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4 must-haves for delegating [starting now]

March 30, 2017

In my last blog post, I suggested that we should stop being so helpful, because we ultimately risk becoming indispensable. When I present this idea to my clients, I am frequently met with the following response: “That’s nice. Now what?” Or, a declaration that they get it, and are going to start delegating immediately!

Let me first say: delegation is not easy. There is probably a reason why you haven’t delegated before, so it would be silly to think you can wave a magic wand and start. In this two-part series, I’m going to share four proven steps to set you up for success.

Today, we’ll focus on determining what to delegate and whom to delegate to. In next week’s blog, we’ll focus on giving the work away and—probably the most important step—self-management.

If you have dreams of getting promoted to the executive level, you’ll probably want to think seriously about how you show up—and rethink the menial, helpful tasks that could get in the way of positioning you as a credible leader. Or, you might want to start delegating the work that isn’t the best use of your time in your current role. This creates more time for you to be strategic and add value to the organization in different ways.

Step 1: Know what to delegate

There is more to delegating than just giving work away. Think about the work that you do within the framework of what’s necessary versus what you love doing. I’ll acknowledge upfront that we consultants love our four-box models! I drew the model shown below on a white board for a technology client. Turns out that she kept it there for a number of months as a reminder of how to determine what she should say “yes” and “no” to. As an executive transitioning into a new role, it was essential that she get specific about how she was spending her time.


There are four quadrants to the model. The horizontal axis demonstrates the level of necessity that you must perform the activity. For example, you may absolutely be the authority for signing off on a high-budget item, but presenting at a meeting, though you’ve been the one to do it from the beginning, might not need to be you. The vertical axis displays your desire to do the activity.

Starting with the upper left quadrant and working clockwise, let’s put this simple model to work for you.

High desire/low necessity (upper left quadrant): This is the work you love doing, but doesn’t need to be done by you. You want to keep doing these tasks because they make the things that you don’t like seem more tolerable.

Action: do just enough of this type of work that it brings you fulfillment. It’s important to do the activities that you love. Just be careful you aren’t doing so much of this work that it becomes overly time intensive or all consuming.

High desire/high necessity (upper right quadrant): This is the work that you love doing, and you (and only you) are the best choice to get it done. The more work you have in this quadrant, the more you love your job.

Action: keep doing all of this work—unless you are developing your successor. Then, consider sharing some of these activities (i.e., delegating) with that person, so they can be prepared to step into your role.

Low desire/high necessity (lower right quadrant): This is the work that you are obligated to do, and you are the only one who can do it. Sorry.

Action: Get creative about how you do it. Perhaps you can break the activity into tasks that can then be delegated; or, maybe you can talk to someone else in a similar situation and explore different tools that you haven’t tried yet. Many times, we perform this work dutifully, the way we were taught by our predecessors, without questioning how it gets done, when in fact there may be a number of ways to get it done.

Low desire/low necessity (lower left quadrant): This is the work we inherit or just do without question that is not needed and that you dread. When investigated closely, activities in this quadrant are found to not add value and can actually be a barrier to effectiveness.

Action: Ask more questions about the value you provide or receive from the activity. If you can’t find any value, get rid of it. Note: there are people in the organization used to you doing this work. They will likely need some explanation and maybe support as you make the changes.

I recommend setting the work in this quadrant aside for a closer look and asking yourself about the activities you do each day. Much like a food diary provides insights to our actual eating versus our perceived eating, this process can provide some insights on what you can delegate.

Step #2. Know whom to delegate to

This is about good leadership. If you know your people, their hopes and dreams—and what kind of work they like to do—delegating will be much easier. Taking a developmental approach to delegation allows you to position the activity to help them reach their goals. You won’t be able to effectively do this if you don’t know the answers to the following questions:

  • What do you love about your job? Why do you come to work?
  • If this were your best year ever, what would you hope to accomplish?
  • What are your long-term goals, and how can this role help you get there? How can I help you?
  • What keeps you up at night?

It’s important to note: if you haven’t asked your direct reports these questions before, you may find that they aren’t as forthcoming as you would hope. Be patient and know that, just as asking is a learned behavior for you, answering is the same for them. They may not have ever considered these questions. It can also be fun to choose one question as a way to start a meeting.

You will find that as you get to really know your team—their strengths, developmental goals, aspirations and weaknesses—you will start to get a clearer picture of how to match the activities you want to delegate to the right person. The leaders who are most successful are the ones who can see that delegating and letting go can be empowering for the whole team.

I invite you to share your thoughts and comments about delegating in the comments below. What has worked well for you, and what hasn’t? I’d also be happy to answer any questions.

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