More success by doing less: The art of delegation

Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two about leadership. From humble origins, he rose to become the emperor of France, and eventually brought most of Europe under his domain.

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself,” Napoleon once quipped, with characteristic self-confidence.

Believing in our own abilities is important for success. But, unlike the diminutive emperor would have you believe, it’s impossible to do everything ourselves. We all need to delegate.

Delegating seems fairly straightforward, but it can be easier said than done. We’re often protective of our work. And sometimes we don’t trust our team members’ capabilities. Or, maybe we just love doing a certain task.

But in order to grow a business and become a more effective leader, delegation is crucial. It’s essential to free ourselves up to focus on higher-level issues — like growing the business itself.

In the early days of JotForm, I spent full days tackling support issues. Once I hired reliable people to share the workload, I could devote my attention to other things, like improving our product and developing new strategies.

I’ve also learned that proper delegation is an art. And once you strike the right balance, the result is usually happier employees, more satisfied customers, and a healthier company overall.

When you delegate, you empower

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”
– Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

Both managers and employees benefit from delegation. Initially, managers have to invest some time in training and creating systems to monitor the tasks they offload.

If you’re delegating client intake, for example, you might carve out time to walk an employee through your process. Then, once the employee starts managing intake, you could create a reminder to review their work every few days, which can happen less frequently as time goes on.

After that initial investment, managers have more time to focus on improving the business. They can redirect their attention from rote tasks to things that really move the needle for a company.

As for employees, engagement typically increases as they take on more responsibility. Professional engagement is all about continually challenging staff, and giving them opportunities to grow and advance. 

You might even find that when given the chance, your team member knocks it out of the park (and outperforms you, too).

When I assign tasks to others, they often accomplish the desired result — and improve the underlying process itself. In this case, both the employee and our company benefit from that simple act of delegation.

How to hand over the reins

First, decide which tasks you can take off your plate. If you’re not sure what’s ripe for redirecting, try delegating when:

  • Someone on your team can do it better. At JotForm, there’s almost always someone who has more knowledge or niche experience than I do — and that’s a good thing. It means we’re hiring well. If you realize that someone else can deliver stronger results in less time, don’t hesitate to delegate.
  • You can regain precious time, energy, or focus. Instead of letting your days evaporate into busywork, delegate. Then you can apply that energy to activities that make a big-picture difference for the business; the kind of work that only you can do.
  • A task is time-consuming (and doesn’t generally require your knowledge or expertise). Tasks that demand lots of initial legwork, like research or data crunching, can often be broken down and reassigned. Once the initial stage is complete, you can easily step in to review and carry the task forward.
  • Time-sensitive tasks are competing with other priorities. Often, we find ourselves with several time-sensitive projects to complete at once. Rather than falling behind on one of them, decide which can be competently finished by someone else, and focus your energy on the remaining project(s).

I recommend starting small. 

When I was ready to delegate, I hired just one customer support employee. Once that person was trained, I built out a team. 

That way, there were no customer support disruptions, even when our first employee took a vacation or a sick day. Finally, I hired someone to manage the support team, and stepped in only to provide feedback when necessary.

Once the customer support system was fully established, I focused on building a maintenance team. Eventually, I reached the point where every part of the business that could be systematized was broken into individual elements.

Habits of great delegators

“When you delegate work to a member of the team, your job is to clearly frame success and describe the objectives.” 
– Steven Sinofsky, former Microsoft executive

Delegating is most effective when managers explain why the work is being reassigned. 

When we start by offering context — how a specific task fits into overall company goals and why the employee is the right person to do it — we increase the chances of effective follow-through.

Additionally, delegation doesn’t mean passing the ball and never looking back. When managers cede responsibility and lose control of team activities, the process has gone awry.

Successful delegators regularly measure results and provide feedback. Even when I’m no longer managing a team, I check in regularly and monitor their performance. Plus, it never hurts to have an outsider, who has fresh eyes, check to see whether the processes are working optimally.

Managers who know how to delegate effectively will assign the deliverable, then let the other person figure out how to get it done. Instead of feeling micromanaged, employees will feel challenged and valued. And when given ownership of a task, most employees are motivated to prove their capabilities.

Also, just because a task doesn’t fit anyone’s job description doesn’t mean it can’t be delegated. If someone demonstrates a high level of expertise and responsibility, give them the chance to shine.

And here’s the final frontier of delegation: asking employees to participate in critical decision-making tasks, like hiring and financial reviews.

For example, you could invite key employees to attend a round of interviews, then ask for their feedback afterward. Most people feel more deeply invested when they know they’re helping to build the team.

Sharing sensitive business tasks can make us feel vulnerable, but the payoff for opening these activities to (the right) employees can also be significant. Staff will be more engaged, and you can free up your time for higher-level projects.

In preparation for my three-month paternity leave, I decided to make my COO responsible for hiring. Delegating this and other tasks that were part of my daily workload allowed me to take a true paternity leave, rather than a chaotic, work-from-home sabbatical.

Be more essential, but less involved

“While it may seem difficult, elevating your impact requires you to embrace an unavoidable leadership paradox: You need to be more essential and less involved.” – Jesse Sostrin, author of The Manager’s Dilemma, Beyond the Job Description

Delegating can be challenging. As leaders and entrepreneurs, we love our businesses; that’s why we started them in the first place. 

Whether it’s coding or working with clients, we often enjoy the daily tasks that keep our companies running, too.

But if we fail to delegate, we hamper both employee and company growth. 

A chef-turned-restaurant-owner might love to cook, but in most cases, she needs to step out of the kitchen. Only then can she devote herself to big-picture goals like building a brand and elevating the business.

In the end, delegating means doing less so you can dig into the more essential parts of your company. 

It’s about enabling the most capable people to take on more responsibilities. 

It’s about building stronger teams and freeing yourself up to do the work that only you can do.

With more engaged employees and managers who are freed up to focus on the business, your entire organization will be positioned to thrive.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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