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How to Delegate Effectively

“How to Delegate Effectively”

Managers could greatly reduce their stress by practicing a critical management skill — delegation. The inability to delegate frequently has led to the downfall of many leaders — from presidents to first-line supervisors. This guide helps managers recognize the benefits of delegating, what and to whom one should delegate, and a systematic approach to the delegation process.


Let’s face it: One of the reasons you’re a successful entrepreneur is you have faith in yourself to persevere. You know that when all else fails, you can get things done.

But as your business grows, that same faith — taken to its extreme — can hold you back. You’ll need to rely on others to take initiative, solve problems, and produce results. This Business Builder gives you the tools to do that.

You’ll learn the art of delegation: its benefits, its limitations, and how to communicate what you want. We’ll also show you a simple four-step approach to delegation so that you can manage this process consistently.

Many entrepreneurs in fast-growth businesses assume delegation will take care of itself. In a lean, mean startup, everyone knows to chip in, right?

Test that assumption by completing the following exercise.

Exercise 1: So You Think You’re a Delegator?

Answer each statement with the corresponding number using this code:

1 = always
2 = sometimes
3 = never

_____  I find that my employees consistently look for ways to relieve the pressure that top management faces — without being asked.
_____  I’m free to "think big" because my colleagues and employees handle all the daily operational stuff.
_____  As my company continues to grow rapidly, I’m totally comfortable letting go and putting others in charge of pieces of my business — rather than clinging to control.
_____  I prefer to spend 30 minutes training an employee to do a new task than just doing it myself in five minutes.
_____  I say to an employee "Let me show you how to do that" far more than I think to myself "If I don’t do it, it won’t get done right."
_____  I look for opportunities to praise my managers for delegating to their workers.

Review your answers. If your total score is 6-8, then you’re an excellent delegator. This Business Builder will reinforce much of what you’re already doing and introduce you to some new techniques.

If your score is 9-14, you’re on the road to becoming an effective delegator. But you need to raise your awareness and make a more concerted effort to coach others to plug holes and take on more responsibility.

For those who score over 14, you’re not alone. And you’re honest! Many entrepreneurs need to confront the fact that they just can’t do it all, and that assigning jobs to others is a vital part of building a business. Ask any legendary business builder — including our own Edward Lowe — to identify a key to transforming a great idea into a thriving enterprise, and here’s the answer you’ll hear: harness the drive, skills, and talents of every employee.

That’s where delegation comes in.


In fast-growth companies, harried entrepreneurs usually delegate out of rushed necessity. They’ll corner a staff member in the hall and say, "I need you to help put out this fire!" Or they’ll get an emergency phone call, race out of a meeting, and say, "Gotta run. Chris, you take over."

Given such time constraints, entrepreneurs can wind up delegating without even knowing it. It’s informal. They’re so busy that they may impulsively flag down the nearest employee and give only the barest instructions before moving on.

Some workers thrive under such frantic conditions. They’re willing to keep pace with you and don’t need lots of handholding. Others may want more direction at first. In any case, by treating delegation with more care, you can transfer responsibility to your team with a minimum of disruption.

Don’t dismiss delegation as an outmoded concept that’s part of the "command-and-control" model of years past. You may not believe in rigid, hierarchical organizations. But even the founders of flatter, more collaborative young businesses must ensure that every employee can acquire higher-level skills and duties.

As your firm grows, you’ll begin to accept that you can’t do it all — that your operation is too big and you need to pass along responsibilities to others. You must clear the "delegation hurdle," where you leap over the I’m an owner who does everything stage to embrace the I’m an entrepreneur who gives up power mentality.

Why Delegate?

  1. You free yourself to run your business and see the big picture.
  2. You develop your employees and make them more valuable.
  3. You spread accountability to encourage a stronger, more resilient team.
  4. You can respond faster to changes in your business when you can rely on nimble employees to take charge.


Delegation is not task assignment. You’re not simply assigning work to employees that falls within their job duties and responsibilities. To delegate, you must give someone the responsibility and authority to do something that’s normally part of your job.

Delegation is not "dumping." If employees think you’re merely throwing unpleasant assignments on their lap, they’ll resent having to find extra time for boring or dead-end projects.

Delegation is not abdication. You share accountability for the assignment. That’s why you must establish appropriate controls and checkpoints to monitor your employees’ progress.

Your role is to set clear goals and expectations for the assignment — including any boundaries or criteria — without telling the worker how to do it. This way, you allow others to discover for themselves the best way to follow through.

Delegation involves three elements:

  1. responsibility
  2. authority
  3. accountability

When you delegate, you distribute responsibility and authority to others while holding them accountable for their performance. The ultimate accountability, however, still lies with you.

Are You Fooling Yourself?

Problem: You convince yourself that you’re always looking for ways to teach others to do more. But the result remains the same: You don’t delegate nearly enough.

Cause: Many entrepreneurs are stubborn, independent, and self-reliant. They prefer to maintain control by playing a hands-on role, so they’re less apt to hand off assignments to employees even though they know they should.

