The Lost Skill of Delegation

“You cannot do it all.”

As business leaders, most of us have come to realize that we need to better delegate tasks so that we can get what is essential done.

But, it is important to remember that the purpose of delegation is not to make the life of the leader easier. And it is not to take some task (that the leader hates doing) off of the leader’s plate and dump it on the plate of an already over-worked subordinate.

Instead, the goal of delegation is to divide and conquer the most important tasks for the business so that they get done most effectively and the business moves forward.

As such, the keys to delegation are:

  1. Delegate only what is essential
  2. Delegate the right task to the right person
  3. Trust but Verify

1.  Delegate only what is essential

Before deciding on delegating a task or activity, run the task through a series of questions:

  • Does this task need to be done?
  • Does this task need to be done now?
  • Can this task be simplified or reduced to make it easier to get done?

For the company to be as effective as possible, it is necessary to ensure that only tasks important for the success of the business are delegated.

To avoid overwhelming your subordinates and adding yet another task to a full plate groaning under the weight of too many goals and priorities, it is necessary to prioritize the task for your subordinates.

  • Is the new task more important than other tasks the individual is working on?
  • If so, which ones?
  • Which other tasks can be removed from the subordinate’s priority list to give sufficient time for the new task?

    I have seen horrible examples where subordinates continued to get dumped on with new tasks and new priorities without let-up. I have seen General Managers of $10M business units with 21 priorities that they are required to be accountable for while still trying to run their business units. I know of COO’s of $20M businesses with a detailed list of 26 “vital” priorities.

2.  Delegate the right task to the right person

Once you are focused only on the most important tasks, the next step is to delegate the right task to the right person. Seth Goldman of Honest Tea has it right when he said:

Delegate to each other what each does best.

In short, delegate the task to the person most capable of getting it done. What this means in reality is that when you delegate some tasks to a subordinate you may want to take other tasks back that you are personally more capable of doing. Yes, delegation needs to be a two-way street. An example will help:

 When I was President of a $200M business, we worked a great deal on new product and market development and joint ventures. I had an excellent VP of Sales and Marketing who has exemplary in cold calling and initial relationship development, but weaker in administration. So, I would delegate to him much of the initial work in developing markets and relationships. In turn, I took some over some of his administration tasks to give him the time to do what I had delegated to him.

But, wait. I was the President; I was not supposed to do sales administration tasks. In theory, yes. But, in reality, I could do in one hour what might take him a day. And he could do in one day what I might take a week to do. In short, with delegation as a two-way street, we were able to make the business more effective and more successful.

But, you may say, I am better than everybody in my company at nearly everything important. OK, “genius with a thousand helpers.” First, go check your ego at the door. Second, if you still believe that, then you need to focus on doing those important things where you have a comparative advantage. That means that you should focus on those areas where you are better than everyone else by the largest amount and delegate much of the rest. Just as in international trade theory, so in delegation, using comparative advantage will be a win win for the business.

3.  Trust but Verify

An all too common method of delegation is to delegate and forget. This third point is an essential reminder to delegate and then use the simple management tools of following up and providing support and feedback. This allows your team member to get their assignment done well and within the appropriate time.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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3 Responses to The Lost Skill of Delegation

  1. Pingback: The Lost Skill of Delegation | David Shedd's Blog |

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