Learning to Delegate Well: A Necessary Skill for an Effective Leader

By Barb McAllister, MS, MCC.  One of my passions is supporting managers to take the big leap into positions of executive leadership. I took this leap myself when I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It was humbling, because I needed to learn new skills, but most of all, I needed to become a good delegator.

I came to understand that this required me to spend sufficient up front time thinking about what I would delegate, to whom, and how I wanted to do it. Over time, I learned that putting my energy into getting ready to delegate was very important. By making this time investment, I set my employees up to succeed, eliminated confusion and rework down the line, and freed myself up to take on the work of leadership.

If delegating has so many benefits for the leader and her/his organization, why is it so challenging? I think there are two main reasons: 

  1. Reluctance to give up work that that the leader has already mastered.  Or, to summarize this in another way, unwillingness to delegate because the work is in the leader’s wheelhouse or comfort zone.
  2. Lack of understanding HOW to delegate.

Let’s first look at the unwillingness to delegate. I don’t think it’s a big secret why leaders are unwilling to delegate — we think we can do the work the best. In fact, we may have been promoted because of our proficiency in doing the work that our employees now do. We also think that it takes too much time to explain our expectations. 

All this may be true, but I think that underneath these excuses is often a fear of losing control. If I do the assignment, then I know it’s going to be good. I believe this thinking is short sighted. It leads to burnout of the leader and a disempowered workplace. In a learning organization, employees take on new challenges, are guided by their boss, and learn from their mistakes. 

I also think some leaders are unwilling to delegate because they don’t know HOW.   They have never learned the disciplined structure required to effectively delegate. This means taking the time up front to be clear about your expectations, including the expected outcome, the timeline for completion of the project, who the decision maker is, and how and when you want to be involved, e.g., consulted, in the course of the project. We all know, and may have well experienced, what it is like to complete an assignment only to have our boss tell us that we are totally off the mark. This can happen when the leader does not delegate well.

As coaches then, how do we support our clients to become great delegators? The first thing I do when I begin coaching a leader is notice how they use their time. Are they doing the work of leadership or are they doing the work that is best handled by their direct reports? If I notice that the leader is not delegating, I will point this out and be curious about why, and have a conversation about why delegation is important. The pros of delegating have to outweigh the cons, so my recommendation is to focus on the pros.

I usually start first by asking the client, “So why would you delegate?” “What’s in it for you and the organization?” Then I’d have the client access the knowledge, skills and abilities they already have that will make it possible for them to be a great delegator. Then I might ask the client, “What will get in the way of you delegating?” Have the client come up with their own barriers. A conversation about what additional skills they need to learn is also important. I might also suggest some training on how to delegate.  The cherry on the top of all of this could be a project plan which will help the client move towards their goal of becoming a great delegator. This starts with a vision statement where the client imagines themselves as a great delegator, including what they are doing, how they are feeling, what others are saying about them. It will also include an accurate description of where the client is today around delegating, with baby steps outlined to move forward to the desired future state. For more tips about how to delegate, read Arden Coaching’s “Build Leadership Skills with 4 Keys to Effective Delegation.”

Time and time again, I have seen leaders do the work themselves rather than delegating it to their direct reports. As coaches, we can first notice this, then point it out to the client, with curiosity. This will begin what I think is one of the most important conversations you can have with a client who is taking the big leap into executive leadership.

To learn more about effective delegation and becoming a more effective leader, schedule a consultation with Barb.