Any of us who have moved into higher levels of leadership know that if you can’t delegate, you’re in big trouble. There’s just no way to keep up with everything that needs to be done (and maintain any degree of sanity, at least) if you don’t figure out how to delegate, who to delegate to, and just how to get comfortable with the fact that you are no longer able to do it all.
There are a lot of approaches to delegation, how to do it well, how to figure out who to delegate to, and how to manage the work and people to whom you have delegated. One prevailing strategy many of us have used, or even been coached to use, is to delegate to experts. Delegate out the work in which we ourselves are not particularly well versed, deeply knowledgeable, or have expertise.
In other words, delegate the stuff you don’t know how to do to others who do know who to do it. Keep the work you know well for yourself.
The Trap of Delegating The Stuff You Don’t Know
On the surface, this seems like a great strategy. The work gets allocated to the right person or people who know how to do it. They are happy because they get to do things they are confident about and have some skill. You are happy because you don’t have to try to figure it out. And you can feel comfortable that you don’t have to manage them tightly because they know what they are doing. You can go on and work on other things.
All feels great – in the short term at least. Things get done, and usually pretty efficiently and effectively.
Here are a few unforeseen problems, though, with this common approach.
First, for you as a leader (and the person ultimately accountable for the overall work), it is difficult to evaluate the outputs of the people to whom you have delegated. You trust your people, of course, but you don’t really have the ability to provide insight, coaching, or challenge perspectives because you yourself don’t have the knowledge. You can certainly ask questions that come from “fresh” or “outside” eyes – which is always valuable – but there is a limit to what you can assess without the knowledge.
Second, and maybe more importantly, no one grows. The experts on your team don’t grow their skill sets and capabilities. And unfortunately, neither do you. And so you can very easily fall into the trap of regularly needing to delegate that specific work out into perpetuity.
So what might you do instead?
The Counterintuitive Notion of Delegating The Stuff You Know The Best
Earlier in my career, I had a leader who practiced what we, as corporate neophytes, thought was kind of strange. At the very least, it was counterintuitive to us. He delegated out the things he knew the best, and he took ownership for the things he knew the least.
I thought it was a bit strange, but what did I know? It turns out that he knew just a bit more than I did about how to do this well (what a surprise, in hindsight). What we all watched happen and lived through was really valuable.
Our leader seemed to constantly get smarter and develop more breadth of knowledge. To get there, he modeled to us how to figure out problems or dive into content areas where you had little knowledge. We benefited from watching him do this in front of us and got better at doing it ourselves.
At the same time, we got much better coaching and mentoring on the work he had delegated out to us – mostly because he knew it so well. In turn, our work got done faster and with better outputs. We ended up growing faster in our own development.
In the end, it isn’t possible to know everything, and sometimes you just have to delegate out things you don’t know. But what this counterintuitive approach to delegation taught me early in my career is that we shouldn’t blindly delegate the things we don’t know how to do. There can be great learning and growth benefit for everyone involved if we flip things a bit.
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