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Even though we may not completely approve on everything he’s done, I think Napoleon had a pretty good idea on how to delegate:

When I give a minister an order, I leave it to him to figure out the means

Napoleon Bonaparte

In my blog on the importance of delegation, there’re a lot of reasons why delegation will make your life a lot easier and more fun. Delegating gives you the possibility to step into your real job as a leader: focusing on the long-term goals and empowering the people on your team.

So it’s essential to know how to successfully delegate tasks. In this article I’ll give you 5 essentials to effective delegation.

How to start delegating a project

1. The what.
What task or project is a smart choice for delegation. Just a short recap of what I said about this topic last week:

When choosing which task to delegate, TIME is a major factor. There should be plenty of it to give both you and your report time to discuss, think and act.

Another element to consider is the type of job you pick. Bad choices here are: tasks that have a major influence on the future of your company or department, projects that really are ‘too big to fail’, in other words: work that, if it would go wrong would have a large impact on things. Also tasks you feel should be done in 1 way only: your way, are not the tasks to delegate (poor report who gets a job like that).

So, that’s it, simple as that.

Well. One more invaluable piece of advice: listen to and trust your gut feeling. If you feel anxious about delegating a task, just don’t do it. Pick another one. Even though you might not be able to pinpoint why you don’t feel good about it, you’re probably right. And hey, you’re the boss after all, so it’s your call!

2. Choose wisely who to delegate to. Ok, you probably had a vague feeling that one might be coming, and you’re right! See, delegation is quite logical!
All kidding aside, this is a major factor to either delegating successfully or going in for a major fail.

When choosing who to pick, there’re considerations in the field of reason, like: which of your reports is ready for this job, who can work independently, who has great previous results etc.). There’re also considerations that are not factual at all. Those have everything to do with –again– your intuition, your gut feeling, your inner guru or however you like to call it. Consider questions like: do I feel comfortable working with this person, can I communicate well with him? Do I trust her?

I can imagine you might think that unreasonable things like your gut wouldn’t be a serious consideration. But how many times have you realized àfter things went bad, that before you got into it, you’d vaguely felt it wasn’t a good plan?

The only thing I ask you to do, is take a few minutes to listen to the irrational things that come up when you think about delegating a task to this or that person. And not discard them immediately.
I promise you, this will definitely pay off.

Now we have a project and a person to delegate to. On to the how!

3. The Rules of the game

This is all about getting clear on the ground rules: who can decide on what, when.
And, just as important: what do you expect in regard to the results?

It’s essential to be very clear on this before the work starts. Your report needs to know exactly what you want to receive, in what form and how much freedom he or she has in designing the end result. Also, make sure they are aware of all relevant company rules.
If you don’t know what you want, an easy ‘trick’ is to ask your report to first take a few days to get some ideas on how to approach the problem and discuss them with you.

Some of us might be seduced to come up with possible approaches ourselves. But remember: then you’ll have to spend time on a project you are not going to finish and you’ll take away valuable 1:1- time with the topic from your team member, making this a lose-lose situation.

You should be very specific on the amount of freedom you are willing to give ‘the chosen one’.

Should she:

  1. wait to be told what to do?
  2. ask what to do?
  3. recommend what should be done, and then act?
  4. act, and then report results immediately?
  5. initiate action, and then report periodically?

In general, I would advice you to start off with #3. This amounts to real delegation, while #1 and #2 are mock delegation to me. #4 and #5 are perfectly fine too, but those will leave you with less control. For a first time delegator that might feel too insecure.

Don’t be scared to change the amount of freedom you are willing to give midstream. Just remember to always tell your report and explain why you do this.

Right! Preparing is done, and you’re off! 

Your report is happily gone to work, and you got back to what’s really important. And 3 weeks later you have a fully finished project on your desk exactly as you wanted to have it done.
Ehh, no, generally, when parties are new to delegation, this is definitely not the best way to go.


4. Regularly check in

Block enough time in your agenda to have regular meetings to discuss progress. This can be once a week/every 3 days/every 2 weeks, depending on the project and what feels comfortable to both you and your report. This will give you set times to answer questions, steer your team member back into the right direction, and stay in the loop.

We all know to stay away from micro-management. However, in the end you are still accountable. So, in delegating effectively, you’ll have to find a balance between giving enough space for people to show their abilities, while still monitoring and supporting closely enough to ensure that the job is done correctly and effectively.

During those regular meetings, these type of questions generally have good results:

  • What’s another way to look at this issue?
  • What else can also be true?
  • What’s another solution that may work?
  • What are the risks in your chosen solution?

Finding this balance can easily go wrong at first. You might press too hard or too little and you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Just don’t panic, and remember: you can always get it back on track. Just tell your report why and what you are changing.

One thing of caution here: realize that YOUR challenge in learning how to delegate is finding the right balance and keeping your hands off the project itself.
It’s your reports challenge to learn how to finish a project like this successfully.

And then: D-day! The results are in!

5. Judging the results.

This might be a party: great presentation, good results, you’re very happy and things went great. Be sure to tell her that. Be jubilant and tell everyone who wants to hear.
I’m not kidding: praise is essential here. It’s just like with young kids who get potty trained: stressing what went well builds confidence, while at the same time making it clear what you expect next time.
If things aren’t quite the way they should be: shame on you! In step 4 you apparently didn’t keep a close enough eye on things or you have not been clear on what was really important to you.

Yes, you’re reading this correctly:

when everything’s fine: it’s due to your report. When things go wrong, it’s due to you, as you should have steered clear of trouble earlier in the process.
In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to tell your team member that the result isn’t good enough to accept, and she’s going to have to redo (part of) it.
Under no circumstance, start improving it yourself. This part might be really hard on you, but you can not take over now. That will kill everything you’ve been trying to do.

A few final tips on effective delegation

Focus on results. Concern yourself with what is accomplished, rather than detailing how the work should be done: Your way is not necessarily the only or even the best way!

Avoid ‘upward delegation’. If there is a problem, don’t allow the person to shift responsibility for the task back to you: ask for possible solutions, don’t simply provide an answer.

Prepare to deal with two learning curves. As you are new to delegating and your report is (relatively) new to the task you want to assign to them, realize up front that there will be hard times ahead. If mistakes happen, celebrate. You never know if smooth sailing is the result of skill or luck. It’s when things go wrong that we really learn.

Always take time to evaluate with your report once the dust is settled. Talk about what did and did not go well. This is almost as important as the 5 steps before.


You’re all set!

I hope you feel comfortable to get started. I would love to hear in the comments below what project you pick to delegate and how you’re doing. Remember that we can also work together to delegate a specific project. It that case, I will be with you along the way.

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