Entrepreneurs must learn the art of delegation

'Get Things Done' author and small business owner Robert Kelsey discusses how entrepreneurs can overcome their fear of delegation.

‘All careers end in management’ is one of my favourite pearls of work-life wisdom – not least because it’s true. At least it’s true in most normal jobs, which, of course, discounts running your own business. Entrepreneurs are control freaks by nature, although that doesn’t mean our careers won’t end in management. It just means we’re incredibly poor at using the most effective tool in the manager’s toolbox: delegation.

We cannot let go of the day-to-day tasks of running the business: perhaps because ‘we can’t trust anybody else to handle it’ or ‘we can do it better/quicker ourselves’. And that kills our potential for growth.

Ultimately, we’re poor delegators due to our inner fear – not only that those we delegate to will get it wrong. But that our authority will be ignored or disputed by those we employ. Certainly, our insecurities can drive poor delegation just as strongly as any conviction we’re the only person capable of executing.

Being productive means being an effective manager, however. And that means getting delegation right. Delegation is not just good for you, it’s also good for them; helping your team upgrade their skills and confidence and giving them the opportunity to showcase their competence.

Indeed, too often we blame our team for their perceived incompetence when it’s our fault for failing to delegate well. Yet this is nothing to beat ourselves up about – there’s clearly something unnatural about delegation (especially for entrepreneurs). It’s simply something we need to learn. So here are the five steps for strong delegation.

1. Determine what’s to be delegated

This should be as much as possible, including all execution-based work on projects (giving us time to think and grow) – so we should instead think about what shouldn’t be delegated. Team selection is perhaps the key one in this respect. As we see in football, the manager’s primary role is to enrol the team and select the players. As much as they’re tempted, the manager should stay off the pitch. 

2. Identify the right person

Let’s stick with the football analogy because the manager also determines the positions of his or her players based on the particular skills of the individuals. Other delegation factors include those that can devote the time, are interested in the assignment, understand the background, can handle the job, are reliable, and are keen to grow.

3. Assign the task

Extraordinarily, less is more when it comes to instruction, even on major projects. In most cases, those you delegate to will be keen to demonstrate their abilities (if not, you may be delegating to the wrong person). Too much instruction and they’ll view the task as simply following your orders, which will quickly kill motivation. Instead, why not agree a ‘vision’ for the end result and leave the route for achieving that vision up to them?

4. Monitor progress

Yet we’re not abandoning them to their fate. We should monitor their progress (perhaps at scheduled time points, such as ‘in an hour’ or ‘at the end of the day’) and offer constructive feedback. Again, avoid micro-managing and try not to be judgemental, especially in the early phases when they may have simply misinterpreted the vision. If coaching is required, this is the point at which it will be revealed although, again, it should be the minimum to re-establish the vision and ensure they’ve the tools/skills to complete the task.

5. Evaluate performance 

This is a key moment and another minefield for managers as subordinates can be easily lost through clumsy evaluation. Certainly, I’ve learnt that praise is the most undervalued commodity in any work environment. In fact, praise is great: everyone’s keen to win it and is motivated by it. So we should seek to give it by the bucket-load when evaluating the tasks of others.

Even if they did a poor job, any feedback will be better received if we can start with the positives – any positives. Then, if calculating what went wrong, we should be careful to avoid evaluating the work based on our emotions.

No, they haven’t ‘let us down personally’. In fact, it’s probably down to our poor delegation. At worst, we may have built the wrong team for delegation – perhaps (as a control freak) assuming we needed subordinates requiring micro-management.

Perhaps that’s true although, if so, we must recognise the limit that places on our potential for growth.

Robert Kelsey is an international bestselling author. His latest book Get Things Done: What stops smart people achieving more and how you can change is available now. Buy your copy today!

Further reading on managing time

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc (previous owner of smallbusiness.co.uk) before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the...

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