Delegation: On Leading and Doing

by Todd Popham
Popham & Associates

“Tom, can you handle this for me?” Carol, a new sales executive, has volunteered to sponsor a new product. Although she is overscheduled learning her new role, she understands this new product is an opportunity to partner with peers and build her brand. Carol quickly accepted the assignment, electing to get the details later.

Tom, one of her direct reports, meets Carol in the hallway. “I know you are busy, Tom,” she says. “Can you look at this product idea and tell me if it would work?” Tom looks down and responds, “I guess so”—although he is overcommitted in his role. Carol says thanks and takes off to her next meeting.

Tom is left to think about the questions he should have asked and how he will meet this commitment. Could he have said no? What is the due date? What does she mean by “would the product work”… be profitable? Provide better service? He is overwhelmed with unanswered questions and disappointed at how he handled the situation. He determines it would take too long to ask someone else to help him handle this request—he might as well just do it himself.

Work is Like Water
Both Carol and Tom are guilty of ineffective delegation. Carol needed a better understanding of the work and a smoother handoff. Tom received the assignment poorly, passively accepting the task without clarifying expectations, and electing to go solo. An ineffective process led to a poor outcome.

Effective leaders ask the following question when work arrives: Should I lead through delegation, or follow by doing?

Work is like water: too much poured into a full container spills over and leaves a mess. This mess includes oblivious givers and depleted takers, overdependency on leaders, underdeveloped teams, and poor results. This is not a great place to work.

Fact: effective leaders are both leaders and doers. The competitive, knowledge-driven world requires us to be a player and a manager. We need to perform some technical work to remain relevant and earn respect from others. But, we have limited capacity and need to route some work to others. Determining the right blend of leading and doing has never been more important.

The Greatest Productivity Tool
First, let’s look at doing. Productivity guru David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, recommends that if a task takes two minutes or less to do, just do it—for example, a routine email request that requires a quick response. If the task requires more than two minutes, delegate or defer it. Defer when you need time to think, and consider if you can stop doing the task.

Delegation is the greatest productivity tool for leaders. The three phases of delegation are: assigning responsibility, providing authority and retaining accountability. Carol’s request to Tom was not well-articulated, and the assignment is on the wrong track. Instead, she could have said, “Tom, I want you to handle this new product idea since it’s in your area of expertise. I need your recommendation in 30 days, and you don’t need to check with me unless the cost exceeds $5,000. I really appreciate your leadership on this, and together we will get this done.”

Let’s look at the keys to leading through delegation, and doing when receiving work from others.

Leading Through Delegation: What, Who & How

  • What are tasks I have that can be delegated to others?
  • Who has the expertise, reliability and availability to perform these tasks?
  • How do I clearly define responsibility, provide authority and not micro-manage, and be personally accountable for the final result?

Doing Through Delegation: Effectively Receiving Delegated Work

  • Affirmation—I understand you need resources and I would like to help you.
  • Capacity—I am currently at full capacity… how would you like me to change priorities?
  • Collaboration—I can assist once I finish a few priorities. If you can start the project, I can join the team in two weeks.

Leadership is not a zero-sum role; it requires a give and take: lead and follow. Carol can increase her effectiveness by learning how to give work to others and taking responsibility to better understand the work request. Tom needs to provide affirmation and take greater responsibility to clarify his workload and priorities.

Give yourself the gift of effective delegation… Do not hesitate—do it today! iBi

Todd Popham is president and CEO of Popham & Associates, a coaching, consulting and leadership training firm. He is also a graduate school instructor and executive coach in the EMBA program at Bradley University.

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