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What you shouldn’t be doing: The importance of delegation

Jan 06, 2023

When transitioning to a new role, you might not think twice about leaving behind your old title, business cards, files or even your office itself. Yet, we often drag along a staggering range of tasks that no longer belong to us.

Gaining clarity on the responsibilities of your new role is a fundamental part of your journey. By extension, understanding how to effectively delegate activities that no longer belong to you, as well as tasks that are the clear responsibility of our direct reports, is essential.

Only then can you operate at an appropriate level, spending time on tasks that maximize your value to the organization. Likewise, your direct reports will develop the skills necessary for their own professional evolution and advancement.

Delegating can be emotional

Most leaders understand the need to delegate nonessential tasks but gaining consensus around just what defines a nonessential task (and what defines delegation) is much trickier than we’re typically willing to admit.

We have explored this subject with thousands of leaders from a range of different market segments, across organizations of differing sizes and complexity. We have consistently found delegation to be both the most acknowledged skill leaders seek to develop and the single most poorly developed of these skills.

This is understandable. Rationally, we may understand the need to divest ourselves from tasks and activities that do not align with the responsibilities of our new role but accepting this emotionally can be a very different matter.

Letting go of the very activities that likely got us promoted, or that we excel at, can be both counterintuitive and even dispiriting. Our every instinct is to keep doing what we know we’re good at. But our instincts can mislead us.

Let’s consider what happens when we fail to fully make the transition into a new role and continue to pursue those tasks that are rightly part of our previous responsibilities.

Don’t be afraid to let go

Let’s take something simple, like a series of weekly reports. The reports require four hours to compile, and you have been running them successfully and feeding them to your boss for the past year.

Upon promotion, instead of handing off these reports to one of your direct reports, you continue to run them because you can’t risk that the work won’t be done or that the data won’t be accurate and timely.

You rationalize this approach by reminding yourself that you’re really good with these reports and efficient with their production. Furthermore, the direct report you’ve identified to replace you in this task isn’t the sharpest and will likely reflect poorly on you with senior management. Sound at all familiar?

Let’s unpack this to get a better understanding of the wealth of consequences this seemingly innocuous decision carries.

First, you can’t manufacture more hours in the day, so any activity that sucks time from your week should be carefully scrutinized for value and purpose. You’ve been promoted into a new role, bringing with it a host of new responsibilities, as well as an obligation to develop the skills and expertise to perform this new role successfully. When you spend time on inappropriate functions, you cut into this developmental window and employ yourself on functions below your leadership level.

In effect, you’re sending a message that you are not comfortable operating at the right leadership level, even though you are getting compensated to do so.

Next, you’re receiving a leader’s salary to perform an activity inappropriate to your role as a leader, while simultaneously taking hours away that could be invested in making the correct transition.

Lastly, you are failing to offer fundamental coaching and development to your direct reports. By failing to provide them with the opportunity to exercise the skills and expertise inherent to their roles, you rob them of the chance to demonstrate their readiness for future roles in the organization.

Whether your direct report is fully capable of the task is not the point. After all, evaluating your team and taking ownership for their development is your responsibility as a leader.

If they’re not sufficiently trained and supported on the tasks assigned to them, who should be held accountable? If they’re not qualified to be in their current role, who holds responsibility for making this assessment or for removing them from the position? Simply performing the task for them grants no developmental benefit and sends a clear signal that you do not take the exercise of your leadership responsibilities seriously.

Conversely, you truly stand to benefit from delegation. Mastering delegation allows for more time for level-appropriate tasks and creating space for lightbulb moments. It also sends a message that you are ready to be a leader and capable of letting go.

For all of these reasons and likely a dozen more we could explore, learning to properly delegate tasks is one of the earliest skills required to help leaders develop. The rationale is simple: the more effectively you learn to delegate, the more time is freed up for more role-specific activities and your evolution as a leader.

Perform an honest self-evaluation

There is a simple exercise you can use to self-evaluate your strength as a delegator.

First, make a list of all the tasks you currently perform that cannot be delegated. These may include sensitive or confidential items, as well as role-specific tasks that you and you alone remain qualified and uniquely capable to perform.

Next, make a list of all of those tasks you currently perform that, with a little honest reflection, you admit you coulddelegate. A moment’s thought should make it clear that any task you did not put on the initial list should be part of this second list.

We typically find that leaders will identify five to six items that belong on the initial list, while the second list can easily include 15 or more items. This begins to offer some insight into the number of activities we are performing daily or weekly that eat up our time inappropriately.

These are functions that abuse our time and talent as a leader and rob our direct reports of their opportunity to grow and develop. Continuing to perform them because we have not taken the time to sufficiently develop a resource is not a defensible position and indicates the right leadership behavior is not being practiced.

Finally, ask yourself just how much time you spend on these activities. It can be staggering to see the time investment we make on activities we just admitted we don’t need to be performing.

We have worked with leaders spending eight to 10 hours weekly on these tasks. This means they are spending one day a week on nonessential functions. Imagine what could be accomplished if they had this time back to use in more constructive and role-appropriate ways.

This can be particularly meaningful for leaders that complain about never having enough time to work on their own key priorities and job functions. Do you really not have time or are you just spending it on the wrong things?

Taking just a few minutes to consider how we spend our days — what activities take our time and focus — can be a crucial step in helping us to become better leaders. It allows us to set aside the right time for our own development and to ensure that the functions that engage us daily are the right functions for our role.

So, instead of running that report you shouldn’t be running, take a moment to catalog just what it is you spend your time doing each day and whether that investment is what you as a leader should be doing with your time. The result will be a better leader, more effective direct reports and a healthier organization.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s leadership development programs help leaders at every level cultivate a leadership mindset that empowers others to thrive. Learn more about how we help clients with people, process and strategy on our organizational performance consulting web page.

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Steve Hopkins
Director, Organizational performance
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