Every leader knows that effective delegation is key to successful leadership.
Every leader knows that effective delegation is an unbelievable boon to themselves, their business, and the people they delegate to.
Every leader also knows that the results of ineffective delegation range from frustrating to disastrous. In fear of the latter, leaders all too often choose not to delegate at all.
Good news – at the beginning of the new year according to A. Barry MacMillian – and proven in our coaching experience with thousands of leaders – effective delegation is composed of just eight ingredients and each and every one is within your control.1
Here’s how to delegate your way to a great 2024!
1. Give clear direction.
To delegate effectively, you must carefully explain the task or assignment to your direct report. You might think this goes without saying, but the fact is, it all too often does go without saying – leaders fail to state what they want done! Rather than taking the time to explain a project with clarity and precision, they assume that their direct report will (telepathically?) know what is needed. Delegation is treated as a hurried handoff, not a strategic conversation.
So, start each delegation by carving out a good chunk of time and sitting down with your direct report. Eliminate distractions and give your entire focus to thoroughly explaining the task at hand. Be assured that time spent giving clear direction delivers outstanding ROI.
2. Provide the rationale.
You not only need to tell your direct report what needs to be done but also why it needs to be done. Talk about the larger context of the task and how important it is. Share the impact that a job well done will have, and the potential effects of mistakes or delays.
Providing the rationale for an assignment lets your direct report know that they are not being “dumped on” or given “busy work.” By discussing the importance of a project, you affirm the value of the person to your team and to the business since you are entrusting this project to them. It also serves to motivate your direct report to achieve a high level of excellence.
3. Describe desired outcomes.
Once you have discussed what needs to be done and why it needs to be done, you should describe what you expect in terms of outcomes. Tell your direct report what it is that will make you say at the end, “Great work! This is just what I wanted!”
Now, there is a distinction to be made here. You want to tell your direct report what will constitute a success. You do not want to tell them how to do the job. That is dictation, not delegation. The only thing dictation has in common with delegation is that they both begin with the letter “D.” Therefore, describe the outcome, but give your direct report the freedom to make it happen in whatever way seems best to them. After all, your direct report may have a better, faster way of doing the job than you ever considered!
4. Delineate their authority.
Every assignment entails decisions and responsibility. Your direct report should be clear on the scope of their authority in completing the task, and where they need to come to you for approval before acting.
The level of authority that you give will take into account many factors, including the criticality of the task, the expertise of the direct report, the ramifications of errors or omissions, etc.
5. Set the deadline.
Agree together on when the assignment will be completed – and be sure to make it specific. An indefinite statement like “next week” is unacceptable since you might be thinking “early next week” whereas your direct report might assume that close of business Friday is fine. Make it clear: “This is the date this task has to be completed.” That being said, be realistic about the date. People can’t move mountains and can’t do their best work if they feel pressure to do so!
There is one more point to mention about deadlines: don’t be manipulative. That is, don’t set a deadline for an earlier date than necessary because you don’t think the person will deliver on time and you want to hedge your bets. That is dishonest and your direct report will be insulted when they figure out what you are doing – as they will. Simply set the deadline and make it clear that it is definitive.
6. Solicit their feedback.
You have covered a lot of ground by this point in your delegation discussion. You have given clear direction, provided the rationale, described the desired outcomes, delineated the person’s authority, and set the deadline. All that could be for nothing if your direct report has misunderstood something you have said. Therefore, now is the moment to check for understanding.
We often hear leaders say they feel awkward asking their direct reports to repeat back what they have just heard. Here’s how to ask gracefully: “I want to be sure I have communicated everything clearly. Do you mind sharing back with me how you understand this assignment?” Phrasing the request this way puts the onus on you: you are concerned lest you have not communicated well. You are taking responsibility for yourself as the leader.
7. Schedule follow up.
Don’t conclude the delegation conversation quite yet – you aren’t done. The next step is to schedule meetings to get updates on the process and progress of the assignment. Literally, put the meetings on your calendars then and there. Otherwise, you will be tempted to do a fly-by in the hallway that goes something like this:
Leader: “How is the Magundersplatz project going?”
Direct report: “Great!”
That is not an update because it gives you no way of assessing progress. Rather, you need to sit down and get answers to practical questions: “What has been done? What questions do you have? Have you hit any obstacles?” Follow-up meetings allow you to course correct in the event that the task is not proceeding as expected.
8. Affirm your support.
Finally, make sure your direct report knows that you have their back. You are not doing a “dump and run” – you are their advocate and you are available. You are available if they need resources, information, or assistance. You are available if they have questions, encounter obstacles, or find themselves out of their depth. You are available.
There it is eight ingredients to effective delegation. Now, go and delegate your way to a great year – you’ve got this!
1A. Barry MacMillian, “The Art of Delegation,” in The Best of Active Training, ed. Mel Silberman. Copyright © 2004 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.