The challenges of delegating tasks to others

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A s much as I like to think everything my company does is great, we do make mistakes.  No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Recently we lost a client account in which we totally dropped the ball. Despite my staff assuring me that the client was happy, the client was not happy.  We had failed to deliver on some jointly agreed tasks.  On some other tasks, we did perform the tasks but not to our high-quality standards.  An attempt was made to save the account by promising to do better, but by then it was too late. I honestly didn’t see this coming as I had totally delegated the management of this account to my employees. Even though I wasn’t personally involved in the details, I was the one who received the cancellation email from the client. After the initial shock, I accepted personal responsibility for the situation.

When my company was smaller, I performed many of the tasks myself.  For many entrepreneurs, that’s a common way to get started. As the company grew, I was able to share the workload with a small team.  That small but mighty team got a lot of things done – we were able to seamlessly share tasks, thoughts, and ideas. We all had direct knowledge of all of our accounts.  As we became more successful and grew, the company got too big for me to have direct involvement in all clients and activities. I had to effectively delegate.

Before my business career, I served in the military. When I was a young Army officer I was taught that you can delegate authority, but not responsibility.  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  What is delegation?  Delegation is when you transfer the authority to accomplish something to another person.  Simply stated, it’s when you assign something to someone else to get done.  Although there is some implied accountability on the part of the delegate, the ultimate responsibility for the task is with the delegator (leader).  A leader has to delegate effectively in order to get things done.  In a business context, the delegates could be employees, volunteers, contractors, or even another firm.  Many businesses and non-profits delegate marketing tasks to my firm for instance.  In turn, I delegate marketing task completion to my staff.

Delegation isn’t easy.  Lining up tasks with skills and preferences is hard.  Just because someone is capable of doing something, doesn’t mean they want to do it.  The inverse is true and oftentimes someone who likes to do something, may not be good at it.  As a leader, I have been confronted with that situation many times, but ultimately it’s my signature on a contract that says that my firm will get things done.  Indeed, we all have to do tasks we don’t want to do but need to get done and that includes delegation itself!

Delegation isn’t easy.  Typically, leaders fail to delegate when they are held back by one or more of the following:

  • They think it’s faster or cheaper to do it themselves
  • They think it’ll take longer to explain it than to just do it
  • They have a lack of trust that someone else will get it done properly
  • They like the task and don’t want to let go of it
  • They feel guilty for asking someone else so as to not be a burden
  • They believe they’re the only ones qualified to do the task

While a leader may have a valid reason for not delegating, that should be the exception and not the rule. An organization will fail to grow and nothing will get done without proper delegation. How can a leader delegate more effectively? Here are some tips that I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Play to the delegate’s strength so they have a chance to be successful
  • Clearly articulate what needs to be done
  • Explain the quality standards for the task
  • Invest the time and resources to ensure the delegate can be successful
  • Be willing to provide constructive feedback to shape the final outcome
  • Without “hovering”, maintain awareness of task progress.
  • Allow for feedback and revisioning until the task is done right
  • Give praise often, criticism sparingly but directly
  • Assume the best, but have a plan for the worst

Weak leaders blame other people for their failures. We’ve seen jaw-dropping examples of that in national politics. Strong leaders accept responsibility for failures, learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and get better. One of the most rewarding aspects of being a leader is seeing someone exceed what you thought they could do.  That only happens when you delegate to others.  A strong leader is someone quick to give credit to others when things go well but accepts responsibility when they don’t.  I don’t profess to be a great leader, but I do try – to learn each and every day.

I’ve spent the past week reflecting on the client loss I mentioned at the start of this article.  There was nothing in our contract that we couldn’t have done and done well.  Simply put, as a team, we failed to perform.  Yes, there were individual errors at the task level, but the ultimate responsibility lies with me.  This situation was a failure on the part of my leadership. Sometimes failure is the best teacher. 

Mr. Smith, I learned a lot from this situation and I’m truly sorry I let you down.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]