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How to Delegate Properly

As your company grows, you will be forced to delegate more responsibility to the members of your staff. Here's how to decide what to delegate and what to tackle yourself.
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In the early stages of your company you're not just the CEO. Your roles include accountant, head of human resources, and customer service representative to name a few. But as you grow and hire more people, it falls to them as much as to you to make your company a success.

In the case of small businesses, the founder will often have a hard time relinquishing the complete control they experienced before they had a staff. CEOs of small businesses are "so busy just doing the day-to-day stuff, they don't step back and think, ‘You know what, I could make this a lot easier for myself and get better results for my business if I only delegate it," says Barbara Pratt the author of Own the Forest, Delegate the Trees and the CEO of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida-based Project Leadership Gold, a project management consulting firm.

The more you can successfully delegate, the more time you will have to spend on the challenges that only you can navigate for your company. Or as Pratt puts it, delegating "frees up the top person to do their strategic thinking and make sure the big picture's being addressed." But it can still be tricky to know what to delegate, who to hire so you can delegate with ease, and how to check in on the people you've delegated to; this guide will tell you how.

How to Delegate Properly: Deciding What to Delegate

Some tasks are readily delegated because they require little creative interpretation. Phone calls, paperwork, and even bills and finances are often unloaded hastily onto new hires or outsourced to contractors. Delegating administrative tasks is "the first thing everybody thinks of because they hate to do it themselves," Pratt says.

Still that's no reason to skimp on those aspects of your business. Companies like Zappos and Kayak.com put a premium on customer service and as a result, they hire and train their employees in a very specific way to make what could be a rote task, answering customer e-mails and phone calls, a dynamic interaction that ultimately helps the companies' bottom lines.

But not all tasks have a deeper meaning; some just need to be checked off a list as complete or incomplete. Not delegating these types of tasks can waste your precious time. Pratt gives the example of a company that collects business performance data for medical practitioners that struggled to delegate at the right time. The company, which employs 20 people, had a major event that was a financial linchpin for them. Understandably given its importance, they figured they should put one of their top executives on it, however "putting on the event is almost all operational and easily delegated downward if they only trusted their people or thought it through how they could break the work down," Pratt explains.

So what's a good rule for when to delegate? Think about whether a seemingly simple task can take on an extra dimension that would improve your business. If the answer is no, get your assistant on the phone. If it's yes, roll up your sleeves.

Dig Deeper: Why Fly Solo? Delegate Work to a Virtual Assistant


How to Delegate Properly: What Can't You Afford to Delegate

Business owners are much more hesitant to delegate strategic and creative assignments because they often have a strong vision for just how those projects should turn out.

But stepping back from the details, even in the case of a more creative project, can be a good thing. You have to "know and value the fact that [the person you delegate to] is not always going to make the same decision that [you] would make because otherwise there's no point in having delegated," says James Baron, a professor at the New Haven, Connecticut- based Yale School of Management with a focus in organizational design and behavior.

Andrew Crapuchettes has seen the value of delegating creative tasks firsthand. The CEO of Economic Modeling Specialists, a Moscow, Idaho-based company that collects employment data and provides economic analyses for colleges and universities, was approached by his marketing manager about rebranding the company, particularly its Web presence.

The manager and his team ended up doing a stellar job, boosting the company's visibility, and Crapuchettes admits that, though he was nervous about ceding control of such a big strategic project at first, "if I had tried to micromanage it, or if I had tried to really ride the details of it, it would not have gone so well."
So what projects does Crapuchettes handle himself? He deals with big picture planning and the top echelons of new endeavors, such as forming high-level partnerships.

Dig Deeper: Norm Brodsky on the One Thing You Can't Delegate


How to Delegate Properly: Matching an Employee's Tasks with Their Pay

Another important tenet of delegation is to dole out responsibility in such a way that you pair a task with people who have the right talents and are in the right pay bracket. You don't want your $100 an hour employee doing the work a $12 an hour employee could handle, do you?

Well that's the conventional wisdom but Paul English, the co-founder of the travel search engine Kayak.com, handles customer support along with his engineers and people give him funny looks for it. "When I tell people that, they look at me like I'm smoking crack," he told Inc. "They say, ‘Why would you pay an engineer $150,000 to answer phones when you could pay someone in Arizona $8 an hour?' If you make the engineers answer e-mails and phone calls from the customers, the second or third time they get the same question, they'll actually stop what they're doing and fix the code. Then we don't have those questions anymore." Still unless there's some added benefit of having employees with higher salaries tackle seemingly menial tasks, it's best to assign work with pay grade in mind.

Dig Deeper: The Way I Work, Paul English of Kayak.com


How to Delegate Properly: Hiring the Right People

Smaller companies are often more flexible so you would think they would have the inside track when it came to delegating, but the opposite can actually be the case. At a large company, the roles and responsibilities are often parsed out very specifically, but "in a smaller company, the work is shared so much. Somebody may wear a hat today and then tomorrow they're going to be doing another type of work, and so it's less clear who's completely capable and comfortable in any one thing because so much of it is shared," says Pratt.

