We all marvel at the accomplishments of successful leaders. Often we attribute these achievements to their emotional intelligence, their optimism, their charisma and drive. Highly visible, these traits may be innate but they’re generally not sufficient to deliver enduring business success. They must be accompanied by sound operational practices. Effective delegation and relentless prioritization are two critical tools for long-lasting success as a leader. You can develop and integrate these practices seamlessly into your everyday management style. This article discusses the first of these readily learnable skills.

We all understand “delegation”:  It’s assigning a project that you are supposed to do to someone else.  And at its most basic this is correct – offloading a task from your back onto someone else’s.[1] But effective delegation is more nuanced.  It is the sharing of responsibility across your team so work is being done by whoever is best positioned to do it. Effective delegation contributes to the long-term success of the team. It frees you to focus on other responsibilities and tasks which require more experience and can be more far-reaching.

  1. Hand over the sandbox: Nobody likes being told what to do. Delegate the problem; don’t delegate the solution. Resist defining what should happen inside the sandbox. Give people the full problem. Ask them to develop their own solution – even when you may have a good answer in mind. Relinquishing responsibility for “How?” is the spice that differentiates “delegation” from merely getting rid of the mundane tasks you don’t feel like doing. Be courageous. Step back.
  2. Define expectations clearly: Unambiguous expectation is critical. What? Why? When? Who? These four W’s are sufficient to fully define the sandbox. You don’t need to specify “How?”
  3. Delegate even within your expertise: We all love being needed and feel best when operating in our comfort zones. Resist the natural desire to retain control of those areas that have historically been your specialty. Hand over the reins. Let others handle the details. Your role is to monitor results.
  4. Delegation without follow-up is abdication: Agree on interim milestones and follow up consistently. Even when you delegate full responsibility, you still need to ensure things are moving in the right direction, in the right manner and at the right speed.
  5. Manage risk: The more irreversible and consequential the outcome, the more you need to address the risks of failure. It is essential to make sure the risks are identified, quantified and minimized consistent with the overall risk management strategy of your company. Effective risk assessment comes with experience. This is one area where you, as the delegating manager, must retain control. Ignore this at your peril.
  6. Build a personal participation model: If you’re betting the farm, you want to be involved personally; if you’re just deciding what colour to paint the barn, you needn’t. Be clear about which meetings you want to attend and which you choose to monitor remotely. Understanding the scale, scope and consequences of what you’re delegating is critical. The larger and more irreversible the project; the more consequential the precedent and outcome; the greater the risk of failure; the more unique your expertise and the more relevant your contacts; the more important it is for you to participate in person.
  7. Ask the hard questions: You want to ensure the projects are progressing towards the desired solution on time and on budget. Your role is Questioner-in-Chief. Don’t be afraid to exercise this prerogative vigorously.
  8. Upgrade the team: If you need to keep checking on the job you’re not delegating, you’re babysitting. There’s no point having to delegate to people who are not up to the full job. You must be able to rely on your team completely. If you can’t, you need to upgrade. Replace the B and C players with A players. It’s painful and time consuming, but it pays huge dividends.[2]
  9. Delegate readily and frequently: When a responsibility is delegated the main beneficiary is the person who receives the task. Delegation demonstrates trust and confidence. Delegation builds self-esteem. Delegation is an opportunity for the recipient to develop new skills and to profile his/her capability. It adds variety and enriches the recipient’s daily routine. Managers never need view delegation as shirking responsibility. Effective delegation is key to the development, training and retention of all members of your team.


Good managers are always good delegators. And good delegators invariably have more time to be good managers.


[1] For an interesting read see the HBR Classic Article, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” by William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass.

[2] For a full description of how to build a team of A players see “Topgrading” by Bradford D. Smart