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How to delegate effectively in order to be more strategic?

Sep 10, 2020

Most leaders I meet wish to delegate more, to fulfill their strategic role, to develop their team, to bring their full value and to devote themselves to development projects. The intention remains. However, they find themselves in the heat of operations and struggle to free up time to adopt this strategic posture. Why is it so difficult to get out of operations and delegate? How can we, as leaders, make our team more autonomous and focus on the "what to do" and the "how to do” in order to allow us to focus more strategically leadership? 

The illusion of delegation  

We often believe that we delegate when we ask others to perform specific tasks and tell them how to do it. Although this method seems more clear, it dictates rather than delegating and coaching.  

When we delegate a task directly, we take responsibility for the "what to do" and the "how to do it".  As employees complete the task, when encountering a problem, they will turn to us for a solution. Which brings us to thinking, "I delegate to my team but they don't take charge and don't take responsibility, I always end up solving the problems.’' The team does not develop its autonomy, awaits instructions and simply executes. As a leader, we hold on to the feeling that only we can take charge. We don't realize that we are part of the solution, learning to delegate responsibility for the "what/how". 

How to effectively delegate, then? 

Delegating implies giving room for action and decision on the “what and how" of entire projects - from A to Z - while accepting the risks involved. The risk of things being done differently than we do, the risk of errors or mishaps, the risk of delays in deliverables. Most will say that unless you have competent seasoned people in place, delegating a project will not necessarily be a success the first time around. Granted! I therefore suggest that you go step by step. Take people as they are, at their individual level of autonomy, to support them and develop their confidence and accountability.  

Let’s take a recent example of a manager who wanted to delegate the responsibility of managing difficult clients to two employees who had been instructed, until then,  to refer back to their manager in such instances. Their muscles to generate solutions and make decisions on their own had not been used for period of time. They needed chance to adapt and learn to be more autonomous. 

The manager began by seeking their opinion in managing difficult client situations. Over time, she supported them, by coaching them, to identify and test their own decisions and solutions to simple customer issues. She always did this by supporting them if their efforts did not have the desired impact. 

She then would question them about their impact and possibly about other options that they might have explored in the circumstances. They felt, after a few attempts, that they had a right to make mistakes. As the months went by, they began to trust themselves and to dare handling more. They took greater initiative, progressed and held themselves accountable. The leader could now delegate larger projects and more complex decisions, while supporting them. They were gaining confidence in themselves and so was she. And she could now focus on development projects that she had previously put aside. 

Trust, a key ingredient in delegation 

In order to delegate and accept the resulting risks, we must develop, among other things, our confidence in others and our ability to accept imperfection. Confidence and the right to make mistakes in the projects we choose to delegate will allow others to take the "risk" of the initiatives and allow for progress, learning and autonomy. 

Consider your level of delegation 

I want to invite you to think about your own level of delegation and confidence in your team in order to identify avenues that will allow you to free up some time to adopt the strategic posture you want. 

  • Do you delegate tasks, projects (from A to Z) and decisions?
  • How do you react (verbally and non-verbally) when things are not done your way or when you find a mistake?
  • What areas of responsibility could you delegate? What would this allow you to achieve?
  • How can you develop your team to take charge of the "what/how"?
  • How do you show your employees that you trust them?
  • What will be your next step in delegating more?

We all manage operational responsibilities out of habit, routine or ease. So I think that a regular review on our level of delegation and development of our team helps us shift from intention to action. And to mobilize our team at the same time. 

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