Expert Advice on Mastering the Art of Delegation

by Sheryl Nance-Nash on February 14, 2013
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There are only 24 hours in a day, yet many small-business owners spend too much precious time doing tasks that could be done by someone else.

Mastering the art of delegation is key to success in any business. But letting go of control isn’t always easy. To help you make the transition, the Intuit Small Business Blog rounded up some expert advice for learning how to delegate.

Overcome Your Fears

“For any business owner, not delegating is like buying a window seat ticket on the Titanic — nice ride, but you are going to sink,” warns John Boggs, president of Fortitude Consulting.

Come to grips with giving up a little bit of control, advises Paul Foster, CEO of the Business Therapist. “It is important to be happy if the delegate does things 80 percent as well as you could. This thinking allows you to accept some minimal level of learning-type failures and hiccups. If you’re a perfectionist, it blocks you from delegating because nobody will do it perfectly the first time. The ‘80 percent’ thinking will free you to give up a minimal amount of control.”

Delegation is an act of trust, because there’s a real chance for failure. According to Michelle Randall, principal at Enriching Leadership International, it’s important to delegate while setting up a series of yellow flags as an early alert system to launch Plan B. “My best clients have learned how to do this successfully and that has allowed them to stop acting as a bottleneck to growth. As a result, their companies have flourished. The business owners who haven’t are languishing.”

Prepare to Pass the Baton

One key to successful delegation is to hire the right people. “If you’ve hired good people, the trust you need [to establish] before you delegate comes faster, and the fear of failure that holds it back diminishes,” says Chris Smith, co-founder of the management consulting firm Arryve. “This means less room to get emotional about it, and it means having others more effectively involved in moving your business forward.”

When trying to decide where to delegate, ask yourself whether the task has to do with process or results, with the tactical or strategic, advises Leslie Ungar, president of Electric Impulse Communications.

Boggs adds: Be clear on what you want done, when you need it done, and why it needs to be done.

Differentiating between tasks that can and should be delegated and tasks that require personal handling is just as important as knowing how to delegate, writes Edward Reilly, president and CEO of the American Management Association, in the book AMA Business Boot Camp. He says assignments that probably can be delegated are tasks which closely relate to the work employees are already doing; tasks with clearly defined procedures and end results; repetitive tasks that fit into the normal work flow; and tasks that enable employees to develop themselves.

What Not to Delegate

This raises the question of what not to delegate? For starters, things of a highly sensitive nature, such as salary reviews and disciplinary actions, Reilly writes.

A lot of client and customer-facing work shouldn’t be let go until your business has matured, Smith says. “Because small-business owners tend to be the face of the business, that’s very important to ensure brand consistency and experience.” Think twice, too, about delegating tasks that involve vision.

Once you do decide to delegate, you need to back off. “If they have to come to you for every decision, why delegate?” asks Boggs. Make sure that employees understand the latitude they have in making decisions.

“Have people give you their best idea [or] solution before you get involved,” suggests John Martinka of Martinka Consulting. “Don’t let them come to you with an issue on which you’ll take time to brainstorm, think about, or create a solution for them.”

If you’re looking for a little structure on delegating, Halley Bock, CEO of Fierce, a leadership development and training firm, recommends the decision tree analogy. Someone can be delegated a responsibility at four different levels of the decision tree (leaf, branch, trunk, or root). Each level has a clear, concise definition of what is expected for that project and sets guidelines on how to interact with the leader.

What’s the trick for letting go emotionally? According to Unger, “The mind-set needs to be that your value is in the what, the vision — and not the how, the tactical. If it’s not vision, you need not be doing it. Emotions change. Let go first and the emotions will follow. If you wait until you feel like letting go, it will never happen. It is behavior first and then attitude, not vice versa.”

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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