Seven ways to delegate well

I’ll explain this photo in a moment.

Before I do, consider this common burden for many managers:

“What’s the hardest thing for me, at work? Delegation, definitely!”

Does that sound familiar?

I’ve heard this same frustration from entrepreneurs and managers at many companies during my career as a business consultant. It came up again at lunch with a couple of friends this past week.

How about you? Do you need to improve your ability – and comfort – with delegation, too?

Start with these ideas:

1. Be clear about the goal

Often, when you ask people what their goal is for a particular piece of work, or a project, they’re not exactly sure.

What they usually know with great certainty, however, is what they DON’T want.

You’ll improve the quality of work you delegate when you provide clear goals to the person who’s doing the work.

Make sure you know, too, whether you plan to delegate this work temporarily or permanently.

This may affect how you hand off the task.

For example, if you’re delegating the work permanently, you may need to do more training and followup than if you’re delegating the work for a one-time project.

2. Be selective about who you delegate the work to 

The friend who was frustrated by recent attempts to delegate, even though she’s very experienced with delegation, believes she’s been trying to give them work that they don’t have the right skills to do.

She’s leading a team hired by a prior manager for jobs that have since changed.

“I give up! I’ve tried EVERYTHING!” she said as she described the situation.

Her team’s customers now require financial advice on business decisions they’re trying to make, in addition to the solid accounting support the team has always provided.

My friend has been trying to train and coach her employees to fill the expanded roles.

Coaching simply hasn’t worked.

If she were hiring now, she would screen for the skills her team currently needs, and skills they’re likely to need as their customers’ needs continue to change.

3. Set measures that focus attention and action

Decide how you’ll monitor the quality of the work you’re delegating. Then be ready to communicate those measures, and how you’ll use them, to the people doing the work.

In a simple, low-risk example of why this is important, our daughter, now a young adult, was about ten when she was helping organize the many colors of paper I needed for gift notepads I was creating for clients.

Anne normally works very carefully, and takes pride in doing very high quality work. I understood that she wanted to do the (frankly) boring task while she watched a TV show she liked.

When I checked the quality of her work soon after she started, I was surprised. Somehow, she was accidentally creasing some of the paper.

Before I corrected her approach, I asked myself if I’d given her the right instructions, resources, time and space to do the job right?

I had.

The one thing I had not done, I realized, was to let her know the quality standards for the work.

My customers, used to high quality work, would expect the same quality in gifts I gave them. That meant the paper…and soon, the notepads…needed to be crisp, the paper unbent, the work of gift quality.

And that meant that Anne needed to work more attentively.

She wasn’t happy, of course, that I needed her to start again, and to do the work more attentively. But we’d caught it early, and that was good.

Once she knew the quality standards and paid more attention, her work improved, as did her speed.

And, yes, it all worked with TV.

4. Communicate clearly

Communicating clearly is easy to advise, but can be deceptively hard to do.

Provide the following information, at a minimum, to the people doing the work for you:

  • Goals for the work (deadline, budget, and any other constraints)
  • Customers for the work
  • What successful completion of the work looks like to these customers
  • How you’ll monitor and assess the quality of the work
  • Instructions for doing the work, as necessary
  • Where people can get more information, if needed, while they work

Clarity and focus upfront helps prevent wasted time and rework – incorrect work that has to be done again – and hard feelings about it later.

5. Train as needed

If the person, or people, who will be doing the work have prior experience with it, they may need little training or supervision from you.

If they’re inexperienced, however, they may need detailed instructions, as well as regular feedback and coaching as they learn to do the work well, and build confidence with it.

And this leads me to the story about the photo I included with this post.

The photographer in this case was our son, Matt (who does photography and film work as part of his job and career). Now a young adult, he was about about four when he took this picture.

I’m the person who’s stretching and trying to reach Matt…and the camera. I was laughing as I tried to catch him, but also nervous that he might fall off the wall where he was running, snapping pictures as he ran.

(Anne and my husband, Gary, watch in the background with amusement and curiosity as they wait to see how this interaction will play out).

The picture makes me laugh now when I recall the moment.

Matt didn’t fall. He didn’t drop the camera. He got this amusing shot.

And in fact, letting him use my camera in the future…with training, and AFTER asking permission to do so…and then encouraging him to learn more through experiments and projects with a camera we bought for him when he was ready for it, turned out to be a good move.

It was a gradual process of delegated and self-directed learning and growth. We encouraged both our kids to learn by doing, and through experimentation and projects, in their own areas of interest.

It can be a very successful way to delegate work, as well.

Learning by doing, and through self-directed experiments, can be very successful, if the work you’re delegating is compatible with that approach.

6. Keep your team focused on your customers’ needs

In case there’s uncertainty or a debate about the quality standards for work you’ve delegated, use your customers’ requirements to find the answer.

In the example of my friend’s frustration with recent delegation attempts, her employees are proficient with what their customers used to need: timely and accurate accounting.

Their customers’ business requires more of them now, so the quality standards for their work continue to change, too.

7. Check in, follow up

Make time to check in periodically to see how the work you’ve delegated is going.

Be prepared to check in more frequently than you expect will be necessary, at least initially.

You may find that the people to whom you’ve delegated work have questions you did not expect.

Or there may be skills, knowledge, or confidence that they do not have yet, and which you need to help them grow.

That’s enough delegation advice for now.

These seven ideas give you plenty to work with if you’re trying to improve your delegation skills and confidence.

Practice, pay attention to what you’re learning, continue to improve.

You’ll find that delegation, once mastered, is an invaluable skill.