It's time to let go and leverage your team

The added responsibilities that come with senior management positions can take a toll on new leaders' success. Sandra Oliver explains why delegation is key to successful leadership.

"I'm feeling stretched in my new leadership role, and can't quite fathom how I'm going to manage everything on my plate. The added responsibilities that come with a senior position along with new client accounts, ongoing internal projects, and numerous business development meetings have increased my workload substantially." Sound familiar? John is smart, focused, technically strong and is well liked by colleagues and clients. However, he is concerned about his ability to juggle competing priorities to be successful in his leadership position.

As executive coaches, we see this problem all the time, and the issue is often an inability to delegate effectively. It's one of the most common challenges for leaders. Many employees are promoted to senior levels based on their capabilities. To be successful in a big leadership role, one has to delegate. We've also seen leaders struggle with the degree to which they should delegate — not delegating at all versus abdicating and completely removing themselves from involvement. There needs to be a balance between the two. If something is high risk or is for an important client, then keep it. In other cases, the work can be handed off as long as the line of sight is maintained.

Why do we struggle with delegation?

Many leaders avoid delegating because they have trouble letting go. They want the job done their way. By hanging on to the work, they have complete control over the task and deliverables. As jobs get more senior, teams get bigger and work gets more complex, delegation becomes imperative for the leader's success and the success of the business unit. It is important to hand over the reins and let other people take complete responsibility for tasks. This might mean a different approach is taken but that should be embraced, not discouraged. It means that fresh insight and ideas are being incorporated into the final product, which could add considerable value for the client.

We are sometimes hesitant due to the element of risk that comes with delegating tasks to others. Leaders risk being let down if the client is not happy with the work. This will inevitably happen from time to time. But that shouldn't deter from delegating altogether. The upside is that when a team member is successful, the client is happy, time is freed up, and there is an opportunity for someone else to develop his or her skills. A key to mitigating the risk is to build trust within a team and to have a good system for delegating.

How can delegating skills be improved? Here are some key factors to keep in mind.

Organization is vital for delegation to work

It's important to take an organized approach when delegating work. Be clear about expectations upfront, at the start of the project. Everyone on the team should know who is responsible for each part of a project. The team should be clear on when they need to update the leader along the way, so clear deadlines for updates should be set. It should also be clear on what success looks like for each part of the project. A schedule should be established and the team needs to book check-in meetings for each milestone and deliverable.

Leaders need to maintain a general awareness for how things are progressing and check-in informally along the way. They should ask questions, look at emails, and speak to the client periodically throughout the project. This will help them guide the staff appropriately in case it might go off track. No one wants to discover at the last minute that he or she has incorrectly interpreted instructions. This also gives everyone a sense of responsibility for their part of the total outcome.

Staff should be thanked and regularly rewarded and recognized. It can be as quick as an email or as personal as speaking to them. Whatever the case, a simple thank you goes a long way. If staff feels acknowledged and appreciated for the work done, it will be more engaged.

Delegation as a developmental exercise

Sometimes leaders shy away from delegating because they don't want the receiver to feel as though they are passing off the boring or mundane tasks. However, a key to successful delegation is in the ability to assign tasks based on staff's capabilities. Delegation should be treated as an exercise linked to someone's career development. Helping others build their skills and careers is necessary to sustain and grow the business and it is also personally rewarding.

Direct reports should be asked what they would like to learn. A leader should have an understanding of the types of opportunities employees are looking form — that way, as he or she delegates work, or as new things come up, he or she can assign work that builds and develops staff.

If people recognize that these assignments are learning opportunities and not just busy work that someone is trying to get rid of, they will be engaged. Rather than saying, "I'd like you to complete this task for me by Monday morning — I just don't have time to get to it" it should be sold as an opportunity that will be meaningful to them. For example, "I have this new project to work on and I immediately thought of you. Your strong attention to detail and strength with numbers and analytics would be perfect for this type of task, and would give you the exposure to the finance team that you've been looking for. You'll also be interacting with some key stakeholders. I think it would be valuable for your development  — would you be able to help with this?" The response will likely be an enthusiastic reply if positioned that way.

Don't be afraid to give people difficult tasks. We may avoid passing on work that we think will be too challenging for the subordinate. It should be treated as a learning opportunity. If an employee is struggling with the task, rather than telling them what to do, a leader should give feedback and guidance.

It's like washing dishes

At times, someone has to do the dirty work and it's not fun asking employees no matter how it's positioned. Not every task is developmental. Sometimes leaders just need help, and that should be acknowledged when requesting it. It's like washing the dishes — not a particularly appealing chore, but everyone has to do boring work at times.

Leaders should not fall into the trap of doing it all themselves. They should delegate work and depend on the team, take an organized approach and find a balance. Although it's difficult to give up full control, it's crucial to a leader's success to rely on others to free up time so he or she can focus on more strategic priorities as a leader.


Successful Delegation – Using the Power of Other People’s Help” by Sandra Oliver, Impact Blog Post.

“Three Tips for Helping the ‘Hero’ Learn to Delegate” Harvard Business Review, The Management Tip.

How to Offer Constructive Feedback” by Sandra Oliver, Career Vision CPA Source.