When I was a kid, we played touch football in my neighborhood. We’d split into teams of six or seven and play until our parents called us in for dinner. There were no fixed positions. I played quarterback, tight end, wide receiver — whatever it took to move the ball down the field.
Now, when I see a quarterback running the ball on Sunday Night Football, as exciting as it is, I can’t help but cringe. They’re opening themselves up to major vulnerability when the running back is much better equipped to handle it. “It’s their job!” I want to yell. “Let them do it!”
It reminds me of running a startup. In the beginning, with a small team, you don’t have a choice but to do whatever it takes to move your business forward, even if it isn’t something you feel you’re particularly good at. As you move up, the team grows. Players become more specialized. The risks are higher, as are the rewards.
When I first launched JotForm, I worked on everything, from engineering to marketing to combing through resumes. It was a much-needed crash course in how to run a business. While I learned a lot, I also learned that I’m not great at everything. To accomplish what I needed to do to serve my customer base, I had to be a generalist. I focused on not letting perfect be the enemy of done and learning from my mistakes quickly.
Now, with more time and resources, I can prioritize the things I’m good at —tasks I like doing that push me to be a better leader and entrepreneur. I play to my strengths and set up my team to do the same. I try to see delegating as an opportunity to get the best possible results. By matching the right person to a job, you’re optimizing for the highest outcome and letting your employees make meaningful contributions to the company, which leads to higher job satisfaction and employee retention rates.
Something off your plate, a happy employee, and a job well done. Delegation seems like a no-brainer, right?
But, it can be hard to transition tasks to new employees, even tasks you don’t particularly like. As an entrepreneur, when you’re starting a company with just you and maybe a co-founder, it can feel impossible to not have a hand in everything that goes on in the company. It’s yours, and no one knows it better than you. You’ve had skin in the game since the beginning. Why should you let someone who’s been with the company for six months spearhead a new initiative? Well, because it’s what you’re paying her to do.
As companies grow, so does the workload. Expanding the team becomes necessary to keep up. I grew JotForm from a solo venture to a company with over 140 employees. I’ve written more about our hiring process in the past. I look for culture fit, people who know how to be a team player and put customers first. I hire people I can trust to do the job well, recruiting for a knowledge-base and skillset to find people who are better than me at what they do. Their output is of a higher quality than I could achieve, and I can focus on strategy and leadership.
How to delegate effectively
A big barrier to delegation is the upfront cost. Managers think that in the time it would take to teach someone how to do something, they might as well do it themselves.
And it’s true. Teaching someone how to do something well is a challenge. It’s also your responsibility as a manager. Tasks that are old hat for you are a learning experience for your team. Though it might seem like you’re helping them by taking on more of the workload, you’re actually limiting their capacity for growth. Lack of supervisor support for career development diminishes organizational outcomes and affects retention, so it’s important to expand the scope of your employees’ responsibilities while giving them the support they need to succeed.
In order to delegate effectively so your employees can do the job you need them to do without being a drain on your time, you need to give them two things: oversight and authority.
Oversight is not micromanaging. You’re sharing expertise and feedback, helping identify problems as they arise and making sure work stays on course. Set up systems that allow you to stay in the loop without being CC’d on every email. No one is perfect at anything on the first try, so be patient and think of the long game, provide feedback — both positive and negative — and slowly decrease your day-to-day involvement. Be the safety net: there if they need it, unobtrusive if they don’t.
Authority will allow them to accomplish what they need to without hand-holding. If you send an employee to a meeting but do not give them the authority to speak on behalf of your team, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. This requires building reciprocal trust. As Mark Murphy says,
Act more like a coach and less like a manager.
When your team comes to you with problems, instead of jumping in to fix them, help them come up with a plan and empower them to implement it on their own.
What to take off your plate
When you’ve built a company from the ground up, it can be hard to scale back. But delegating will enable you to do your job better, giving you more time to focus on the work that only you can do. Here are some tactics to figure out what you should keep on your to-do list and what you should pass on to someone else.
- List all of your responsibilities and tasks you have to achieve this week. What do you have time for? If you have a high priority deliverable but will be stretched to complete it on deadline, delegate the first draft and work with your employee on the revision. The training will be more meaningful since the work is tied to an important project, and you’ll be able to maximize your time getting it over the finish line.
- Ask your team what they’re interested in. One man’s tedious data set is another’s exciting problem to solve. Loop them in on meetings and projects early and often. When they’re ready, hand over the reigns.
- What are you dreading? When I notice myself constantly putting off a task, it’s usually something small that requires a context switch. Something that may only take fifteen minutes of actual work will cost me additional time and energy to adjust my focus. I automate what I can and ask for help on the rest.
Play to your strengths. When you’re first starting a business, you do everything. Don’t let it affect your ego. As your team grows, you’ll be more effective if you stay focused on the work that only you can do, and let your team do the work they were hired to do. Defer to the right person from the start.