Delegate or Die – How to do it, why to do it, and why your team can’t succeed without it

Almost all managers and leaders struggle with delegating. You came up through your trade doing the work. And you did it darn well. That’s why you were promoted and became a manager. Now, you are expected to hand off all the “doing” to someone else.

Why is delegating such an elusive management skill to hang on to? Occasionally we do it brilliantly, but then we find ourselves working over the weekend and realize we didn’t delegate at all.

The biggest challenge with delegating, is rethinking how you add value to work, who would feel challenged by a project and what you can take credit for as the manager.

3 reasons you might find delegating difficult:
Doing this is the fun bit and I’m really good at it.
I don’t want to hand off stuff that’s a drag.
If I’m not doing, what’s my job?

How to do it
Managers are rarely trained, when they are promoted, to let go of the things they have built their reputation on. They still feel like it is their responsibility to do the work at hand. Every executive I coach can quickly list the things they absolutely need to stay involved in. But do they? Do you, personally, need to come up with the ideas, attend the meetings and write the presentation?

When delegating is good, you spot the need for the project and decide who is best suited to handle it. You make sure they have what they need and ask where they feel insecure. You clarify your expectations for the finished job and tell them how often you’d like to be kept up to date.

At the update meetings you’d run your experienced eye over the project, encourage them to look at things in a new way where necessary, flag up what could go wrong and send them skipping with pride and confidence from your office. You don’t get the fun of doing it but there is a whole new kind of satisfaction in delegating well.

I don’t want to dump
A few years ago, I spent four hours, at the end of my normal work day, logging and organizing 40 student projects. When the competition rolled around the following year I asked our Team Assistant, with great embarrassment, if she could help me. She took the whole lot away and came back an hour later with it completed. I was astonished. When I asked how she did it so quickly she just laughed and said “I’m good at this, my mind just works that way”.

Lesson learned. The things you avoid delegating are often the ones you don’t like to do. The projects you dreaded having your boss hand to you. Fortunately, we are all different in the things we enjoy and the things that come easily for us. There will be someone in your team that would be happy to attend that meeting, do that report, research that subject. There is no such thing as dumping, it’s a question of matchmaking. Find someone who will enjoy the challenge and has the right skill set to do the job.

What am I doing if I’m not doing the work?
Your job as a leader is to manage the big picture. See the opportunities, understand your staff and match the projects so people feel challenged. You’re there to guide with a light touch when things are going well and help solve the problems with your expertise and relationships when things go wrong.

Your job is to have vision for where to lead your department, nurture the culture, inspire your team and build their experience.

All your leadership skills can be equated to a pilot. If your boss is air traffic control, you are the sole pilot in the plane. Stay in the cockpit, chart the course, keep everyone informed, watch for storms, avoid or manage emergencies and look to the future.

It is so easy to get sucked in to working on the frontline, taking care of your clients. However, if you leave the cockpit and spend your time checking on the customers, there simply is no one else flying the plane and there is a good chance you will all go down.

The only way to keep you and your team winging toward your goals is to delegate.


  1. I totally get it. It is so difficult to release your grip when you’ve been the only one holding onto the rope for long time. A good manager will ultimately realize that they’re roll is to watch the bigger pitcher, but it’s a tough switch to make!

  2. Thanks Kathy, maybe the analogy is that they are the “pitcher” and they need to keep the whole team in play. Any way you look at it, trying to do it all keeps you on running around like crazy and sidelines your staff. Thanks for writing.

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