through this difficult mindset shift of understanding that delegating is an investment into the long term," Azulay says. “You need to recognize the value and understand the return on investment that's possible—and the requirement for the investment."
First, Connect the Dots to the Bigger Picture
Beth Johnson, co-founder and CEO of the startup Fight Brands, says one of the biggest lessons she learned “the hard way" early in her management career was to not assume that the people she was delegating to had the same knowledge and awareness as she did.
“In my mind, I knew clearly what I wanted a task to achieve, but I wasn't very good at explaining how the task fit into the bigger strategy," says Johnson.
—Eddie Navarrette, founder, FE Design & Consulting
Johnson learned that it's best to delegate an entire project rather than individual tasks. Letting go may be difficult, but it gives the team a way to feel connected to the company and the strategy.
“They want to feel like they're helping a company succeed," she says. “People want to feel like they're responsible for something important, and you have to let them do it their way."
Choose the Right People for the Project
Matching employees' strengths to the projects you're delegating is one way to empower them. In the ideal world, this matchmaking would also consider their career aspirations and the things they want to learn.
“It's a way of delegating that allows you to maximize the output from the people on your team that's tailored to them and their motivation," Azulay says.
She recommends delegating a project from start to finish, but you may have to start slow and balance the person's or team's ability to complete the work with your ability to provide adequate guidance.
“You don't start by throwing someone a whole project and lots of autonomy when they need more guidance, but overall you want to get to the point of delegating more than slices of a project," she says.
For a company that's growing at a rapid pace, sometimes the best strategy is to delegate to those who have the capacity to produce results. It's worked for Alan T. Handley, CEO of the Chicago-based Lakeshore Recycling Systems.
In 2013, his company had around 200 employees. Now, just the back office has 150 and the total number has more than tripled. Handley says one approach is to cross-train and not fit people into specific positions, especially on the management side.
“So if projects or bids come up, we'll pick the people that are bright, aggressive and intelligent and say, 'Go.' We give them the tools they need to be successful and we give them the support they need," he says.
Those selected need to be mature enough to have “high emotional IQ," Handley adds, so they know when to ask for help.
“If you're going to take the risk, you need to backstop that with the proper support from senior leadership and make sure [the employees] have access to that collective knowledge," he says.
Many of those assigned projects also have ambiguity by design. “If you think only linearly, you know intuitively what the answer will be, but unconventional ideas come from ambiguity," he says.
Walk the Fine Line Between Empowering and Micromanaging
Expect that mistakes will happen along the way. It's how everyone learns.
Eddie Navarrette, Los Angeles-based founder of FE Design & Consulting, says when he is tempted to get involved in a situation, he knows it's important to hold back. And if something does go wrong, it becomes a training opportunity.
“Making a mistake is often the way to learn a task," says Navarrette, who started his company 15 years ago by himself and has expanded both staff and services. “You need to let go and trust your team members."
Establishing the right balance between giving the team autonomy and checking in takes trial and error. Handley describes himself to the team as an airline pilot who's there “for take-off and landing, and when things get bumpy."
“The key is that sometimes you have to check in to make sure there isn't turbulence," he says. “There's a natural inclination to assume that no news is good news and that's not always the case."
Be careful not to override the team or undermine them with other people, Johnson cautions.
“Don't just give them the responsibility without giving them the authority and accountability," she says.
Impact on Productivity
Handley says that if he kept “knee-deep in the mud and details," his company would not be successful.
“If I tried to do the things my team does, we'd fail," he says.
The bulk of delegation is “about getting the work done," Azulay says—leaders are accountable for the results, but they need other people to get those results.
Just as important, delegating frees you up to look ahead and plan for growth.
“The playing field always changes and the goal post moves a little farther," Navarrette says. “I constantly have to be flexible in how to apply myself every day—and think of different ways the business can run better and expand."