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Learning to delegate is more than ordering others around

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Taking the Helm by Paul Ferdais

Delegation is one of the essential skills of effective leadership. However, many leaders have difficulty delegating. For whatever reason, leaders can be either unwilling or unable to delegate, which greatly limits their chances for overall success.

The alternative to delegating is to do it all yourself. Leaders who try to do it all themselves end up with so many things going on that deadlines pass and tasks don’t get accomplished. Without the ability to delegate effectively, it’s not possible to become an effective leader.

The starting point of effective delegation is thinking through the job: what has to be done, when it has to be complete, and what standard of quality must it reach. Unfortunately, many leaders delegate first and think through the job later.

A main feature of delegating is setting clear expectations at the beginning. When people know exactly what is expected of them, they have an opportunity to perform at a high level. They have an opportunity to give the kind of results their leader is looking for.

In addition to setting clear expectations up front, here are some steps to use when delegating.

Six keys to delegation

Step 1: Select the right person. Match the job to the skills, abilities and motivation level of the person. This doesn’t mean the person can’t handle a challenge, but it’s important not to give him/her jobs that are so beyond their current abilities that they have little chance of success.

Step 2: Ask the chosen person to paraphrase back the expectations. Don’t ask, “Do you have any questions?” The right answer to that question is “no” and gives no insight about the person’s understanding of the described expectations.

A better question to ask is, “So I can be sure that I’ve been clear and there are no misunderstandings, can you please repeat back what I’m asking you to do?” Or perhaps ask, “Based on what I’ve said, what do you think I’m looking for?”

Step 3: Ask how the person will start. If the person gives an answer that indicates he/she knows what to do, then let them go and do the task. On the other hand, if the answer will not lead to success, step in and offer help. At this point, the leader must determine how involved to get. Perhaps coaching is all that’s necessary, or maybe the person will need a complete refresher.

Step 4: Monitor the tasks. If the task is ongoing, set up a time to meet on a regular basis to review the work while the task is getting completed. Waiting until the end to give feedback just means that mistakes may be difficult to correct, if at all.

It is important to distinguish between monitoring and micro-managing. Let the team know you want to meet to make sure no one’s wasting time and energy doing something incorrectly.

Step 5: Give feedback. Give honest feedback upon review of the work. Don’t say something is fine if it is not. As noted earlier, make changes while the work is in its early stages versus when it’s almost complete.

Step 6: Let finished work stay finished. Resist the temptation to edit work or give feedback on work that is correct but wasn’t done your way. The important part to focus on is that the work is correct. If you want something done your way, even when another way will work, sometimes it makes sense to do it yourself.

When you think only you can do the task, that is usually only a mindset, rather than a reality. It can be a blow to the ego, but at the end of the day, no one is indispensable. The work will continue whether we are there or not.

Delegating can be thought of as a form of succession planning. Since anyone can be in an accident today and unable to perform their work functions tomorrow, someone else really should be able to take over in times of emergency.

Sure, when someone else performs tasks you’re used to doing, the format may change, the order may vary or the personal touch may be slightly different. So what? All that matters is that the job is done to the level expected.

Delegating involves assigning new projects and responsibilities to individuals or a team and providing the resources, direction and support needed to achieve the expected results. It’s one of the best ways to promote the people coming up behind you.

Delegating is more than merely telling someone what to do. Delegation starts with leaders creating an environment of trust and dialogue that reflects their confidence of co-workers and the tasks that need to be accomplished.

A former first officer, Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (www.marineleadershipgroup.com). Comments on this column are welcome below.

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