Ready, Set, Delegate!

Delegation 101

It's easy to talk about delegation--but is it easy to do? "Delegation is very hard to do right," says Susan Leeds, managing director of The Ayers Group Inc., a New York City human resources consulting firm. "Smart delegation takes thought and planning." That means delegation isn't simply sweeping your desk clean and blindly handing off all the tasks on your to-do list. "You need to approach delegation with a plan in mind," says Leeds, who teaches a multistep delegation process to clients. The first step is careful thought about what to delegate.

That's a crucial question, mainly because some tasks should be handled personally. There are tasks that aren't suited to delegation, says Ron Riggio, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College's Kravis Leadership Institute in Claremont, California.

What can't you delegate? There's no rule of thumb; let your instincts guide you. You probably wouldn't delegate thinking about the products your company will offer next year, but you might delegate a survey of current customers regarding improvements they'd like to see in your products. Either way, a building block for effective delegation is knowing what tasks are yours and yours alone.

The next step in Leeds' plan is to determine the results you want to achieve. That means not telling employees to make some phone calls about past-due invoices. That's too vague. Instead, be specific. A more defined goal might be to get customers with past-due bills to agree to a payment schedule. Knowing the results you want is your job, not the job of employees to whom you delegate.

Step three is to decide which person is right for the task, says Leeds. A salesperson might not be the right person to make collection calls, but perhaps your bookkeeper is. Either way, match skills and personality to the task--that will maximize productivity.

The fourth step is to decide what controls and checkpoints you'll put on the person to whom you're delegating. How often will the person report back to you? What signal means it's time to shout for help? Get very specific about these steps because that will make delegation work smoothly, both for you and employees.

Fifth, motivate the person to whom you're delegating. If you're handing off important work, you want the subordinate to be fired up to get results. "Link the new job to what motivates that employee," says Leeds. If the employee is there to learn, present the task as a development opportunity. If visibility is important, present it that way. "Make sure what you delegate is appropriate [for the employee]," Leeds says. And sell what you delegate--don't just hand out tasks.

The last step is accountability. "Effective delegation means holding people accountable for the jobs that are assigned to them," Leeds says. A big mistake here is that bosses often expect the employee to fail--and readily take the task back to do themselves. Don't. That's a quick way to undermine employee effectiveness and, in the bargain, guarantee employees will never develop in the ways you need them to if your business is to reach the level you want.

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This article was originally published in the July 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ready, Set, Delegate!.

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