Dominique Graham has 30 years’ experience in Executive Search, working exclusively at partner and GC level. She is a founding partner of Graham Gill, a pioneering Legal Search firm focused exclusively on partner and senior level hires. In 2016,...
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”General George S. Patton, U.S. Army
The internet is awash with inspirational self-improvement quotes about effective delegation like this one. Despite being a crucial skill for leaders at all levels it is surprising how many senior leaders remain unaware of the necessity to delegate, or who are unable/unwilling to do so effectively. Which prompts the question: why do leaders need to be coached on delegation, both for their own productivity and sanity, as well as for developing the next generation of leaders in their organizations?
“When you get to the top, there is no checklist of things to do there are just constraints, finite resources, and what you’re trying to achieve. All the skills that come with that are practiced while you’re doing it; influencing, discovery skills, getting your hands dirty…if you haven’t had the leadership training, good luck with that!” says Ben McGuire, a senior leader and former Army Officer, now Head of Solutions at leading law firm Simmons & Simmons
Delegation is an integral part of leadership in that if you cannot delegate, you cannot lead, or at least not effectively. This viewpoint is not merely subjective but widely acknowledged and supported by key institutions for leadership like Harvard and INSEAD. For those of you who would argue that charismatic owner-led figureheads are effective leaders yet show little inclination to delegate we would counter that their role primarily revolves around inspiration rather than the practical application of leadership skills. Indeed, these individuals are often intentionally shielded from people management responsibilities.
The usual barriers to delegation can be summed up in one word: trust. If you don’t trust your people to achieve the objectives you set, it must be your responsibility. Either you haven’t hired the right people or haven’t provided proper training (or any training at all), or you haven’t been clear in communicating expectations.
“To develop future leaders, they need the chance, freedom, and trust to practice and hone the right skills” says Ben McGuire.
Trust is deeply ingrained in the complexities of human behaviour, which explains why it can be deeply challenging. Some individuals trust for the wrong reasons, while others struggle to trust at all. The drivers behind trust require extensive analysis and understanding, as explored by Shakespeare, Freud, and countless other luminaries beyond our scope to detail here. This notwithstanding, creating a culture of trust starts with open communication and clarity regarding objectives and constraints.
Ben McGuire recommends “then leave them to it. Provided they don’t step outside those constraints or overuse the resources and are clear what those are, and you’re clear with them that they can’t do those two things, the way in which they reach the objectives may come as a complete surprise to you, yet still be effective.”
There should be an absolute emphasis on clarity, which is captured in by this visual from the Centre for Creative Leadership.
Timing is crucial too, and leadership training should begin at a junior level. Starting small, such as organizing a social event with a budget, allows individuals to gain experience and build their capabilities across the five levels of delegation featured below:
Succession planning is widely acknowledged as crucial for any organization that wants longevity. It involves identifying potential successors early on and preparing them for success. Given this, the concept is endorsed by any self-respecting leader that it makes sense to extend their understanding to the art of and the need for delegation.
Leaders can learn valuable lessons from the military, where failures in leadership and delegation can have potentially fatal consequences. Here are some key takeaways:
By embracing delegation and trusting your team, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results most of the time. This approach not only benefits you and your organization, but also prepares the next generation of leaders who are the lifeblood of its future.