By Reta Coburn

Leadership is very much about the art of getting things done through people so competency in delegation is a foundational skill for leaders. Yet, more than other leadership competencies, the demonstration of delegation wildly varies from one leader to the next. Many reasons may contribute to this variance – organizational culture, team resources/structure, developmental factors, personal mindset and more. In my coaching engagements, I often hear, “it’s just quicker to do it myself” or “I don’t have time to train and handhold someone”.

Effective delegation requires thoughtfulness and intention. By “effective”, I mean delegation that results in a quality outcome in work productivity:

  1. the employee has learned and grown from the opportunity, and
  2. you, as a leader, have shifted work off your plate that is not the best use of your time. 

It’s important, so it is worthy of repeating, leadership is very much about the art of getting things done through people so competency in delegation is a foundational skill for leaders.

There are a series of interrelated activities as you delegate work, including: 

  • identifying capability
  • giving meaningful opportunities
  • setting expectations and monitoring progress
  • providing feedback

Identifying Capability

Sometimes leaders believe giving an employee a shot to ‘sink or swim’ is the best option, and at times, that may be the case. But that tactic comes with some risk and leaders may find themselves making more work for themselves after the fact. Not only can this tactic lead to missed deadlines and poor quality of work, but an otherwise high performing employee can have a bad experience that impacts their confidence and engagement. So, when clients express frustration about how an employee has not risen to the challenge when they’ve delegated a project or task, I like to first better understand how they evaluated the type of work and the capability of the individual who was assigned to it to determine if it was ‘appropriate delegation’.

Appropriate delegation broadly considers a few factors, among them being:

  • Does the employee have work experience they can draw on in completing the project?
  • Has the employee’s track record demonstrated their competence in this area?
  • Does the challenge of the work align well with the employee’s capability?
  • Is this work going to provide the employee with stretch or have the possibility to overwhelm?
  • Has the employee expressed an interest in taking on and learning more?
  • What space am I in as a leader to mentor, support and coach this employee on this activity? Do I have the required capacity to commit to their success?

Cultivating Opportunities

After you’ve identified which team members have bandwidth and are ready to take on more complexity in their work, you can then look for unique opportunities that will allow them to stretch. It is much less stressful for you and the employee if you’re thinking ahead on these and preparing them rather than finding yourself drowning and having to hastily hand things off out of sheer necessity. Delegation will feel less like a burden for you and be more rewarding when you have the space to consider and plan for opportunities. Incorporate the question of where to delegate as you’re doing your regular review of your schedule and priorities. Some questions you can start asking yourself are which projects or deliverables are forthcoming, where do you have business needs that require greater focus and what new initiatives do you have to resource plan for.

The word opportunity, as defined by Google is “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something”. Leaders can create appropriate opportunities that will enable them to develop their employees through meaningful challenges and build their team’s overall strengths and capabilities.

Setting Expectations

Setting expectations is paramount when delegating something new to your employees. Not only does it help the employee to be more successful in delivering the end result you’re looking for, but it also reduces your overall work effort over the course of the work being done. Here are some ideas on how you might set expectations in a newly delegated work activity:

  1. Share your vision for what a successful outcome looks like. This is where you can paint the picture of the desired end result and create some energy about the opportunity. In some cases, it could also be beneficial to share what it doesn’t look like by sharing past learnings and avoid those bumps.
  2. Discuss your ideas of what the roadmap to get there looks like and solicit feedback from the employee. This offers fresh ideas and perspectives, and both parties to ask questions to ensure your expectations are clear.
  3. Map out key milestones for the work, including timelines. This is a perfect time to layer in coaching by asking questions like, what things might get in the way of you accomplishing the goal? How will you mitigate them and how will I know that you need help?
  4. Agree upon your cadence for check ins, what accountability means for both of you and how feedback will be shared. If you’ve read our recent blog post on difficult conversations, you know I like the idea of ‘setting the table’ to minimize the awkwardness that some leaders feel in approaching what they would deem a hard conversation. Creating a rhythm for check-ins and including a couple of standard agenda points with other business details on the project is an approach that promotes productive and healthy meeting discussions.

