I recently met with a new client, a founder/CEO of a suddenly fast-growing startup. In our initial meeting I asked him about his process around delegating, and let's just say he got a little heated. He told me that he tried to delegate, but every time he did he got an unpleasant surprise about the task, project or process he was trying to empower someone else to do.
It's frustrating. I get it. As an executive coach who works with rapidly scaling companies, I often get an earful from founders and other leaders who are trying hard to delegate but somehow, rather than saving them time, it seems to take extra time.
There is a lot of mythology about delegation, as well as a lot of nuance. Even very seasoned leaders have trouble with finding the right balance between empowerment and supervision.
My framework for delegation consists of three questions. When you ask them, they help you get it more right more often.
How much experience does your employee have?
A few years ago one of the CEOs I coach, Scott, was telling me his tale of frustration about delegation gone wrong. He had asked his office manager to compile some data about the company's competitors. She went deep on the project, asking the other executives to spend hours on gathering information and helping her interpret it.
When the ornate report came back to Scott two weeks later, he was dismayed. He had wanted her to spend a few hours gathering some basic information, not waste days of executive time.
Together we unpacked this scenario, and Scott realized that he had treated her the way he would one of his executives by giving her a high-level framework but not walking her through what he had in mind and asking if she had questions. She was thrilled to get the assignment and didn't want to showcase her naivete by asking questions. She also didn't have the experience to know what to ask, so she did her best.
Scott realized that employees of various experience levels needed more or less supervision, so he began to ask himself what skills and experience people had and to tune his management to their level when he delegated.
What does "done" look like?
In this example, Scott had made another mistake. He and the office manager had not had a quick discussion about what the finished project should look like. If he had taken the time to think it through himself, he would have realized that it was important to share his vision of what the report would look like - a few simple tables - along with how long he thought it would take - 2-3 hours.
Deciding in your own mind's eye was "done" looks like helps you clear up confusion before it happens.
Forgetting to clarify what "done" looks like shows up in various ways. Recently I conducted 360-feedback for one of the founders I work with. One of the alarming insights she got was that she simply wasn't clear. She'd delegate something to an employee, they'd complete the work, and then she'd have to spend a lot of time and energy going back and forth with the employee, re-working it so that it would match the image she had in her head.
In a word, this is crazy-making. When you delegate something, take the time to think through what you think the finished product should be, especially when you are delegating to someone less experienced. If you are delegating to a more senior person, agree together on the outcomes you're asking your executive to achieve, and then let them figure out themselves how to achieve them. Clarity on the end result may take extra time, but it ultimately saves you time and energy by aligning expectations up front.
What's the deadline?
It's astonishing to me how often people delegate without agreeing on a clear deadline. When you don't have a deadline, you condemn yourself to having to follow up yourself when you're wondering when the project will be done or what the status is. The impact is that you can't really check it off your own list, which is part of the point of delegating.
I think sometimes leaders assume a timeline without asking the employee. Or they just forget to discuss what the deadline is. Or, sometimes it's uncomfortable. As one young founder once told me, "I feel pushy asking for a due date."
If you and your employee agree on deadlines, that will immediately take some of the stress away from your delegation strategy because you will both be much more clear on the timeframe.
Leadership is learning, and one of the highest impact ways to invest in yourself and your business is to become a master delegator. These three questions will help you upgrade your delegation skills immediately.