Leaders, Learn to Delegate!

Whether running a successful project, a company division, or volunteer organization, the biggest challenge for good leaders can be delegation. I hear so many reasons about why they can’t let go, and, I must confess, I’ve been guilty of it myself. The reasons seem to be clear but boil down to a few common themes: loss of control, lack of time, frustration in communication, and lack of trust. However, for both volunteer and business leaders alike, failing to learn how to effectively delegate will seriously restrict how much you can eventually accomplish. Good delegation is difficult, but failing to do it effectively doesn’t make you a smarter, harder working leader, it makes you a lazy one.

Over the years, managing projects, large and small teams, and volunteer leaders around the US, I’ve heard a number of excuses. One would think it’s a problem only with young, inexperienced leaders, but I often see it with more experienced executives, especially in the volunteer world. Here are some of the most common excuses I hear and some ideas for what you, as a leader, must do to fix them. The success of your organization depends on it!

It’s easier to just do it myself. Tell me if you’ve heard — or said — this one before!
I don’t have time to train someone else.
They won’t do it the way I want it done.
I ask people to do it and they don’t, so I just do it myself.
This is my team/organization/project and I don’t need/want help.

One would read these and think the problem is that leaders don’t want to lose control. They want to do it themselves because they don’t trust anyone else can rise to their vision or level of detail. While that may be partially true, in my experience, I’ve found the problem to be somewhat different — it’s a lack of understanding how to train and communicate.

As leaders, we perceive time as a finite resource. We have jobs or other interests, family commitments, volunteer obligations, plus personal lives and a need to get to workout once in a while or, you know, sleep. Too often, when in the midst of a project, it just seems easier to do it yourself. Delegation is a tough leadership lesson to learn, but once you understand its effectiveness, it will be a valuable tool in your professional bag.

Delegation, at first glance, seems like a piece of cake. Take fifty percent of my workload and delegate it to someone who reports to you? How could that not work? First, you should consider that it won’t. What will work is peeling off self-contained pieces of work that can be quantified. Will that project or piece of work free up thirty percent of your overall workload? That’s great, but it won’t be 30% and if you think it will be, you’ll be disappointed. Your expectations have to be in line. Delegation only works if you communicate and supervise which can take up to 50% of the time gained back. Manage your own expectations, that you’ll spend half the time your saving ensuring success.

Let’s look at a common scenario. You are a volunteer leader running an event, or a project manager working with your team on a major project. You’ve even broken the project into pieces, assembled your team, and assigned them responsibilities. But now, in the midst of a rush or late-night panic attack, you’ve discovered that some pieces you’ve assigned to your team haven’t been addressed yet. Perhaps they haven’t even started. Now you’re getting nervous. Clearly, you think, this isn’t important to anyone but me and since it’s success depends on me, I’m just going to go ahead and work on some of these tasks myself. Right? We’ve *all* said this to ourselves. But let’s think about what happens next and what message your “take-over” sends to the team.

You are not the only to whom this project matters. Did you communicate the importance? Did you communicate the timing and deadlines? Did you communicate your expectations? If you feel you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, then why do you feel you don’t have your team’s buy-in on this project? Why do you feel that an email checking in on the status isn’t easier than doing it yourself? By taking over, you’ve just told your team — either business colleagues, staff, or volunteers, that they don’t matter to you. Their input and work isn’t needed.

Common problem: “But I called/texted/emailed and they didn’t get back to me. I had to assume they’d dropped the ball.” Answer: Supervision and communication are keys to delegation. You have to clearly communicate to your team and clearly set specific expectations, then you have to follow up. If you’re worried about a deadline, check in. Proactively see how they’re doing or if they need help. If someone is falling behind or not working ahead like you’d prefer, it’s up to you get out in front of a problem. Think ahead, but don’t circumvent. Whether you’re dealing with paid staff or volunteers, if you ignore their input, you will disengage and demotivate them causing you serious leadership problems down the road.

Common problem: “I don’t have time to delegate all of this. It’s faster if I just do it myself.” Answer: Truly, while it may seem faster, it’s not. And it won’t be. Know that if you delegate, it will still cost you time, just different time. Instead of actively solving a problem or making arrangements for a project, you’ll be communicating and working with your team doing so. Spend your time training them on your expectations and lending your expertise where it’s needed. Sure, there will always be somethings only you can do, but you have to break the myth that doing it yourself saves time. Training a team may seem onerous, but once it’s done, it will free you up to work on higher level work — most likely what you were brought in to do to begin with!

Common problem: “It’s my reputation on the line. This is my project/organization and they just can’t do it exactly the way I would.” Answer: Then why are you training people to take over your legacy? Why aren’t you training your team to execute projects to your level of excellence so it can be maintained throughout the organization? And worse, if you’re the head of a company, group, or organization, why are you training your team to take over for you? To use this excuse does your organization a real disservice. Everyone is replaceable, even you. The best legacy you can leave is to train new talent on doing it “your way.”

Certainly, there are other excuses I hear that are ultimately symptoms of bigger organizational problems: “I enjoy doing it all myself” (see number 3 above) or “My team is awful” are problems that need a little more diagnosis. And, well, even a beginner can understand the issue when they hear “My staff won’t do what I tell them. They ignore me. They won’t listen so it all falls back to me anyway.”

Ultimately, when it comes to a project or organization’s success, there are many factors, but the ability to delegate (with the key components of communication and supervision) is a valuable tool for a leader’s toolbag.

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