Solution: Track how you spend your workday and the number of times you delegate. Then apply the "Two-for-One Rule": For each task you delegate, assign another job to someone else. This way, you’ll double your daily delegation.


The biggest barrier to delegating is overcoming the entrepreneur’s curse: insisting on doing it all. That’s a fatal error that prevents startups from growing into viable companies.

Here’s how to tell if you’re digging yourself into a hole. When a friend asks, "How was work today?" do you talk about how much work you did? Or do you focus on the work that you coached others to do?

If you discuss how well your employees are "stepping up" and "lightening my load," that’s a good sign. It shows you’re delegating in a meaningful way. But if you sigh and summarize all the rush jobs you had to handle — and all the fires you had to put out — that indicates you could benefit from more delegation.

Beware of giving the following excuses to avoid delegating:

  1. "It takes too long to explain."
  2. "No one on my staff is capable of doing it."
  3. "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself."
  4. "My people are already overworked. I can’t dump anything more on them."

Which of the above statements have you made to rationalize your lack of delegation?

Although you may offer the above excuses, your real reasons for refusing to delegate may appear below:

  1. "I’m comfortable doing things myself. If I give that up, then I would wind up operating my company in a way I’m not comfortable with."
  2. "It’s my company, so it’s ultimately my job to run everything."
  3. "What if the other person messes up? We’re a young company, and we can’t afford any mistakes."

Can you think of any other reasons why you don’t delegate as much as you should?


Even if you’re an excellent delegator, your employees may resist the chance to step in. But you can’t let this stop you from dishing out duties to them.

When you delegate, you need to anticipate your workers’ concerns and address them. Prepare to overcome these anxieties that your employees may express:

  1. I’m afraid of being criticized or embarrassed if I don’t do things exactly right.


  2. I’m not sure I have the skills or ability to do this.


  3. I just don’t have the time to take on more work.


  4. I’m being taken advantage of. I shouldn’t have to do someone else’s job.


  5. I’ve already done my share of extra work without receiving any thanks, much less reward or recognition. So now I’m hesitant to say yes.


  6. Are there any other objections that you hear from your employees when you try to delegate?



Step 1: Choose What to Delegate

Study what kind of job you intend to delegate. Plan how you are going to present the assignment, including your requirements, parameters, authority level, checkpoints, and expectations.

To determine what tasks you should delegate, begin by keeping a log of what you do during the day. After two weeks, review your daily activity log and ask yourself if it truly reflects what you should be doing.

Say you make the most contribution to your firm by focusing on five duties:

  1. Courting new customers
  2. Mapping out your firm’s growth strategy
  3. Exploring acquisitions and marketing alliances
  4. Analyzing new markets for your products or services
  5. Coaching employees

If your activity log shows you do not spend the bulk of your time in these five areas, this should spur you to delegate. Squandering your day on minor matters will divert you from what really counts and stymie your company’s growth.

Do delegate:

  1. All routine or even sporadic clerical duties (filing, counting, sorting, routine reports)
  2. Making minor decisions
  3. Answering routine questions
  4. Minor staffing problems such as scheduling
  5. Anything your employees are expected to do when you’re not there
  6. Jobs that can develop the employee in other areas for potential promotion

Don’t delegate:

  1. An emergency or short-term task where there’s not time to explain or train
  2. Morale problems
  3. A presentation to investors about your company’s financial performance and future plans
  4. A job no one else in the company is qualified to do
  5. Personnel issues such as hiring, firing or disciplinary matters

Step 2: Choose the Right Person to Delegate to

Andrew Carnegie once said, "The secret of success is not in doing your own work but in recognizing the right man to do it."

The key to finding the right person to delegate to is to match skills and personality to the task at hand. As a preliminary exercise, ask each of your employees these questions:

  1. What would you like to learn more about at this company?
  2. What areas would you like to expand your skills?
  3. What parts of this company do you feel you know the most/least about?
  4. Are you eager to change your current job duties in any way? If so, how?

Armed with the answers, you can delegate duties to people who are receptive to accepting them.

Also consider the work habits of individuals on your team. Some people may need lots of explanation, while others merely want to know your expectations and any guidelines before they’re left alone to "get it done."

Step 3: Communicate What You Want Done

Rather than rush to give "do this, do that" orders, effective delegation consists of explaining the WHAT and the WHY:

WHAT do you want the employee to do?

WHY did you choose them to do it?

When you delegate, include a "WHAT-WHY statement." Examples:

I’d like you to make ten survey calls to find out what our customers think of our new product. Given your excellent phone manner, I think you would represent us well and get people talking.

We need to turn in some financial information to state regulators by next Friday, and I want you to confirm all the numbers are up-to-date and accurate in our financial exhibits. You’re a stickler for details, so I’m depending on you to crosscheck everything.

Can you write a letter to our suppliers about our new purchasing policies? You’re familiar with our expense control measures and you’re a good writer, so I think you would be perfect to write this letter and provide the proper context.

