The art of delegation: Leaders need to let go


In the last number of months, I have been struck by the conversations that we have had with leaders who have expressed disappointment that their direct reports have not “measured up.” Goals and expectations that had been agreed upon (at least from the leader’s perspective) were not achieved.

More often than not, the assumption is that the problem lies with the direct report. Is she capable? Does he want to achieve the identified goals? Is he or she resourceful, assertive enough, etc.?

Seldom are the questions asked: “What, as a leader, have I done to contribute to this failure?” “Was I clear in my communication?” “Did I provide the resources necessary for my direct report to be successful?” “Was I clear about the outcome objectives?” “What is my style of delegation?” “Did I offer the necessary support and feedback?” “Did I create an opportunity for process accountability?”

What we continue to learn is that delegation is an art. In situations in which delegation was poorly communicated, and yet a direct report happens to be successful, it is likely because he or she knew what questions to ask, which resources to request, and how to invite his or her boss to “paint a clear picture” of the outcome objectives, timeline, etc.

When goals are not met, leaders have an opportunity to examine the ways in which they have contributed to the lack of hoped for results. They might ask themselves how they engaged their direct reports in identifying the goals, setting appropriate timelines, and providing support and accountability.

STR-shutterstock_258103058The act of delegating is an art

The discipline of delegating effectively requires time and practice. Given the pace of our world today, leaders must be intentional when they decide which projects to delegate to direct reports. They need to consider the “stretch” that can be achieved for the direct report when he or she successfully manages the responsibilities assigned.

An objection to delegation that we often hear is: “I can do this better and quicker myself.” While that may be true, the task may not be the best use of a leader’s time, and by resisting entrusting a project to a direct report, the leader is also preventing the opportunity for growth and development in the very people he or she needs to rely on.

I appreciate it can be a “Catch 22.” Time is a precious resource. If we invest in the development of others by engaging in meaningful delegation, it will take more time … at least on the front end. The payoff, though, is that your direct report learns a new skill and may be able to own the project in the future, freeing up your time as a leader!

What is an effective model for delegation?

Let’s acknowledge that in addition to growth opportunities for employees, delegating specific projects can be a critical survival skill for leaders.
In my experience, delegation is at least a four step process. It is a learning opportunity for both the leader and the direct report. The leader has the opportunity to assess his or her effectiveness in the communication of expectations by inviting his or her direct report to state clearly what he or she has heard throughout the communication process.

1. Planning and reflection
Initially, the leader must analyze his or her workload and identify:

  • Which work is best done by others?
  • What are the outcome objectives?
  • Who on the team may be best suited to take on the work?
    • Who has the ability and skills?
    • For whom will this project be a growth opportunity?

2. Teaching/delegating

  • Communicate clearly the outcome objectives and why the task/project is important to the overall goals of the company or the department.
  • If a specific process is critical to success:
    • Provide detailed instruction. Be sure that the employee understands the “what” and the “how” to achieve the desired results.
    • Ensure that the employee has the skills necessary and, if not, provide the necessary learning tools.
  • If a specific process is not critical to success:
    • Request that the employee think about how he or she will accomplish the task and ask the employee to provide a plan of execution for you to include specific strategies, timelines, etc.
    • Again, be sure that your expectations and desired results are clear.
  • Provide the necessary resources.
  • Ask what the employee thinks he or she may need from you
  • Agree to a clear timeline and agree to interim “update” meetings to discuss progress to date, determine the need for added resources, etc.

3. Monitoring

  • During regularly scheduled “update” meetings:
    • Encourage questions.
    • Assess progress to date.
    • Determine need for additional resources.
    • Provide feedback and encouragement.

4. Evaluation and celebration

  • Determine with your direct report the success of the project.
  • Review your contribution and invite feedback regarding the clarity of your communication.
  • Assess the process, necessary resources, ability, etc.
  • Invite a conversation with your direct report about his or her learning and how this experience may be applied to other work opportunities.
  • Provide specific feedback and appreciation.

The art of delegation is a learning experience for both the leader and the direct report. Success will rest with the ability of each to be clear and direct in communication and expectations.

Success will also rest with the leader’s ability to “let go.” Managing every step of the process does not serve the leader, the direct report or the organization. For some leaders, this will be the greatest challenge to manage!

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit

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Karen Vernal is executive vice president and chief dreamer for Vernal, LLC (, a Milwaukee based leadership and human resource firm, dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” As an executive coach/consultant, she was recognized by the Green Bay Packers for her guidance in their organizational planning process. She was also the recipient of the 2011 Marquette University Leadership Excellence Award.

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