Every department head, manager, director, or CEO experiences workload pressures. Sometimes my wife, Alison, would arrive at the office with a sandwich to keep me going while I worked late. The uninvited advice on workload various people gave me was: delegate more. They made it sound so easy.

Those advice-givers were well-meaning, and delegation is certainly good management practice. But those who said ‘delegate more’ had little knowledge of my work situation, were almost never leaders themselves, and spoke as if delegation is a simple and effortless way to offload work. In fact, delegation is neither simple nor effortless.

In what follows I’ll describe obstacles to delegation, but also suggest ways in which it can be done effectively.

First, you can delegate only to people who are available and suitable. I’ll explain why I use these two terms one at a time.

The availability issue is at its most obvious if we picture someone running a one-person business. That boss can’t delegate because there’s no-one to give the work to! They could out-source some tasks, which is often a good idea but only when the work can be done equally well by someone outside the business. Most work, though, requires in-house knowledge, and that can’t be delegated to non-existent colleagues.

And even when there are colleagues we can’t assume anyone is available. Let’s imagine Josh started his business alone, but now employs six others because the there’s plenty work. Josh’s phone rings constantly, electronic orders pour in, the despatch team keeps shipping out products. It’s all good; the business is flourishing. But it’s not all good. Josh is exhausted, and, like him, his team often work late to meet demand. Then someone, seeing how tired Josh is, whispers in his ear: ‘You should delegate more’. Really? Who can he give his work to? There is no-one in his six-person team who’s employed full-time but has only a part-time workload. Josh would love to delegate, but there is simply no-one available who has spare capacity. (Should Josh hire more staff? Ideally that’s exactly what he should do, but for many small businesses payroll costs are their most expensive overhead, and employing even one more person would eradicate his profit and jeopardise the company’s viability.)

Suitability is the other essential for delegation. Let’s imagine that Jerry – who has a small construction company – also has six employees. Jerry’s team do excellent work, so previous customers generate new clients by word of mouth recommendations. Every new client, though, means a site visit followed by preparing and sending a cost estimate, and, when the estimate is accepted, every job involves background work such as securing building approvals, scheduling the work, ordering materials, and hiring specialist equipment. And of course records must be kept, which must be made ready for tax payments and audit. Jerry handles all that. Why doesn’t he delegate some of it to one of his six colleagues? They’re fine workers, but they’re builders and none has the skills necessary for preparing estimates, accounting for finances on spreadsheets, or any of the other background work Jerry does. They’re highly skilled at what they do, but not at all skilled at what he does. Even if one or more was available, they wouldn’t be suitable. And, no matter the size of business, the suitability issue is always relevant for delegation.

These two problems – availability and suitability – are real. I know of the demoralisation that followed when a boss dumped his work onto a colleague who was already over-worked. Within six months the overloaded employee was an ex-employee of that company. And I know of the consequences when work was given to someone untrained and therefore unable to handle the task. They didn’t resign, but the work was done poorly. The employee was blamed for doing a bad job, but the blame really belonged with the unfair and unwise delegator.

One – almost amusing – final comment on the availability and suitability matter. I’ve read accounts from management gurus who’ve discovered real competence and authority at the top of a company – except not right at the top. The Personal Assistant (Executive Assistant) to the Chief Executive managed her boss’s calendar, decided which meetings he’d attend, controlled staff access to him, selected the business papers he would read, wrote his speeches, and drafted important documents for the Board. The management gurus remarked that you wondered who was really running the company. Almost always the boss was male, and the assistant female, but she had the greater knowledge and expertise. Management culture is changing – albeit slowly – and hopefully such competent assistants will increasingly become the CEOs.

Second, delegation without supervision or accountability is particularly dangerous. One department leader told me: ‘I’ve given out tasks to my staff, and I don’t want to know anything more about the things they’re now handling’. Gently I informed him that was not an acceptable approach to delegation. Why not? After all, isn’t delegation about letting go of work to others? It is, but what you can’t delegate is your responsibility for what’s done. You’re responsible to ensure the project goes in the right direction. You’re responsible for the standard of work being satisfactory. And you’re responsible that the deadline is met, for the conclusions reached, and so on. Hence my department head – not the staff working under him – was accountable for all these things, and a completely hands-off approach was an invitation to chaos. Delegation of work is good, but delegation has limits.

Third, here are four further guidelines for good practice with delegation.

Clear expectations    No-one should be given a task without clarity on key points like these:

  1. What exactly do you want done?
  2. When is the work due?
  3. Do I show you this work when complete, or do you want to see drafts at earlier stages?
  4. What is the budget for this?
  5. What extra resources or support will be available to me?
  6. Are there special factors, such as keeping this work confidential?

And even:

7. What work would you like me to stop doing in order to take on this new task?

As a boss, I learned to be clear on all these things, and especially numbers 3 and 7. With 3, I discovered that staff liked to surprise me by submitting what they considered a finished product. Sometimes they virtually said, ‘Don’t ask me to change anything now!’ To prevent that I found I had to be crystal clear from the beginning that I wanted to know the direction their work was going long before they finished. With number 7, I realised that at the outset I had to discuss with my staff member what work they could set aside in order to do the new thing. Perhaps there were no existing tasks the employee could completely postpone, in which case there were only three options: a) get another person to take on the employee’s existing work; b) scale back the timetable for the new work; c) delegate to someone else whose existing work could wait.

Sensible and sensitive supervision    I’ve touched on supervision earlier, so here my emphasis is on the words ‘sensible and sensitive’. Sensible supervision means constructive support as they do the work. What it’s not is doing the work for your colleague. If you have to do the thinking, the research, the calculations (or similar tasks) then you’ve not delegated to the right person (or you, the boss, don’t understand delegation). Sensitive supervision is knowing when to check on progress and how to comment on progress. It’s finding the right stages or time intervals for updates – never repeatedly looking over your colleague’s shoulder, and never being too busy to give them time.

Having a reserve plan    If the delegated work is ‘mission critical’ – a task the company must have done – then the boss needs a plan in case the person handling the work falls sick or leaves. Since this is essential work, it can’t be abandoned, so either it can be passed to another staff member or the boss must take it on. In an emergency, either of those options requires a clear idea of what’s already done and what’s still to be done. The wise boss already knows that, and the perfect boss has kept a record. If the person who was handling the work has taken seriously ill or left the company, that record may be the only guide to what’s still to be done by whoever picks up the project.

Your delegation is someone else’s preparation    I got two reactions from colleagues when I delegated work to them. Some disliked it, either because they felt busy enough already or because they didn’t welcome unfamiliar work. Other colleagues jumped at the chance, even if their workload increased. They enjoyed the challenge and the new work would broaden their experience. After all, their hopes of a more senior position might depend on the importance and extent of their previous work. A foolish and weak leader is threatened by preparing those under him for leadership. Perhaps they’ll perform better than their boss. A wise and strong leader actively mentors colleagues, develops their careers, and trusts them with responsibility. That’s good for both the employee and for the company.

I’ll leave this post on delegation at this point. But I’ll return to the subject in the next post when I’ll describe the odd but not uncommon phenomenon of delegation in reverse.