It’s a big statement, but I believe that the greatest—and frequently untapped potential— of any people manager, is the ability to effectively lead a team.
By this I mean, engaging with employees in a way that enables them show up as their best selves, delivering their best work in the pursuit of your common goal. It means managing the team so you have the right people, focussed on the right tasks. It means effective delegation.
When a person moves from an operational into a leadership role, one of the most challenging adjustments they will face is the shift from doing to leading. Unfortunately, not every manager achieves this. Many leaders end up still working deep in the day-to-day operational tasks, and struggling to let go.
We acknowledge that it’s hard! But if you find yourself in this position, it’s so important make a conscious effort to free yourself up for higher value activities such as strategic work, and leading and coaching your team. Also remember that ‘doing it all’ also sends the message that you don’t trust your team to be competent enough to do it—which is definitely not great for engagement.
Key Leadership Activities
As a leader, an essential part of your job is to help to set priorities, being a trusted advisor, and positively influencing the ideas and plans of your team members. Then, the key step: you need to release the reins, and trust that the team can and will deliver the work.
Delegation empowers employees to exercise autonomy. It allows them to grow and develop new skills and have opportunities to stretch their current abilities. However, there is an art to being able to delegate well.
Here is a useful framework for delegation:
1. Give Context
Provide employees with the big picture, and then trust them to deliver the results. People do better work when they are able to to understand at a business-level, what you are trying to achieve, and what value they bring to delivering this.
Without knowing the underlying reasons, business drivers, and impacts, the employee may draw their own conclusions about why this work is being done. Giving them the opportunity to question and stress-test the priority and importance of the work will enable them to really understand why it needs to be completed, and as they progress the work, give them broader context for their decision making. It also builds trust with the employee – you’ve taken the time to empower them with information. They’ll be more readily able to deliver work that meets the true purpose, within the right context.
2. Provide Clear Guidance
There’s nothing worse than doing a piece of work for someone who knows exactly what they want— but haven’t communicated this to you, until that moment when you deliver something that isn’t what they are looking for! Providing guidance, clarity on what you would like delivered, and describing what ‘good’ looks like is essential from the outset. When delegating, make sure that the team member is clear on what you’re after, they have the information they need and then confirm their interpretation.
3. Set Them Up to Succeed
An old University teacher of mine, used to say to our class “you’re doomed to succeed”. His view was that he had imparted all the skills and knowledge we needed to perform well, we should therefore be able to go forth and achieve. In your team, what’s needed will differ from person to person. Your job as a leader is to understand your people – understand what they know, what they don’t know, and how far they can be stretched. You need to choose the right people for the job, know who’s up for which challenge and how much to extend them. Support them with the right resources, the right support, the right contacts—and they will be set up to succeed.
4. Release the Reins
This comes back to that key point around the difference between doing vs leading. Newsflash! Your team won’t always get it right, and it’s possible they may not complete some tasks as well as you are able to. Nevertheless, it’s important that you release the reins and give your team the opportunity to learn and develop, and own their role. Of course, the extent to which you can do this will depend on the skill level of your employee. Those who are more experienced will require less time coaching and support, and you can offer higher-level guidance and parameters, and those who are less experienced may require more hands-on support and incremental guidance.
5. Remain Accessible
Successful delegation requires support, and a good delegator/leader will make sure they’re accessible in order to provide this. Your employee needs space and time to be able to check in– for advice, decision making, and sometimes just to have someone to bounce ideas around with. The degree to which you need to be accessible will change depending on the ability level of your staff, and their subsequent confidence and freedom to deliver the work.
6. Delegation Post-Mortem
Whether the results of your delegation are positive or not, it’s important to identify what worked, and what didn’t. What would you do differently next time? And what could the team member do differently next time? It’s important to utilise the opportunity to grow and develop – both as a delegator, and for the employee doing the work. Were they clear on the scope? Should they have checked in sooner? Do they think they could have had less guidance? For projects that were successful, give recognition and praise freely.
Like many skills we need as adults, be reassured that delegation can be learned, and improves with practice! The key is doing it consciously, and remaining forwards-focussed so that you can continue to improve your delegation skills as a leader. As your career progresses, and you move into more senior positions, this skill will be increasingly valuable, as your need to deliver through other people increases.