Successful delegation

Jan 10, 2021

Delegation is a sign of a mature leader. It allows you to focus on how you can contribute at the highest level given your experience and wisdom.

Pete, a seasoned project manager, has hit a wall. His to-do list has been getting longer. He’s tried to work longer hours to catch up, but it’s no use. Exhausted and alienated from his family, he doesn’t know how much longer he can continue.

His manager has told him if he wants to advance in his career, he needs to learn to delegate. A perfectionist by nature, Pete simply can’t let go of projects. He can’t trust others will do it to his satisfaction. It’s just more work to bring someone up to speed, and he just has to do it over to meet his expectations anyway. His world comes crashing down when his father dies. On the way to the funeral, he’s texting clients. His wife looks at him incredulously and says, “Really?” Pete responds, “I don’t have any other choice.” She says, “Yeah, you do.” He realizes she’s right.

You’ve worked your entire career to be able to deliver at the highest level. Clients love you. You’re respected in the office. Younger people want to learn from you. And now you’ve been told that to grow as a leader, you need to delegate more. In other words, let go of your entire identity as an individual contributor and, instead, be responsible for someone else’s work product.

Delegating can make you feel like you’re letting people down: clients who are used to your level of detail and staff who are already burdened by their own work. To make yourself feel better, first accept the reality of what will happen if you don’t delegate: your team will not grow; you won’t be able to focus on higher-level work; and the firm will be paying you for something that someone else can do at a lower rate. Then make it clear to whom you are delegating why you shouldn’t do the task. It might start like this: “I need your help so I’m not working on design review and can spend more time on business development, so we can keep people employed.” Let’s break that down:

“I need your help.” This is very different from telling someone they need to do something. It sets a friendlier tone that appeals to their better nature of wanting to be seen as helpful. (By the way, this is not a negotiation, just a softer opening.) By explaining “so I’m not working on design review and can spend more time on business development,” you’re communicating that design review is not the best use of your time. By communicating you’ll be spending your time on business development, you’re not saying you’re delegating so you can work less. You’re explaining how you will be spending your time. Lastly, saying “so we can keep people employed” makes it even clearer why they should be motivated to fully take on the task. You’re appealing to them as a teammate. They have their job, and you have your job, and together you’ll both be employed! It also makes clear the dilemma: Time is limited, and you can’t do design review and business development.

You are both inviting them to help you and the firm and elevating what might be considered a menial task into one of greater importance. Help them see they are playing a major role in directly contributing to everyone’s livelihood, including their own.

Daniel Pink in his book Drive says people are motivated less by money and more by the autonomy to be left to do the work on their own; the mastery to develop their skills and competence; and the sense of purpose that the work has meaning. When first delegating work, be clear: “I need to give you a task for you to do completely and deliver on time without me micromanaging you to get it done. Can we spend some time going over it now, so you can ask questions, and then set a check-in time for questions?” Appeal to their motivation for greater autonomy, their desire to be treated as a key member of the team. At the same time, you’re spelling out a clear expectation based on a concrete need, rather than a wish, which is softer. If they come back with questions and they have the resources to answer them themselves, help them understand that. If they express being unable to do a portion of the work, remind them of their ability. Revisit your initial conversation on the importance that the work stay in their court as much as possible.

Delegation is a sign of a mature leader. You’re not abdicating responsibility. You’re just focusing on how you can contribute at the highest level, given your experience and wisdom. Let others grow by explaining why it’s important that they take on a delegated task with a true sense of ownership. It’s their first step toward getting to your position.

Leo MacLeod is a leadership coach in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at

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