Still if you have a staff that you trust, you can rely on them to help propel the company forward. But what exactly does it mean to trust your staff? "Trust obviously comes in a lot of different ways," says Crapuchettes. "The person that babysits my kids, I trust them, but they don't necessarily share my business vision."
However, even in the case of your employees, when you have faith in their skills and abilities, it's not always the same as a shared worldview or vision for the company. Baron explains that, "one of the real challenges of building management teams early on in the evolution of an organization is to ensure the right balance of commonality and diversity." You want people to have enough common ground to communicate easily and yet have varied perspectives to avoid groupthink. Below are some traits to look for in new hires to make your job easier.

Dig Deeper: The Perils of Being a Control Freak


How to Delegate Properly: What Traits in Employees Make Delegating a Breeze?

One way to handle the issue of trust is to only hire people you know well. Baron notes that many companies will hire friends, family members, and former colleagues in the early stages of company building because "there's more reason there to believe that [they] will be coming at problems with a similar set of approaches and a similar set of values."

Unfortunately, this is a luxury a CEO can only afford while his or her company is small. But Crapuchettes stays tapped into a network of business contacts, customers, vendors, and partners, which he will frequently call on to get the scoop on a job candidate. He once discovered from a customer that he had known for years that an applicant was very intelligent, but rested on his intellectual laurels and didn't have a good work ethic.

Once you have the potential employee in the hot seat, here are some characteristics you should look for that make it easier to delegate tasks once they come on board:

  • Crapuchettes looks for people who are quick on the uptake, not just for learning to perform tasks, but so that they can internalize the company's mission and vision.
  • "Everybody on my team is somebody I might delegate to," says Pratt. Since she often hands out tasks that require cooperation, she looks for hires who are respectful of other people.
  • You need an employee who isn't afraid to ask questions, or in a pinch to ask for help, to make delegating a success, says Pratt.
  • "I look for people who are independent," says Pratt, but "not like cowboy mentality where they're going to run with something all by themselves off into the fields" ahead of the rest of us. She looks for a person who takes ownership of a task and takes the initiative to make it successful.

Dig Deeper: How to Improve Your Hiring Practices


How to Delegate Properly: Communicate Clearly

Delegating requires a lot of thought by the person giving the assignment, in part because you always need to be more explicit than your gut instinct or common sense suggests. Make sure there is no room for error or misinterpretation.
When you meet with the employee to delegate the work you should let them know "here's exactly what I want you to do, here's my expectations, here's how we're going to touch base with each other to make sure you're comfortable doing it and that I'm comfortable with how you're doing it," says Pratt.

You also need to make yourself available for plenty of questions. If you give off the impression that you don't want to be bothered, the person will pick up on that and potentially walk away with an incomplete understanding of the assignment.

Dig Deeper: How to Improve Your Communication Skills


How to Delegate Properly: Getting the Most Out of Part-Time Employees

It's particularly important to communicate clearly with your part-time employees because they have a different mental, emotional, and sometimes physical relationship with your company. Due to her line of work, Pratt employs a lot of part-time people, which can complicate the delegation process. "They're not thinking about my company when they're not billing me," she explains, "so they're not going to step up and think about things that I haven't thought about first."

Unless Pratt tasks them with being creative and makes it part of the job description, her contract employees won't do more or less than what she tells them to explicitly. This lesson can even carry over to your full-time employees. You have to hold in mind how they conceptualize your company. If you keep their personal and professional goals in mind, for example who is looking to expand their skill set, when assigning tasks, you can make them more motivated and potentially get better results because of the enthusiasm they are more likely to bring to tasks they have a proclivity towards.

Dig Deeper: The Top 10 Ways to Motivate Employees


How to Delegate Properly: Following Up

Depending on the size of your company and the type of work you do, you will want to check up with the people you've delegated tasks to at different intervals. Pratt recommends a minimum of once a week and Crapuchettes holds to weekly and biweekly meetings with different members of his staff. It's important to remember that these sessions are not opportunities to tamper with all the details of the project but rather to determine if it's more generally headed in the right direction.
Pratt always explains to her employees that the check-ins are not resultant of a lack of trust. She says, "I'm going to be monitoring you, but not because I think you're going to do poor work, [it's because] I want to do everything I can to make sure that you do excellent work."

Dig Deeper: How to Follow Up on Delegation


Resources

  • The International Virtual Assistant's Association is a non-profit that both certifies virtual assistants and connects them with prospective employers. This can be a particularly useful resource for solopreneurs.
  • Project Leadership Gold is a Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida-based project management consulting firm that advises executives on how to execute projects successfully, including issues such as delegation.
Last updated: Apr 16, 2010




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