This up-front time spent should serve to minimize misunderstandings, delays, and rework, not to mention leader time getting things back on track. As Benjamin Franklin once said “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” so don’t underestimate the value of this time invested at the outset.

Progress Monitoring

Some leaders dislike the idea of monitoring which, to them, feels like hand holding or micromanaging. And the need to monitor is just another reason why they find it faster to do it themselves! 

However, monitoring is important for a successful outcome. It can take different shapes, so I recommend that you establish something that suits you and the employee and takes into account their capability and the risk level of the project. It doesn’t not have to be one size fits all. Leaders I have worked with have found success with the following monitoring ideas, and I encourage you to experiment with what might work best for you:

  • Weekly, in person 1:1 check point with any questions or roadblocks being raised throughout the week by email (rather than waiting until the check in).
  • Updates and modifications are added to the original project and shared as a document or set up in or comparable workflow tool.
  • Short, daily status reports are provided (through email, posted online or delivered during a 15-minute check in) with the report format being a simple, visual dashboard using green, yellow and red coding with bullet point notes on the yellow and red where questions or roadblocks encountered can be tabled.
  • In the case of the completely hands off leader who has delegated to a known competent employee, a monthly 1:1 may be sufficient, and the leader presumes the project is on track unless the employee tells them differently. 

To ensure that potential problems are handled quickly and effectively, the leader and employee need to have a clear agreement on when and how these issues are to be communicated and what to expect from their leader when they are raised. This will ensure that the employee has a clear idea of how much time should be spent on problem-solving before asking for help. While we like to think employees will proactively raise any issues, there are factors that can get in the way of that even when they have good intentions.

Sharing Feedback

Every leader’s style in giving feedback is unique so I encourage you to lean into your existing strengths in delivering positive and constructive coaching to those who you have delegated to. You may find the following tips to be helpful: 

Recognize that the opportunity to step into something new can be both exciting and intimidating for them. You selected this employee because you felt they were up for the challenge, and they accepted with the intention of delivering on the project. Keep that in mind when you deliver your feedback and create an environment where you discuss both went well (“WWW”) and what went even better if (“EBI”).

I recall working with a leader who regularly gave positive feedback to his team but when he received his 360-assessment report he was surprised at where his scores fell on the scale for the Feedback dimension. As we dug into that, we learned that while he regularly gave positive feedback, his team felt that he wasn’t giving them constructive feedback from which they could grow and improve. That is certainly the harder of the two to deliver but it was important for them to receive so they could truly leverage the growth opportunity when being delegated something new. 

By providing constructive feedback to your employees, you also build trust because they know they will not only hear what you’re happy with (the WWWs) but also where the EBIs are. You can incorporate this type of feedback regularly by adding WWW and EBI to your check-in agendas. It can be useful to first ask the employee to share their views on both points, then you can ask them powerful coaching questions to help deepen their reflection on certain aspects, and lastly, offer your feedback.

It’s important to note that if you are providing feedback to someone you have not worked with directly, it can be beneficial to ask them how they like to receive feedback. This will give you insight into their preferred communication style. You can then also share what they should expect from you in terms of how you’ll give feedback. 

Also, I have found that the planning that you do as you delegate work shouldn’t stop at the review of milestones. Instead, you should continue monitoring and sharing feedback to fully set the delegation activities and the individual up for success. 

As I shared in the difficult conversations blog post, you are creating the situation that the other person is responding to, and that applies here too with how we delegate as leaders. A sprinkle of intention and a touch of planning will enhance the outcomes you achieve.

If your organization could use some support in creating a culture that embraces delegation or if you have leaders that would like to strengthen this competency, we would welcome a conversation with you. Please contact us for a complimentary consultation at or call us at 970-279-3330.

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