Blog Article

Five steps to effective delegation

Posted by Signe Spencer

Signe Spencer

Delegation has always been an important leadership tool. But as businesses adapt to accelerating competition, leaner staffing levels and a workforce with different expectations, the ability to delegate effectively and empower a successful outcome is more important than ever – and a hallmark of the changing nature of effective leadership.

A while back, I contributed a blog entry recounting how a manufacturing company redefined its role and re-energized its workforce around a common vision for the firm. One of the positive outcomes was a surge of ideas and activities that bubbled up from employees and managers alike to support the company’s newly focused mission.

I mention this because it illustrates one of the key elements in successfully delegating an important project to a person or team: communicating how it will support the company’s overall vision or purpose. When a team knows how their specific task supports the long-range goals of the organization, they can more successfully resolve the multitude of questions that arise during development and implementation.

Articulating that overarching vision, however, is not the only important factor in delegating important responsibilities with confidence. As with many organizational efforts, the devil is in the details – and effective delegation requires you to spell out a number of important details to enable the person or team to operate effectively without confusion or constant supervision.

  1. Tell the person or team what you want them to accomplish. Describe the specific outcome you want to achieve, and the date if it’s important. And while I do mean “specific,” I don’t necessarily mean detailed. For example, one of the best work experiences I’ve had involved the president of a family-owned company who delegated to me the development of the company’s training program. He didn’t give a step-by-step guide, or a list of topics. He simply made it clear that the company needed a comprehensive program to develop its managers. He gave me the what, not the how, and that allowed me to focus on achieving his objective.
  2. Add “This is why it’s important, and how it fits into our broader goals.” This is the visionary component, and it’s essential to guide the manager or team in making the right decisions along the way.
  3. Spell out the resources available for the effort. Let folks know what they can draw on to accomplish the objective you’ve spelled out for them – and again it’s important to be specific. Tell them what they can spend; what people they can tap, and for how much of their time; and any other tools, information and resources at their disposal for the work.
  4. Outline their authority, including its limits. Let the project leader or leaders know how far they can go in making decisions and commitments without checking in for your review and approval. This is important in providing a measure of insurance against unintended consequences and unhappy outcomes. Communicating your overarching vision of how the project supports the organization’s objectives provides additional insurance, by the way.
  5. Tell them how you’ll measure their success. Let them know how you’ll know whether they did a good job. Be explicit, and consider carefully how the measures of success will support the outcome you want – because the team will pay the closest attention to the outcomes being measured.

When these five steps come together in service of an inspiring vision for an organization, the result can be extraordinarily powerful. Consider the example of a women’s clothing company that refocused itself around a simply stated mission: “It’s all about her” – their customer.

Once that vision was spelled out, company leaders realized that they didn’t understand their customers as well as they should. They decided to create a mock-up of a store to enable them to gain real-world insights into how their customers shopped, and what they purchased. The CEO delegated the critical task of creating the storefront to an ad-hoc team.

He was very clear about the specifics of the task: Build a mock-up of a store, close to headquarters, with a parking lot – and stock it mostly with clothing we don’t currently sell. He outlined a generous budget and a time frame, told them which people in the organization they could tap, and told them how often he wanted to receive updates. He told them what was important, in this case the completion date and the clothing stock. And he made certain they understood how their effort would help the company get closer to its customers.

The project was a significant success, completed on time with a minimum of confusion. And the result was even more significant, as the storefront helped company managers understand their customers in ways they never had before, and led to a host of profitable ideas.

Not every project you delegate will be as important to your organization as this one – but they can all be accomplished just as successfully if you set the stage correctly with effective leadership.

For more on contemporary leadership strategies, see Hay Group’s Best Companies for Leadership study. It reveals the leadership practices powering some of the most successful organizations in the world – and how you can use them in your company. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time.


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  1. D. Sanya

    D. Sanya

    September 29, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Excellent. Very helpful

  2. weiwei


    March 21, 2015 at 9:01 am

    This is very helpful. Thanks.

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