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"You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility."
Byron Dorgan, former US Congressman, legal policy advisor

Forget great: you cannot be a good leader if you cannot delegate tasks effectively. Without the willingness, and ability, to designate accountability to others within your organization, you'll suffocate under the weight of obstacles and opportunities alike. Entrust responsibility - without throwing it away. It's a fundamental step into leadership, and one of the first toward great.

Delegation: Not Abdication

Too often, when leaders "delegate," they are, in reality, abdicating their responsibility. They are washing their hands of it. Michael Gerber explains in The E-Myth Revisited, that it can be tempting to abdicate. Say, for example, that you hired your first employee, someone who can do what you can't - or don't want to. Gerber writes:

At last, you're free... Your worries are over. Someone else is going to do that now... your newfound freedom takes on an all too common form. It's called Management by Abdication rather than by Delegation. In hand the books over to Harry...and run.

When you abdicate, you do just that: hand the task off and run. What happens if Harry doesn't know what to do with the books? What if Harry messes up? What if he doesn't deliver on time or his work isn't up to par? It's his fault, right? Guess again.

When you delegate, you strategically, and thoughtfully, hand the task over to someone to a) get the work done and b) help develop that person's skill sets, experience, and confidence. You remain involved, to varying degrees, because you recognize that while you have delegated responsibility, you have not abdicated your own accountability. You still have to inspect what you expect.

The question becomes, then, how do you delegate effectively?

The Essentials of Delegating Tasks

  • Define Success. What does success look like? Don't assume the person to whom you are delegating a task knows, or that he or she shares, your definition of success. Clearly articulate what you are seeking to accomplish with this particular task.
  • Set Due Dates. Too often, leaders and managers say, "Get this to me as soon as possible." What does that mean? By end of day? Tomorrow? Next week? ASAP means different things to different people. Don't leave it to chance: set a firm date for delivery. Tomorrow at noon. Next Tuesday before 3:00.
  • Establish Priorities. Don't forget that your people are dealing with their own lengthy to-do lists. Adding to it without specifying priority sets everyone up for failure or disappointment.

Too often, direct reports accept the task - fully knowing that they will be stressed, overwhelmed, and unlikely to accomplish it on time or to the best of their ability. They try to figure out where the work fits within their priorities, and they do not ask for clarification.

Ideally, they could say, "You gave me this task, and I have five others on my plate. Where do you want me to put this item? At the top? Bottom? Somewhere in the middle?"
But if they don't, bring it up. Communicate how this new task fits into the grand scheme of your strategy and direction, and help them determine its proper place on their to-do list.
  • Connect the Dots. With effective delegation, people understand the impact of their work on others and on the company as a whole. We operate in an information-based society. Our raw material is data. I give you information, you turn it into something. If I'm late, if I don't provide good or accurate information, if it is shoddy, that impacts you. Connect the dots so people can see where they fit and how they impact other moving parts in the organization.
  • Do Not Assume. Typically, we communicate our intent to delegate a task verbally. Great. You should. But if that's all you do, you risk making assumptions that have no basis in reality. There's too great a chance of misinterpretations or misunderstandings. For absolute clarity, provide a written follow up. Here's what we talked about. You are going to do task X, which is urgent. It should be your top priority, and you can put off task Y until next week. Here's what I'm looking for, and by when I need it by. The most common outcome of most communication is... misunderstanding. Eliminate that misunderstanding.

Delegating tasks does not free you from responsibility. But when you do it right, it does free you to spend time on high-level, high-value work that moves your organization - and career - forward.


Larry Hart

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