What stands between you and a higher-level leadership role?

Probably hundreds of small projects, emails, repetitive tasks, and meetings about others’ urgent priorities.

When you look at your overscheduled calendar with back-to-back meetings and commitments for the next month and beyond, you tell yourself, “If I just work more efficiently, I can get some of these things off my plate”. And while working through yet another one of your kid’s missed soccer games you promised to attend, you think, “I wish I could delegate this to someone on my team.”

My bet is that what is keeping you mired in a more operational management role instead of working at a higher, more strategic level, is your reluctance to delegate to your staff.  As painful as it is to admit, we ALL have biases and fears that keep us from allowing others to share in the projects and the work we do. See if you’ve ever had any of these thoughts:

• “There is really no one on my team I can trust to do this the way I would. I’ll do it myself.”
• “It will take longer to explain the details about this project to someone than it would to just do it myself.”
• “If I give this to someone on my staff, what happens if they fail?”
• “This is too repetitive or unimportant to give a staff member. What would they think?”
• “I don’t think anyone on my staff has the skills needed to handle this project.”
• “I don’t have time to figure out how to delegate this work to others.”
• “If I let Joan handle this important project won’t that look bad or hurt my own career?”
• “If I give this ongoing work to Collin, I will no longer be seen as the expert or “go-to” person. I am not sure I like that….”

Most of us can probably relate to many of these thoughts. But the net effect of not delegating is that you deny your staff the ability to grow and develop new skills – while you stay focused on operational tasks rather than leading at a strategic level. This is a lose-lose situation.

Here are 5 steps that will help you learn the art of letting go and effectively delegating.

Step #1: Decide where you should be spending your time.

Review your company’s strategic plan and your business line goals. Decide what 3-5 strategic initiatives or goals where you should focus the majority of your time. As motivation to help you emotionally “let go” of some current day-to-day tasks, envision what could be possible for you, your team, your department and company if you were to focus more time on the more important things.

As an executive coach, I have found that leaders are much more likely to move towards these strategic goals and let go of lesser tasks if they can tie the possible outcomes to their own values. Doing work that aligns with your values guarantees that you stay focused and happier. For instance, if you value innovation and altruism over most things, you’ll be motivated to be first-to-market with a planned software development product and launch that makes people’s lives better. Making a lot of money doing this project would probably be a motivator, but not the primary motivator because you value innovation and altruism over monetary gain. (It may be hard to believe but most people’s top 2 values are usually not monetary).

Step #2: Decide what can be delegated.

This sounds easy but it’s not. Most of us are not that aware of where we are spending our time. Try tracking your time for a few weeks using one of the many time management apps on the market right now such Top Tracker, Toggl, and Rescue Time. Another option is to analyze your calendar for the last 3 months and see where your valuable time is being spent. You’ll quickly see what percentage of time you are spending focused on which tasks.

Consider delegating work that involves:

Unimportant tasks; Finding a new meeting venue or handling meeting logistics for your semi-annual meeting could be
considered“unimportant” in the grand scheme of things.

Repetitive tasks; Examples are monthly reports that others can easily compile, track, and produce.

Time consuming tasks; If it’s a large project that spans multiple quarters but is not of high importance, this could be delegated to several    staff   members so that they own it and share the responsibility for successful outcomes.

Task that involve using your weakest skills; Play to your strengths whenever possible. You can always focus on developing weak areas,  but you’ll move faster and experience more success than when you’re “in your element”, using the skills that come more naturally to you. Someone on your team will likely have strengths in the areas you don’t, and they’ll be glad to handle these duties.

Step #3: Determine who should be assigned the task or project.

Take time to analyze each team member’s skill level and motivation for doing additional or higher-level work. Try to assign work to all staff members, not just your star performers. Overburdening your star performers with too much of the work, or not the right type of assignments, will likely cause them to leave.

• More senior staff members who are comfortable in their current role, are not interested in a promotion, and have in-depth skills and strong knowledge about your business could be asked to train and mentor others.
• Provide some of the more interesting and/or challenging work to one or more of your star performers. They will welcome the challenge and the learning that comes with it.
• One of the most valuable things you can do as a leader is to hold “career conversations” at least once each year with each direct report in scheduled one-on-one meetings. These conversations focus on staff member career aspirations, key skills they want to develop, key skills you recommend that they develop, specific skills they like using, and work they enjoy. Based on their input, you can more easily delegate tasks and projects.

Step #4: Decide how to delegate.

Adopt a “What’s in it for You” Mindset
How you actually hand off a project or assignment to an employee is very important. Adopt the mindset that you are “sharing an opportunity for growth” with the employee rather than “I am giving this to you so I can get it off my desk.” This different mindset will guide the words you use, your general tone, and will be received in a much more positive manner.

Your direct report may be more excited to take on this new work if you approach them with this type of messaging: “You said in our career conversation a few months ago, that you are really interested in learning more about our vendors and the “Requests for Proposal” process we use. I have a project that would help you learn more about both. I’d like to tell you more about it.”

Focus on what needs to be done – not how it needs to be completed.
Employees will be more empowered and successful when they are given general guidelines and expected outcomes for a project and are then given the latitude to find their own way to accomplish it. They may take a different route than you would have taken, but if the outcome is the same, it really doesn’t matter. Empower your staff to find their own way.

Find your middle ground.
Don’t micromanage every step of the project once you’ve delegated it. You don’t necessarily have to completely take it out of your hands either. You are still responsible for your department’s outcomes. There is a lot of “space” between completely letting go of the project and micromanaging. The middle ground might work best:

Start by providing the staff member with an overview of the project; what it entails, what problem it solves, who the stakeholders are, what the timeframe for completion should be, and what the key outcomes should be. Spend some time describing what success would look like. Otherwise, at the end of the project, they may be thrilled with the outcome and you may be left wondering how they misinterpreted your words.

I often hear people say, “You have to let the employee fail so they learn.” I don’t necessarily agree. If you build in some check points along the way, the employee will learn and you’ll ensure the project does not derail. People can learn just as easily from minor setbacks as from major defeats. Try incorporating these 2 elements into your next delegation assignment:

1) Set check-in dates for project milestones at the beginning of the project. Set the first one early during the project so the employee can share their approach and steps they plan to take. Do your best to not take over the conversation, critiquing their process, if at all possible. A better approach is to ask good coaching questions to help them explore possible options.

2) Explain the scope of the project and the level of authority they will have. Leaders from other business lines or departmental peers may need to know that this employee has been given authority to do certain things and will be managing the project. Your staff member is now empowered to make certain decisions on their own.

Step #5: Provide feedback regarding the project outcome.

Hold a recap meeting with this employee, even if it’s just 20 minutes, to ask what they learned that will help them in their current job, what they would do differently next time, and what they think went well. You can provide your own feedback as well. If the project was successful, celebrate that success in some way, whether you announce in the weekly staff meeting how well the project was run – or – by giving them a written thank you card or movie tickets for a job well done. Little things go a long way when you show appreciation for employees’ efforts.

When you practice these 5 steps for effective delegation, you’ll find yourself feeling a little lighter and sleeping a little better at night. You’ll move quite naturally from being seen as an operational leader to actually being a strategic leader – and – your direct reports will feel more motivated and empowered. And who knows? You might just make it to your kid’s next soccer game. Everyone wins when you learn the art of letting go. Good luck!

Marie Snidow is an Executive Coach and Leadership Development Consultant who helps build strong leaders, teams and organizations through training and coaching. Albright Snidow offers leadership training and coaching for 3 leadership levels: Emerging Leaders, Mid-Level Leaders, and Senior Leaders.