skip to Main Content
What You Shouldn’t Be Doing: Why Delegation Matters

What You Shouldn’t Be Doing: Why Delegation Matters

When transitioning to a new role or position, you wouldn’t think twice about leaving behind an old title, old business cards, old office files or even an old office itself. Yet, we often drag along a staggering range of tasks that no longer belong to us.

Gaining clarity on the responsibilities of a new role is, of course, a fundamental part of a leader’s journey. By extension, understanding how to effectively delegate those activities that no longer belong to us, as well as those tasks which are the proper responsibility of our direct reports, is essential. Only then can leaders operate at their appropriate level, spending time on tasks that maximize their value to the organization. Likewise, their direct reports are developing the skills necessary for their own professional evolution and advancement.


Choosing Which Tasks to Delegate

Most leaders understand the need to delegate non-essential tasks, but gaining consensus around just what defines a “non-essential” task—not to mention what properly defines “delegation”—is much trickier than we’re typically willing to admit. We have explored this subject with thousands of leaders from a range of different market segments, across organizations of differing sizes and complexity. We have consistently found delegation to be both the most acknowledged skill leaders seek to develop and the single most poorly developed of these skills.  This is understandable: rationally, we may understand the need to divest ourselves from tasks and activities that do not align with the responsibilities of our role, but accepting this emotionally can be a very different matter!

Letting go of the very activities which likely got us promoted, or which we excel at, can be both counter-intuitive and even dispiriting. Our every instinct is to keep doing what we know we’re good at! But our instincts can mislead us. Let’s consider what happens when we fail to fully make the transition into a new role and continue to pursue those tasks which are rightly part of our previous responsibilities.


Failing to Fully Transition

Let’s take something simple, like a series of weekly reports. The reports require four hours to compile, and you have been running them successfully and feeding them to your boss for the past year. Upon promotion, instead of handing off these reports to one of your direct reports, you continue to run them because you can’t risk that the work won’t be done, or that the data won’t be accurate and timely. You rationalize this approach by reminding yourself that you’re really good with these reports and efficient with their production. Further, the direct report you’ve identified to replace you in this task isn’t the sharpest tool in your arsenal and will likely reflect poorly on you with senior management. Sound at all familiar?

Let’s unpack this to get a better understanding of the wealth of consequences this seemingly innocuous decision carries. Firstly, you can’t manufacture more hours in the day, so any activity that sucks time from your week should be carefully scrutinized for value and purpose. Here, you’ve been promoted into a new role, bringing with it a host of new responsibilities, as well as an obligation to develop the skills and expertise to perform this new role successfully. When you spend time on inappropriate functions, you cut into this developmental window and employ yourself on functions below your leadership level. In effect, you’re sending a message that you are not comfortable operating at the right leadership level, even though you are getting compensated to do so.  

Further, you are receiving a leader’s salary to perform an activity inappropriate to your role as a leader, while simultaneously taking hours away that could be invested in making the correct transition. Lastly, you are failing to offer fundamental coaching and development to your direct reports. By failing to provide them with the opportunity to exercise the skills and expertise inherent to their roles, your rob them of the chance to demonstrate their readiness for future roles in the organization.

Whether your direct report is fully capable of the task is not the point here: after all, evaluating your team and taking ownership for their development is your responsibility as a leader. If they’re not sufficiently trained and supported on the tasks assigned to them, who should be held accountable? If they’re not qualified to be in their current role, who holds responsibility for making this assessment or for removing them from the position? Simply performing the task for them grants no developmental benefit and sends a clear signal that you do not take the exercise of your leadership responsibilities seriously.

For all of these reasons, and likely a dozen more we could explore, learning to properly delegate tasks is one of the earliest skills required to help leaders develop. The rationale is simple: the more effectively you learn to delegate, the more time is freed up for more role-specific activities, as well as your own evolution as a leader.


Perform a Self-Evaluation

There is a simple exercise you can use to self-evaluate your strength as a delegator. First, make a list of all of the tasks you currently perform which cannot be delegated. These may include sensitive or confidential items, as well as role-specific tasks that you—and you alone—remain qualified and uniquely capable to perform. Next, make a list of all of those tasks you currently perform which, with a little honest reflection, you admit you could delegate. A moment’s thought should make it clear that any task you did not put on the initial list should be part of this second list.

We typically find that leaders will identify 5 to 6 items that belong on the initial list, while the second list can easily include 15 or more items. This begins to offer some insight into the number of activities we are performing daily—or weekly—that eat up our time inappropriately.  These are functions that abuse our time and talent as a leader and rob our direct reports of their opportunity to grow and develop. Continuing to perform them because we have not taken the time to sufficiently developed a resource or, worse yet, because we just enjoy them, is not a defensible position and indicates the right leadership behavior is not being practiced.

Finally, ask yourself just how much time you spend on these activities. It can be staggering to see the time investment we make on activities we just admitted we don’t need to be performing!  We have worked with leaders spending 8 to 10 hours weekly on these tasks. This means they are spending a day a week on non-essential functions! Imagine what could be accomplished if they had this time back to use in more constructive and role-appropriate ways. This can be particularly meaningful for leaders that cry about never having enough time to work on their own key priorities and job functions!


Mastering the Skill of Delegation

Delegation forms one of the key skills associated with first-tier leadership. Mastering delegation allows for more time for level-appropriate tasks and creates some “light bulb moments” for young managers about what effective leadership rightly entails. Taking just a few minutes to consider how we spend our days—what activities enjoy our time and focus—can be a crucial step in helping us to become better leaders. It allows us to set aside the right time for our own development and to ensure that the functions that engage us daily are the right functions for our role.  

So, instead of running that report you shouldn’t be running, take a moment to catalog just what it is you spend your time doing each day and whether that investment is what you—as a leader—should be doing with your time. The result will be a better leader, more effective direct reports and a healthier organization.


PHOTO: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Back To Top