Do You Really Delegate?

Any successful leader must master the art of delegation, yet in realty few do. Why is that? Let’s look at the typical progression of leadership to understand why it is so difficult to delegate effectively when you’ve arrived at the top.

How Did I Get Here?

You achieved a position of leadership by delivering results. At the beginning of your career, you consistently delivered superior work product which was largely self-created. You soon attracted notice and developed a reputation as a “go to” person in the organization. Great work product resulted in more challenging assignments, which you welcomed. Senior management may have identified you as a “high potential.” Promotion to a managerial role soon followed and while you now supervised a few others, you still produced a fair amount of hands-on work yourself. After a successful run as a manager, you were then promoted into a position of leadership. You are now responsible for a much larger number of people, with a much broader scope and a much more significant impact on the organization. All good, right?

Leading Versus Managing

Not so fast. Positions of leadership require a far different approach than positions of management. Leaders must make a fundamental shift from producing work themselves to transferring knowledge to others. Now you must motivate, inspire, coach and provide a compelling vision that creates, rather than mandates, followers. In my experience, few managers navigate this transition successfully. It’s not hard to understand why they struggle with this if we consider how leaders have been reinforced and rewarded along the way. If you’ve been promoted based on individual accomplishments, it’s natural to think you should continue using the formula that has made you successful in the past.

Why Is It So Hard to Delegate?

Although intuitive on the surface, the individual accomplishment approach will kill your career as a leader. A key component in moving from manager to leader is effective delegation. You must be willing to transfer responsibility to those under you. More importantly, you must also be willing to transfer true authority for some level of decision making. Responsibility without authority is not delegation. The fear of mistakes prevents many rookie leaders from true delegation. But great leaders understand they must allow those they lead to learn from mistakes. After all, did you get to your position without making mistakes?

Allowing room for error isn’t the same as tolerating poor performance. If a consistent pattern of mistakes occurs, the leader must take responsible action. Effective leaders understand the distinction between learning through mistakes versus true incompetence, and they also recognize when an individual is not well suited for a particular role.

When a leader fails to truly delegate, team members do not feel empowered to do their jobs and do not feel trusted. Over time, talented team members become discouraged and will seek opportunities elsewhere to grow and be truly led, rather than micromanaged.

The Unintended Consequence of Poor Delegation

Inevitably, poor delegators end up being workaholics. They end up “in the weeds” of responsibilities of those they lead. They spend countless unnecessary hours at work checking and double checking things that should be handled at lower levels of the organization. Team members see the number of hours these leaders put in and assume they would have to work similarly if they became a leader. They often opt out of the sacrifice they believe is necessary. When I present this issue to workaholic leaders, they often defend their position by stating they reassure their teams that they don’t have to put in the hours they do to succeed. They may even tell their teams that they enjoy their job so much it doesn’t feel like work to them. My answer? Your people believe your actions, not your words.

Am I an Effective Delegator?

Here is a checklist to assess your delegation skills:

Great Delegators:

  • Understand that non-fatal mistakes are part of the learning process
  • Are not threatened when a team member makes an understandable mistake
  • Transfer appropriate authority along with responsibility
  • Are often presented with creative solutions/ideas by team members
  • Create a sense of ownership within the team
  • Take greater pride in the accomplishments of their team than personal recognition

Poor Delegators:

  • View non-fatal mistakes by team members as a personal leadership failure
  • Create a bottleneck in decision making
  • Experience team members constantly seeking their approval on issues that should be their responsibility
  • Require multiple drafts of projects before approval
  • Work at a level of detail that prevents strategic and visionary thinking
  • Sacrifice personal relationships due to unnecessary work hours

The choice is now yours. Delegate effectively or fool yourself by thinking you do.

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