The Delegation Dilemma: How Do You Know When It's Time?

Are you guilty of 'self-enhancement bias'?

learn more about Elise Mitchell

By Elise Mitchell

Jan Vašek |

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"Focus on what only you can do. Give the rest away." This thought came to me during a particularly busy time at my company. As the founder of a growing startup, I was used to doing everything. Eventually, however, I realized I had to share responsibility with my leadership team or risk stunting the growth of our company, our team and myself.

Related: The Cure to Working Too Much on Your Growing Business

Professor and author Jeffrey Pfeffer has written about this problem of leaders being hesitant to delegate, especially when it comes to significant responsibilities. Pfeffer refers to what he calls leaders' "self-enhancement bias," or their belief that doing the work themselves is simpler, or that their work is better than everyone else's. Others fear that delegating will diminish their own value.

Getting deeply embedded in their businesses energizes entrepreneurs. They're satisfied when taking on many challenges. What many entrepreneurs don't realize is that simply being a master craftsman (or woman) won't achieve their goals; but being strong leaders who can empower and equip others to excel, will.

"Being a bit of a control freak is often rewarded in the early stages," says Kellye Crane, founder of Solo PR Pro. "Taking things we have handled personally our entire careers and offloading them can feel unnatural."

Realizing that delegation is vital to a company's success

In my own career, ceding many responsibilities to other leaders actually freed me to work on the business, not just in it. Instead of keeping my head down working, I needed to look up and understand how we, our clients and the broader marketplace were changing. I needed to look at the big picture. By ceding responsibility, I had time to expand my abilities as a leader and develop a deeper understanding of business-critical areas, including finance, legal and operations.

Delegating key assignments also benefited my employees. Diving into more work enabled them to develop themselves professionally and increased their job satisfaction. I had worked hard to hire talented people, and I wasn't about to lose them because I was keeping all of the good projects to myself.

Determining when to delegate

Knowing when to let go and when to continue leading or coaching is hard. Consider delegating when you can't find the time to think about and plan for your business. Also, delegate if you're addressing only urgent needs but not the things that are most important.

A critical juncture for me came when my leadership team got too big. I'd always been a collaborative leader and enjoyed discussing ideas and decisions with my top people. But we'd reached a point where gathering everyone together was no longer practical. Instead, I established an executive committee to focus on the agency's strategic needs; our larger leadership team continued to meet less frequently and with a more tactical focus on driving the day-to-day business.

Related: The Single Hardest Thing You'll Do as a Business Owner

Making sure it works

Once you hand off an assignment, stay close enough to ensure all goes well -- but not so close that you're still calling the shots. Temptation will come when something doesn't go quite right, but that's when your coaching skills can shine. Instead of jumping to the rescue, guide your team by asking the right questions and helping devise solutions to implement. That style of leadership will build your team's confidence and minimize members' need to consult you in the future.

Another concern leaders have is the potential for their businesses to become siloed. As authority moves outward into the organization, teams can become more interested in their own projects and less concerned about staying connected with the broader group. So, establish communication protocols that allow for open, frequent information-sharing among employees at all levels. We often use multiple channels -- email, our company intranet and departmental or companywide meetings -- to spread the word. Even a CEO's quick stroll through the halls can go a long way toward ensuring that everyone feels connected, informed and affiliated.

These challenges are just a few you'll face when delegating, but don't let them hold you back from giving your team more authority when it and the business are ready. Taking on bigger responsibilities will ensure that employees have the chance to grow and enjoy greater job satisfaction. At the same time, effective delegation will help you become a stronger leader and to focus on the big picture.

So, go ahead -- take a step back. Trust the team you built.

Related: The Best Thing I've Delegated -- and What it Taught Me

Elise Mitchell

CEO of Mitchell Communications Group

Elise Mitchell is the CEO of Mitchell, an award-winning strategic communications firm. She helped build Mitchell into one of the top 10 fastest-growing firms globally and a two-time Agency of the Year winner, honored by PRWeek and The Holmes Report. She was named PRWeek Agency Public Relations Professional of the Year and a Top 50 Power Player in PR. She is the author of Leading Through the Turn.

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