One of the reasons it is so hard to delegate is that we often feel guilty asking other folks to take on the tasks we can’t get to.
But we need to reframe how we think and talk about delegation. For a second, let’s set aside the guilt and instead focus on the people around us: the people who have been told they need to seek opportunities to improve the team, department, or org; the people who are eager for a challenge; the people who need to deliver something impactful in order to prove they’re capable of leading. They, especially the marginalized folks among them, might be ready to take on their next challenge but don’t have an opportunity to do so. You can help them by delegating more, not less!
In Delegation 101: Figuring out what to delegate, I shared my framework for selecting delegable tasks based on their ease and importance. Now I’m going to share my advice for finding the right people to delegate to and setting them up for success.
Who should you delegate to?
So, who do we give these opportunities to? To figure this out, I start by creating a list of folks who might be interested in taking on a task. Here are the questions I ask myself, my manager, my peer managers, and the managers who report to me to get a good idea of who to consider:
- Who on your team has a goal to improve how the team works but hasn’t identified a task yet?
- Who seems to be bored and looking for a bigger challenge?
- Who has gotten feedback on their last performance review that they need to increase their impact before they can get promoted?
- Who is curious about what engineering leadership looks like and wants to get a better feel for it?
- Who is new enough to not know where to spend their energy but has the time to take something on?
Admittedly, these questions are comprehensive enough that you might name everyone in your department or organization! But what we’re looking for when we assess the list are those names that have been repeated over and over across the people you survey and those that you recognize that might not have historically received opportunities like these and might not get the chance otherwise. Consciously or not, I often rank the list of folks by who might need the opportunity most.
Once you have a solid list of people, gathered both from yourself and those you trust, make note of the minimum level of expertise needed to accomplish each task. That way you can match each task with someone within that level and maximize the challenge and growth gained from accomplishing the opportunity.
Now that you’ve identified the right people to delegate to, the delegatees, how do you set them up for success?
Setting your delegatees up for success
When I’ve delegated in the past and it hasn’t worked out, it was because I hadn’t shared vital information that the delegatee needed to succeed. Learn from my mistakes and normalize giving your peers all the information they need upfront.
This information varies depending on the task and person you’re working with, but it should fill in any gaps in their context and outline any steps in the process that they’re unfamiliar with. I strongly suggest that you take the time to document and distribute this information in a shared place so it’s easy to refer to and add to later. Your chat app (e.g. Slack, Discord, Teams) doesn’t count as documentation as it is ephemeral; write it up in a place that can be linked and referred to and give it the proper attention it deserves!
When handing over a task, work through this checklist to make sure you’re providing everything your delegatees need to succeed (and delegatees, use this list to gather the information you’ll need to succeed!):
- Clarify the context. What’s the background on how this came about? Has this been controversial in the past? Are there areas to lean into, things that need to be broached delicately, or areas to avoid? Where is the helpful information already documented? What’s been promised so far?
- Inform them of your involvement. What can they come to you for? What would you like them to fully own without coming to you? What do you need to be informed of? What’s the best way to reach you?
- Explain the expectations. When is this due and in what form? Who should be informed of the decisions made, and of project completion? What does success look like to you as the manager and feedback provider? What will you be looking for as the work progresses and when it’s complete?
- Point out the relevant people. Who has the expertise? Who can you go to for guidance? Who will benefit from this and will they want to hear updates as the work progresses? Who has been involved so far who should get credit when the work is over?
- Establish a safety net. Inevitably, something will go wrong, and that’s okay. Rather than trying to control and micromanage the entire process, it’s important to let go of the work. That means entrusting your delegatee while also being prepared for the 'oh no' moment. What can you do behind the scenes to make it so that a little hiccup won’t be a big deal? Which stakeholder should you be informing that you’re delegating the task so that they will be invested in helping the person in your place? (A pro-tip on doing this is letting your stakeholder know what they themself can do to make this successful so that they’ll automatically be more invested.)
- Boost their confidence. When you delegate a task to someone, don’t forget to tell them you trust them and share why you think they’ll be successful. As a leader, sometimes you are seeing potential in someone that they can’t see themselves. Telling them 'you’ll do great' pales in comparison to saying 'I know you’ll be successful because the last two action items you completed showed great attention to detail and your communication level shows me that you have great judgment in giving people the right information at the right time'. This is a great opportunity to point out their strengths, reinforce your trust, and bolster their confidence before starting!
It’s not easy to delegate, and there are many factors to consider to make it work well. But delegation is a powerful tool for growing your team, as well as yourself. Don’t forget to thank your delegatees when they’ve completed a task; let their manager know what and how they did (or your manager if they report to you), give them feedback on what you liked and reflect on what can go better next time, and make sure this makes it into their next performance and salary review. As for you, now that you’re handing over more work, you’ll have more time to get stuck into complex and challenging tasks that match the level of work you’re aiming for. Good luck, and enjoy!