birds eye view of three women sitting at wooden table while typing on their laptops

A colleague once shared she was so busy in her leadership position; she would actively avoid subordinates to whom she delegated tasks. A capable subordinate who always has a myriad of questions was the primary victim. My colleague would act like she was on the phone or jump up as if she was just leaving her office.

What made her do that? She was overwhelmed by her tasking and felt she could not dedicate the time required to the individual. She also admitted, she was really lousy at delegating and that subordinate was usually coming to get clarification on a task she assigned.

Can you imagine the frustration of the subordinate?

Wow, this is painful for both parties and I can understand each position. Being the overwhelmed leader and being the subordinate needing more guidance. How to solve this dilemma?

In a recent post, we talked about the elements of delegation. First, why we delegate; to free up time, we are not as skilled at the task, or to develop subordinates. Second, how we delegate; do we provide a vision and end state, (the ends) or provide the directions or means on how to accomplish the task. My experience has demonstrated the best delegators are good because they delegate within a strategic context. What does that mean?

Today we are exploring the context of delegation. Do you delegate strategically or tactically?

In our opening example, the leader is delegating in tactical context. “I am overwhelmed and have to get someone else to do the task.” Hence the task is offloaded, maybe not to the person best suited for the task. Additionally, the handoff lacks relevant planning, thought, and background to ensure the subordinate understands the why and how of the task. The result, frequent interruptions for additional direction. This leaves the leader muttering: “I should have given this to someone else or done it myself, why can’t he figure this out on his own.”

Stop the frustration for both parties – be strategic.

What would be the impact if the recipients of your delegations fully understood the task, why you chose them for it, how is supports their professional development, and how the task supports the organization?

Here is a proposed approach to make you a strategic delegator. The process focuses on three elements; roles, responsibilities, and limits of authority. An example may be the best way to make the point.

An operations manager is delegating a task to an assistant manager to put a new process in place with a budget of $12,000. Tactical delegation looks something like this. Choose the subordinate who has the most time available to complete the task. Assign the task, the budget, some direction, and a deadline. Direction may include, intermediate milestones, meetings, and budget checks along the way.

A strategic delegation takes into account roles, responsibilities, and limits of authority for you and the subordinate. A quick look at each.

Roles. As a leader be it for the whole organization or just two subordinates, the leader provides the vision and direction. Being strategic, forward looking, and establishing the long-term view for the organization and its people is paramount. Translate that to delegation and I see it as establishing how the task supports organization and the development of an individual.

Responsibilities. In delegation the leader has the responsibility to clearly establish 1) the purpose of the task and 2) who it is assigned to. Communicating that purpose is next.

Limits of Authority. Set clear limits, milestones, and decision-making authority to provide a pathway for the execution of the task and development of the individual.

Applying our three principles strategically may look like this. Determine how the organization and individual improve by delegating and accomplishing this task. Follow with an analysis of the specific purpose of the task. Parts of the analysis; how is this helping the organization, who needs this project to grow professionally, and what will be the challenges for them and me. Based on your analysis, what limits are required?

In practice:

“I am assigning you the task of implementing this new project. When complete, it will streamline our process with customers such as ACME and Coyote, decreasing turnaround time. I chose you because this is an area you need for the next level; integrating budget, new technology, and experience leading a larger team. When complete I want you to be more comfortable leading a larger team and using our latest software. You have 60 days and your budget is $12,000. Let’s meet weekly for the first three weeks and complete a budget review after you spend the first $2000. That way we can look at your approach and make sure you are on a good path.”

The strategic approach takes more time prior to delegating. It reinforces your leadership role in providing vision and direction. It also requires thoughtful analysis of; the organization, the task, and the individual.

What would be the impact on you, your organization, and the individuals you lead if all your delegations were strategic?