How to Delegate Like a Pro

Sometimes it’s the simple stuff that is the most powerful.

A few weeks ago, my Element North business partner and I were leading a workshop for senior executives on the topic of creating change through personal influence. Our client was in the midst of a market shift, requiring it to realign strategy and execute new processes quickly. Our role was to ignite energy and ideas to equip leaders to enable that change.

We had assembled big, engaging ideas to present, and somewhat reluctantly included a section on delegation. Delegation is not particularly sexy content to cover. It feels too obvious, particularly for a seasoned professional audience. We planned to go over it quickly as a refresher.

As it turns out, the part on delegation was the most discussed and valued part of the entire workshop! We ended up getting our own refresher on the appetite for improving this evergreen issue. Weak delegation plagues most of us, and frustrates us by producing substandard outcomes. From GE to Google, organizations hinge on crisp and effective delegation.

After all, there’s more opportunity to trip over the routine actions.

It struck me that others might benefit from a delegation tune up, so I’m throwing the ideas out into the world. Think of channeling your inner Jack Welch — bear with me here, I realize he’s a controversial figure. But when it comes to asking and getting what you want, he’s doing all right. (And you can figure out your own take on his style.)

1. Be obvious.

This is the first point in effective delegation because it’s the most essential. You are more likely to get what you want the more explicitly you ask for it. A good request has a firm:

  • WHO: This is a specific person or people, not a team, group of people in a meeting, or the royal we, i.e. We need a new process here!
  • WHAT: These are the specific deliverables or outcomes you are looking to receive. In general, the better you can visualize them, the clearer they will be for the other person. Use examples if you have them.
  • WHEN: This is a calendar date and time. COB, ASAP, tomorrow AM, beginning of next week, etc. are recipes for miscommunication (and potential frustration).

The process seems easy enough, but consider how common weak delegation is and how different it sounds when strengthened:

Weak: This team needs to come up with a new marketing plan ASAP.

Strong: John and Amy, I’d like you to develop a new marketing plan and present it back to the team next Wednesday at 2 PM. It should look similar to the one you did last year for the product launch.

Weak: Brian, you need to be more proactive with that customer request.

Strong: Brian, I’d like you to call the customer today by 5 PM and develop an agreed upon schedule for the delivery. Then email the client a status report every Friday by noon until it’s complete.

For many people, the “strong” options feel too much like micromanaging or bossiness. (Or a common reaction is “I shouldn’t have to say it…they should know!”) Of course you can have a good back and forth until you get to the actual delegation. But think of it this way, wouldn’t everyone rather be clear about expectations than guessing? When everyone knows what to expect it saves time and produces better results.

2. Provide context.

Giving context takes more time, and is often skipped for that reason or because shared understanding is assumed. Err on the side of redundancy. Take a few minutes up front to tell the person WHY the delegated project is important, how it fits in or will be used, and what has worked before. At times you can even give a past example as a guide. Don’t presume the other person wants a blank slate for creativity. If you need a new sales report for the board, show one you like — the employee can then negotiate how much of their own spin they want to put into it.

3. Don’t be vague as a courtesy.

As mentioned above, we often avoid being specific because it feels discourteous. This becomes exacerbated when dealing with a person in a higher position at work. In most companies, leaders have to delegate not just to their direct reports, but to colleagues and those above them. Being purposefully vague feels safer, and less likely to appear stepping out of bounds. However, I can tell you that it’s one thing to be polite, and it’s quite another to be unspecific. Higher ups are busy, and will respect you more if you save them the time by being clear about what you want them to do. They realize they can say no. Try something like, “Here’s what would be ideal (WHO, WHAT, WHEN, CONTEXT). How would that work for you?”

4. Make the ask.

As Wayne Gretzky so memorably put it, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Even when it involves a professional superior or distant colleague, you will get further if you simply ask. We all self-censor, even coaches who are teachers of this work! It’s human nature. (I recently had a friend give me a swift  kick in the pants when I was vacillating on asking for high-profile endorsements for my new book.) Recognize that it’s a natural feeling, and respectfully ask for what you want. After all, Jack  would.

Have your own delegation tips to share? Comment here or on Twitter @kristihedges.

(Note: This post also appears on Forbes.com.)

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About kristihedges
Executive coach, leadership development consultant, Forbes.com blogger, Entrepreneur.com contributor, author of Power of Presence (AMACOM).

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