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Is Effective Delegation an Endangered Competency of Leadership?

Recently as I was working with one of my senior executive coaching clients, she and I got talking about what effective delegation looks like and how often she witnessed it. For homework I asked her to be on the lookout for examples of effective delegation so we could better understand it. After a month of her meetings and observations she was unable to come up with one example, which made me wonder if effective delegation might be an endangered competency of leadership.

In my 16 plus years of coaching the issue of effective delegation continues to show up as a developmental challenge for many of my coaching clients. It appears often as a root cause for poor execution of project tasks, and on a larger level, poor execution on an organization’s mission. It is often hidden underneath presenting issues of micromanagement, ineffective communication, alignment of work toward achieving business goals, and accountability.

To me there are a few simple principles that, when executed well, lead to effective delegation:

  • The What:  Clearly explain the task at hand and what outcome is expected/desired.
  • Picture of Success:  State what success might look like- what will be different once the task is completed and why this is important. 
  • Hand-offs:  Clarify if any subsequent work by others is dependent on timely completion of the project and delineate any handoff details.
  • Connections:  Connect the dots to a larger organizational framework such as vision, strategic goals or overarching strategic plan.
  • Timeline:  State the completion date required, and if there are conflicting deadlines or other factors that must be considered, be willing to negotiate.
  • Resources:  Clarify what resources and support is needed from you, the leader, and the organization to ensure success.
  • Clarifying Understanding:  Ask for understanding of the assignment and commitment by the person being tasked to ensure the project is a success. If appropriate ask for ideas on how the project might be started and convey your trust and confidence in the person who is accountable for results.
  • Check-in on Progress:  Decide on a subsequent meeting to check on progress, if needed.  Ensure the person knows to come back to you at the earliest time when they feel they may not meet the deadline and not wait to the last moment.
  • Recognition:  Look for opportunities to praise and reward people for their contributions. Positive, constructive feedback is essential to building employee confidence and risk taking ability.
  • Ongoing Support:  Continue to ask,” What more can I do to support you?”

In the fast pace of today’s work environment, not taking the time to effectively delegate can result in unintended consequences and poor execution of vital work. What other principles do you feel are important for effective delegation? How often do you see or experience effective delegation and what can be done to produce more of it so it doesn’t become an endangered competency of leadership?

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Tags: 2, leadership, project management

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Comment by Curt Klun on March 13, 2012 at 3:54pm

By hierarchical tradition, it seems that a preexisting requirement of delegation is authority.  Is delegation possible among a working group of peers, the inter-agency, or social networks?

With constricting budgets and increasingly intertwined missions, none may be able to go it alone; therefore, "leadership among" may be an emergent necessity for future leaders. How will delegation fit into the picture?

Comment by Gordon Lee Salmon on February 25, 2012 at 8:19am
Thanks Cliff for your sage advice. Installing confidence from the beginning is very important to laying a foundation for success. Some managers struggle with letting go of being the expert and they fail to see that their job is to get work done through others. They have to quit stealing work from their employees.

Lori can you tell us more about what circumstances and personalities inhibit your ability to delegate?
Comment by Lori Winterfeldt on February 24, 2012 at 1:25pm
Found this post extremely relevant and helpful. I struggle with the issue of how to manage this process effectively, but circumstances--and personalities--can often get in the way.
Comment by Cliff Tyllick on February 24, 2012 at 7:44am

I've found that a good way to build trust and confidence when delegating a task is to tell people why I'm entrusting that task to them. When I do, it frees them up to use the talent they have to do the best they can — not to try to figure out how I, with my limited understanding of their field, would have done that task myself. Too often managers behave as if they are the experts on every aspect of the projects they manage. That approach ensures that the whole turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.

Comment by Gordon Lee Salmon on February 22, 2012 at 1:50pm
Thanks Alex. Trust is an essential ingredient for effective delegation- both trust in self and the recipient.
Comment by Alex Moll on February 21, 2012 at 8:36pm

Great post; thank you for writing about this crucial topic. In my view, delegation is both about skill and trust. As I see it, a key principle important for effective delegation centers around trust. Micromanagement decreases if a senior manager--whether in the private or public sector--acknowledges and trusts the talent that supports him or her and the mission. Without a sense of security and trust, effective delegation is cut at the root. Management matters and to do it well you have to trust your talent.

Comment by EH Rice on February 21, 2012 at 7:26pm

Nice post with the simple guidelines, but it doesn’t go far enough with a true root cause analysis. I will start out my comments with the remark that true leadership is not a lost capability in the Federal Civil Service.  With a few noted exceptions, you would have to have it to start with to lose that capability.  And, it is a fact that 99% of Civil Service management have tons of management training, but are extremely light on, if they have had any, true leadership training.  Next comes the zero failure climate that has evolved in the Federal Civil Service over the last few years.  And, the fact that there is a huge propensity to run your new job like you did you last one.  Which must invariably be where the proverb of being promoted one level past your competency principle came from.  We have all seen the attitude that if it was good enough to get me here, then it is good enough to keep me here, which invariably doesn’t work.  These conditions are the perfect breeding ground for micromanagement (ergo, inability to delegate, or if you do, to micromanage the people doing the task).   So, how do you change it?  First of all place as much or more emphasis on leadership development as on management development.  An old axiom is you can manage money, you can manage equipment, but you have to lead people.  Once the emphasis on true leadership versus management takes the forefront, then the ability to properly delegate will follow.  Further, subordinates will also benefit, with the ability to get the job done without someone breathing down their neck.  When someone is given a task, and the leeway to develop how to accomplish it, 90% of the time they will totally surprise you.

Comment by David Dejewski on February 21, 2012 at 3:50pm

Love the bullets, Lee. One could print those off and use them as a checklist for delegating. Nicely done.

Comment by Gordon Lee Salmon on February 21, 2012 at 12:15pm
Thanks for all these great comments. I agree that the failure to delegate, especially with new managers and less than confident leaders, can often be traced to a lack of trust in the person or team. It takes courage and a willingness to risk that is the challenge. New managers often struggle with giving up being the subject matter expert and let go to others even if some mistakes are made. They also need to ensure that everyone, especially all members of a team, are onboard.
Continuous communication and the check-in on progress is a two way street. Any changes
needs to be quickly communicated and the timelines renegotiated.
Comment by Paul Alberti on February 21, 2012 at 9:47am

Effective delegation can only happen if the manager delegating the task is comfortable and strong enough to actually delegate that effort. Too many times I see managers afraid of delegating and feel the need to micro and nano manage the work effort. The mistaken philosophy is - "if you do what I tell you we can't mess up"; which leads to staff only doing what they are told and not thinking through the task for second and third level consequences or successes.
Strengthen managers, let them know it is ok to delegate and maybe make a few mistakes - and everyone will learn and grow. Junior staff will learn it is ok to try new ideas, managers will learn to trust their staffs. Maybe Trust should be a competency?

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