Delegation for leaders

Delegation is a frequent topic of conversation with my clients – Whether it’s for freeing up the time of leaders, empowering new leaders, developing teams or working more efficiently/profitably. Traditional pyramid structures in professional service firms require that a senior person builds a team of junior people in order to achieve maximum profitability. Delegation is a vital element if this process is to be successful.  

Supervision vs delegation

Supervision and delegation are not the same things. Supervision is about professional responsibility to manage risk and ensure quality. It helps with adherence to procedure and the sharing of best practice. Professional bodies usually have specific requirements for supervising trainees.

Delegation is the act of empowering another to act and assigning responsibilities. It is likely that you would want to heavily supervise those to whom you are delegating for the first time. Both have a role to play in training and development.

Typically though, there is a more directive approach in supervision (for juniors) and a more consultative style to delegation (for seniors).

Supervision and delegation skills

Supervisors will need excellent technical knowledge as this is one of the main things that they are assessing. However, it is possible to delegate tasks – such as management and client relationship tasks – where technical knowledge might not be paramount and other skills are required.

Communication and feedback skills are required for both supervision and delegation. Feedback is addressed here: It is important that an appreciative approach (more positive feedback than constructive criticism) is adopted if the confidence of people is to be strengthened.

Coaching skills are important too – asking questions so that the people being supervised or delegated to can try to find answers and solutions for themselves rather than being told. See This builds knowledge and self-confidence as well as important skills for problem solving. It develops self-confidence. Coaching skills are explored further here

When to delegate

Before delegating you need to analyse and categorise the types of work to be delegated to others. Some may be repetitive, routine and procedural work where there are prescribed methods, documented processes and on-line templates or standards. Some may be unusual or unique problem-solving activities where a degree of critical thinking is required (see Other tasks may require a broader and deeper range of commercial knowledge and skills and an ability to deal with tricky situations or challenging people.

Where client work is involved, you obviously need to check that the client will be happy with the work being delegated and is properly informed of the individual’s background and contact details.

While people often consider delegating when they are busy and over-stretched, it is important to remember that it takes time to properly delegate tasks – to provide clear instructions, to support the person or team in learning how to tackle a new or complex task and to check in regularly on progress. So you should ensure that you delegate work when you have sufficient time to provide the necessary support – or identify someone else who can do so.

Why don’t people delegate more?

The business case for delegation is very strong. But there are many people who fail or refuse to delegate the appropriate tasks. There are many reasons for this that must be tackled. These ideas are examined further here:

More worrying reasons why people don’t delegate are due to a lack of trust in the skills and abilities of those available for delegation and “work hugging” – a fear that if work is delegated that fee targets won’t be achieved and that there will then be an onus on generating new work.

Whereas some leaders will delegate happily to their team until someone indicates that they have too much work, other leaders will be over protective and take on more work themselves to avoid making their team members working too hard. Obviously, a good leader will achieve a balance once they fully understand the capabilities and limits of their team members.

Delegation steps

Naturally, a starting point is to consider the suitability of the individual for the task – their skill level, workload and personal style. And also whether the client or stakeholder will feel comfortable with the task being delegated.

There are numerous models to support you in tackling all the necessary steps in delegation. I offer a simple and a more complex version:

In The Art of Delegation by Ros Jay and Richard Templar they suggest: 

  1. Review the task and set the objective
  2. Decide to whom to delegate
  3. Set parameters
    1. Objective
    2. Deadline
    3. Quality standards
    4. Budget
    5. Limits of authority
    6. Details of any resources available
  4. Check they understand
  5. Give them back up

I propose a slightly different approach:

  1. Clarify your expectations
    1. Explain what needs to be accomplished and why it’s important
    2. Help them see the “big picture” or context – if possible connect the task to organisational, team, client or personal development goals
  2. Establish checkpoints
    1. Plan how you’re going to ensure the work is being completed by establishing checkpoints – these might be more regular for a junior tackling a task for the first time
    2. Manage the risk of mistakes occurring by being proactive and staying in the loop at critical points within the project
  3. Delegate the results, not the process
    1. Focus on the end result and, unless the person is inexperienced or there are prescribed regulations, allow him/her to determine how best to achieve it
    2. If you dictate exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, you limit the learning potential
  4. Define roles
    1. Explain how much support you’ll provide and when and how
    2. Let the person know when to wait for your instructions or make independent recommendations and decisions – The more authority you give, the better the end result will be – however, use your discretion, depending on the task and individual
    3. Make sure the person understands the extent to which independent initiative is allowed
    4. Encourage questions and be available to offer help and guidance
    5. Signpost other sources of help and support
    6. Describe the situations when they should definitely check or report back to you
  5. Talk about consequences
    1. Reassure them about time recording – it may take them longer to complete an unfamiliar task. They need to record their time even if it isn’t reflected in the billing
    2. If you allow people to have authority over their work, inform them of the consequences of both successful and unsuccessful results
    3. What rewards can they expect if they do a great job?
    4. What will happen if they don’t achieve the expected results?
  6. Confirm their understanding
    1. Ask them to repeat back their understanding of the task – possibly even to email you with the key points and schedule the checkpoints in your diary
    2. Ask them what they are likely to tackle first (and why) and ask them what they perceive to be the most challenging aspects of the task

Mutual responsibility

Those delegating tasks have a responsibility to provide clear instructions, context, support and help as described above.

However, those who are being delegated to also have responsibilities. They should be honest about their skill levels and their workload if they think that this may impact on their ability to complete the task.

Delegatees are responsible for asking questions for clarification or seeking support if and when they need it. They are also responsible for speaking to the person who delegated the task if they foresee any difficulties – particularly where they suspect that critical dates or quality levels might not be achieved. They are also responsible for ensuring that they report back on the agreed check points and not exceeding their limits of authority.

Best practice

From the numerous training sessions that I have run on delegation there are some other useful points:

Empathy – Try to remember when you first tackled a new task and were at the receiving end of delegation. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you are delegating to and try to address their likely questions and concerns.

Non Verbal Communication (NVC) – Watch the NVC of the person to whom you are delegating a task. Watch whether their body language changes and at which point. Consider when they are signalling either resistance or a desire to ask a question.

Personality differences – People come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more focused on the task and others on relationships, some are introverts and others are extraverts. Take particular care when delegating to those who have a different style to yourself as the way they prefer to communicate or work may be different to yours

Reassurance – Explain that elements of the task are tricky and that you yourself experienced some difficulty when tackling the task for the first time. Give the delegatee permission to express their concerns.

Reflection – Once you have explained the task, allow the delegate some time to reflect on what needs to be done and come back for further clarification or help a short while after the task is initially delegated

Feedback – Once the task is completed, ask the delegatee for feedback on how you might improve the way you delegate tasks in future.