Before delegating your next project, compose a WHAT-WHY statement:


Rehearse this statement out loud to see how it sounds. You may want to practice with a trusted adviser and get feedback.

When you’ve polished your WHAT-WHY statement, you’re almost ready to delegate. But first, prepare answers to these three questions:

  1. Who should the employee work with on this assignment? Who’s available to offer help?

  3. What resources or tools are available?

  5. What’s the deadline?

Weave the answers to the above questions into your instruction. Encourage the employee to take notes, especially to confirm the deadline so there’s no misunderstanding about what you expect at that time.

The final step in communicating what you want done is to gauge the employee’s willingness to comply. End by asking, "Are you excited about doing this?" or "Do you feel comfortable tackling this?"

You might also ask for input on how the individual intends to get started. Example: "How do you plan to approach this?"

Step 4: Follow Up

Establish checkpoints to monitor progress. This discussion should be a collaborative process where you reach mutual agreement on how you intend to follow up.

You have three options to track an employee’s work:

  1. Scrutinize and approve every step of the assignment before the worker proceeds to the next stage.

    Pro: You ensure the project is completed satisfactorily, and you can satisfy your urge to know what’s going on throughout the process. Many control-oriented entrepreneurs prefer to keep a close watch on an assignment after they delegate it, especially if it involves lots of details or complicated steps.

    Con: You might make the employee feel stupid by signing off on each step. You risk showing you don’t trust others to think for themselves without your constant oversight. Plus, it takes more of your time.

  2. Set a date for the individual to complete the work. Instruct the employee to come to you with any questions along the way; otherwise, you stay out of it.

    Pro: You give the worker a chance to operate independently without lots of interference. Your hands-off role also frees you to do what’s most important.

    Con: You may be in for an unpleasant surprise if the work isn’t done by the due date or it’s done incorrectly, and you may have no way of knowing how it’s going unless the employee chooses to keep you informed.

  3. Designate a manager who’s in charge of overseeing the employee’s work. This is really double delegation: you’re assigning work to someone and assigning a supervisor to monitor that work.

    Pro: You increase the odds the work will get done properly — without having to spend time tracking it yourself. You can also give your team leaders a chance to expand their supervisory role by making them the "contact person" for your employee and by having them follow the worker’s progress.

    Con: In a fast-growing business, you may not have the luxury of putting a manager in charge of monitoring an employee’s work. And that manager may not have the time to track the project carefully or provide meaningful help to the employee.


Reverse or Upward Delegation

Most entrepreneurs expect their employees to wear many different hats. But some workers lack the versatility to take on different roles in a young company.

Even if they’re comfortable taking on a range of duties, they may lack the drive to do what you ask of them. They may take the easy way out, in which they keep coming back and asking you what to do.

Many entrepreneurs fall into the trap by taking the assignment back unwittingly. They might say, "Here, let me show you," and they wind up doing the whole project.

To avoid falling victim to the reverse delegation syndrome, make employees think or problem-solve for themselves. Play the role of coach. Begin by asking the employee various open-ended questions to find out what has already been done and what the person thinks should come next. Offer help and support, but don’t take back an assignment that you have delegated to someone else.


You may think you’re doing a great job delegating to one of your employees. But you may wonder why the individual isn’t ecstatic over the opportunity. The likely culprit: poor communication.

It’s easy to assume that the employee knows and understands your motivation. Yet in some cases, employees feel "dumped on" or taken advantage of. To prevent this, explain the benefit of the assignment to the employee. Remember to point out What’s In It For Them — a concept sometimes remembered by the acronym: WIIFT.

Grabbing the Glory

Some high-ego entrepreneurs hog the credit for an employee’s hard work. Make sure that you give the appropriate recognition to those who deserve it. If you must salute yourself, mentally pat yourself on the back for being a great delegator.


In order to determine how well you have mastered the art of delegation, complete the following assignment:

Name one of your responsibilities that you wish to delegate to someone else.


Identify the person to whom you are delegating. Why choose this person? Consider this person’s skills, experience, and personality.


Outline the specific tasks to be done.


Define expectations and performance standards.


Determine how you will measure your success as a delegator.




Mastering the Art of Creative Collaboration by Robert Hargrove. (McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Essential Managers: How to Delegate by Robert Heller and Tim Hindle. (DK Publishing, 1999).

Successful Delegation: How to Grow Your People, Build Your Team, Free Up Your Time and Increase Profits and Productivity by Frank F. Huppe. (Career Press, 1994).

Don’t Do. Delegate! by James M. Jenks and John M. Kelly. (Ballantine Books, 1991).

The Art of Winning Conversation by Morey Stettner. (Prentice Hall, 1995).

Delegation Skills by Bruce B. Tepper. (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1994).

How to Delegate Effectively by Don H. Weiss. (AMACOM, 1991).


Fine Art of Delegation and Coaching, For Leaders.


"Managing Oneself" by Peter F. Drucker. (Harvard Business Review, March-April 1999).


How to Delegate Work and Ensure It’s Done Right, by Dick Lohr. CareerTrack, 1989.

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