Dec. 12, 2022

How to Delegate--for Real! (Challenge #45)

How to Delegate--for Real! (Challenge #45)

I hate to say this, but you probably delegate a lot less than you think you do. Now, I’m sure you regularly find items on your to-do list that can be done by another team member or members, and assign those tasks to them. But after you pass those tasks along, do your really let go? Or do you Hover, or provide unsolicited advice, or take back over because it’s not being done right? Or, and this is nearly as bad as those more obvious pitfalls, do you manage to let go on the surface, but find yourself fretting away in your office over whether it will be done as well as it could have been done?

If you’ve never committed any of these delegation errors, you’re likely a saint, and certainly a better leader than me. This episode is for us mere mortals, who want and maybe need to delegate more, but struggle with the mechanics of delegating successfully. 

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Transcript

I hate to say this, but you probably delegate a lot less than you think you do. Now, I’m sure you regularly find items on your to-do list that can be done by another team member or members, and assign those tasks to them. But after you pass those tasks along, do your really let go? Or do you Hover, or provide unsolicited advice, or take back over because it’s not being done right? Or, and this is nearly as bad as those more obvious pitfalls, do you manage to let go on the surface, but find yourself fretting away in your office over whether it will be done as well as it could have been done?

If you’ve never committed any of these delegation errors, you’re likely a saint, and certainly a better leader than me. This episode is for us mere mortals, who want and maybe need to delegate more, but struggle with the mechanics of delegating successfully. Today we’ll outline three basic steps to become a better and more confident delegator of tasks big and small. 

Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to teach my fellow educational and library leaders how to build a better world without burning out. 

Kind Leaders know how to make the tough decisions without becoming jerks. We grow our organizations’ impact without unsustainable workloads. And we’ve learned that when we stop controlling and start collaborating, the impossible becomes effortless. It all sounds pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around for the next 10 minutes as I teach you to part with perfection so your school or library can make your community a more educated and informed place to live, work, and thrive.

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This week’s kind leadership challenge is based on a simple truth, one I fully admit I struggle with from time to time. When you delegate a task to someone else, they will do that task in their own way, not yours. And…that’s fine! In fact, it’s often more than fine. When delegating is done right, you are effectively combining another team member’s perspective and talents with your own vision for the outcome, quite often leading to an end product that neither of you would have arrived at in isolation. Of course, when delegating is done wrong, which it often is, lines of communication get crossed, authority is muddled, and the whole ends up being much less than the sum of its parts. In my experience, there are three common areas where delegation goes awry. Fortunately, all three can be addressed with three relatively simple steps that should be part of any leader’s delegating process.

First things first, you will become a more confident delegator and your team members will be more confident contributors if you take a moment up front to make sure that everyone is on the same page about your expectations and desired outcome. So begin any task delegation by setting the standard. Talk about the importance of the project for those who will benefit from this, your expectations about the work to be done, and what the ideal finished result should look like. The amount of time you need to dedicate to each of these three standards will vary, as will the degree to which you need to instruct them on these standards versus collaborate with your team member to develop them. But even if you think all this is obvious, humor me, and check in with the people you are delegating a project to in order to verify you’re all on the same page. A few minutes of restating what feels obvious can save you and your team hours or days of wasted effort and frustration.

Second, you need to think about what why you delegated what you just delegated, and what that means for your role in ensuring the task is done well. This may sound a little confusing, but bear with me here. Leaders delegate tasks for one, or both, of two reasons. The first reason we delegate is the reason most of us think of when we think of delegating—there are other, higher uses of our time that we need to focus on instead of whatever task we just delegated. In addition, delegation can also serve as a learning opportunity for the person you’ve delegated the task to. You can do the task, but you need to have another team member who can do it as well. And often these motivations overlap—for instance training someone to do a task formerly on your plate that you want to offload entirely, or that makes more sense for them to handle. If training is part of your motivation, you need to work with the person you’ve delegated the task to in order to figure out how much coaching and ongoing support you want or need to provide, while letting them actually do the work. In any case, you need to be clear on your motivations for delegating, at least in your own mind, because they impact the third crucial element of the delegation process—letting go.      

I’m a doer by nature, and it has been a humbling experience to learn that the higher I climb in the org chart, the less traditional “work” I should actually be doing on a day to day basis. Instead, I need to focus on making sure my area of responsibility is providing the most value possible to the university, and that I have a good view on incoming opportunities and threats. In any case, your delegation plan needs to include identifying how you are going to keep yourself distracted so you can truly let go of the task you just delegated. Now, if you followed my second step, you’ve probably been doing whatever was the higher and better use of your time, be that other chores only you can do, self care, or some combination of the two. 

But it’s entirely possible that as you delegate something new for the first time, some complicated feelings may come up. You may miss a beloved task that no longer makes sense for you to have in your portfolio—for me that’s teaching information literacy and 1:1 reference work. I had to grieve that loss a little bit, and no doubt missing those tasks is part of why I’ve started this podcast and have been dipping my toe into leadership education and coaching. Weirdly enough, growing into a role where I’ve had to delegate almost all the day to day tasks of being a librarian to my team has given me an interesting new perspective on what makes a good library or academic unit tick, a perspective that I now get to share with all of you. 

So here’s your challenge—delegate something. Preferable something that you’ve struggled to let go of. And follow the three steps I outlined—communicate clearly about your goals and expectations for the task with the team member who will be doing it. Clarify in your own mind your personal reasons for delegating the task and what those motivations imply. And finally, keep yourself busy by embracing a higher better use of your time, whether that’s digging into a complex project for your own boss, or simply taking a few minutes to breathe and get your head on straight before the next challenge comes your way.

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Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give the show a rating or review—or even better, share this episode with your fellow leaders!  Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.  

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