The art of delegation

Leadership 101: How to get out of the way.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2020

As a leader, it can be hard to let go and trust others. Giving colleagues the opportunity to make decisions and operate autonomously may feel uncomfortable when you’ve invested so much time – and perhaps money – into making the venture a success. But there is only so much an individual can achieve on their own. 

The business can’t grow if you don't hire talented people who can share the load and complement your skills. Five leaders from very different industries share their experiences of letting go – and how they got it to work for them. 

Prepare for it to hurt at first

Delegation is a skill, like any other. You have to learn it, and you’re likely to fail the first time you try. Jeremy Stern, CEO of PromoVeritas, which ensures promotions run by major brands are run fairly and lawfully, explains: “Nothing compares to the agony of handing over the reins of your business baby to a new person. It hurts your mind, your body and your ego.” 

Stern ran his business for 15 years before bringing in a managing director to help with operations last October. “And that was it,” he says. “I was ‘reduced’ to looking after strategy and overseas developments. My senior team, whom I had nurtured over nine years, no longer reported to me. I was also no longer the ‘go to’ person for all those minor panics and crises that occur in a marketing company.” 

There have been some difficult adjustments over the past few months but now Stern is reaping the benefits. “I am more relaxed and I have more time to do what I enjoy best – helping my people to grow and progress and do their jobs better.”

Understand your people

Before you heap responsibility on people in your team, get to know their strengths and weaknesses: are they ready to take the next step? “It comes back to always trying to get the best out of every member of the team,” says David Brear, group CEO at financial services provider 11:FS. 

“This requires a high level of empathy. You really need to understand people and fundamentally what it is that drives them, where they want to get to and what type of person they are. The more you understand what makes the people in your team tick, the better opportunities you have to use those levers to get out of them the best work they’ve ever done in their lives.”

Make sure they are ready

A major concern when handing over the wheel is whether the new driver is ready for it. Phil Jones MBE, the UK managing director of business technology provider, Brother, says that when your staff are ready for more responsibility, they’ll find a way to let you know. “When a colleague feels confident enough in their own knowledge and ability that they will actively question a brief, and feel able to make suggestions, you know they’re ready,” he says. 

“As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create an environment in which they can develop to this point, by giving them enough delegated authority that they realise the value they bring to the team. The more you treat people as human beings and build meaningful relationships on an interpersonal level, the more they trust you and the more they give you. That’s the key to gaining their discretionary effort – by choice, they go from giving you ‘what’s required’ to ‘what’s required, plus’.”

Provide a framework

“Ambiguity kills successful delegation and means the people working for you can’t go away and complete what you’ve asked with confidence. If you’re not sure whether your brief has been interpreted correctly, try asking for a ‘back brief’ – where you say ‘okay, run me through what I’ve briefed you on’,” Brother’s Jones adds.

“I’m a firm believer in freedom within a framework. If you clearly define the boundaries you expect people to operate within, and provide a tight brief as to what you’d like them to deliver, they can assess what’s in and out of scope and determine the best and most appropriate way to achieve the outcome you’re looking for. It’s essential that you’re clear about the limits of their autonomy. It might well be that you, as leader, still need to make the final decision, but that you’re happy for them to complete the due diligence and present you with options to choose from.”

Don’t get too far out of the way

Getting out of the way does not mean disappearing entirely. You still need to provide support and a guiding vision. “Set the course, paint a picture of the future and share your cause,” advises Jamie Hinton, founder of Sheffield-based technology start-up Razor. “Run with the team, and let them overtake you while you - as their leader - continue providing the support, guidance, enthusiasm and the energy they need behind the scenes.” 

If someone in the team is struggling, you need to be there for them. Hinton explains: “When someone stumbles or falls, a leader knows when it’s right to step in. Sometimes you need to be there to encourage your team to take a project to the next level and to take risks. This is an encouraging and supporting role. Less ‘getting in the way’, more cheering from the sidelines.” 

Don’t be afraid of failure

The time is now, says Toby Jenner, global CEO of media agency network Wavemaker. “To attract and retain the very best talent they need to be empowered and given the opportunity to grow and develop. The only way to do this is for the leadership team to give talent the space to grow, and even make mistakes along the way.

“Given the multiple decisions that we need to make on a daily basis, as long as the majority are right and we learn from those that aren’t, our talent will be heading in the right direction. The role of leadership is to support and counsel to ensure that our people are increasingly self-sufficient in the decisions they make.”

Image credit: Ibrahim Boran/Pexels


Rebecca Burn-Callander recommends

6 rules for leading a remote team

Read more

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

What does leadership potential look like?

Research suggests the implicit criteria we use to identify leaders on first impressions change after...

How do you know if you’re being too nice?

Aggressive, shouty, domineering leadership is very 20th century. But beware of going too far the...

"I didn’t think I was qualified to be a general manager"

The leaders that made me: You just need to know enough to ask the right...

How can you prepare for a no-deal Brexit?

We asked leaders which contingency plans (if any) they have in place before the Brexit...

“Without the office you’re just a cog in the machine”

One minute briefing: WFH can take away the sense of belonging that holds everyone together,...

An entrepreneur's tip for getting tough

One minute briefing: Resilience involves more than enduring trauma. You need to look after yourself,...