The early days of entrepreneurship are both heady and exhausting: late nights, rising before the birds, fueling your body with too much caffeine. Once your business is running and you’ve hired even a small team, it’s time to step into the next phase. Now you need to lead.
Leadership is more than assigning tasks; it’s a way to elevate your impact. According to management consultant and Harvard Business Review contributor Jesse Sostrin, “you need to be more essential and less involved.” Leaders have to learn how to delegate – and how to do it well. It’s the only way to step out of the day-to-day workflow and think more strategically.
Yet, handing over responsibilities is easier said than done. Maybe you’re protective of your work, you love performing a certain task, or you worry about your team’s capabilities. But if you want to grow your business, delegation is essential. And according to Sostrin, there’s a simple way to tell whether you’re holding the reins too tightly. Ask yourself, “If I had to take an unexpected week off work, would key projects and goals advance without me?”
In the early days of building my company, JotForm, I did it all. From coding to customer support, I touched every part of the business. Once I hired people to share the workload, I could focus on improving the product and developing strategies that still serve our 5.2 million users. I’ve also taken a three-month paternity leave and I regularly go on extended vacations. Ultimately, I learned that delegation is an art, and the result is a stronger, less stressful work environment and a healthier company overall.
Delegation is empowering
“From a young age, I learned to focus on the things I was good at and delegate to others what I was not good at. That’s how Virgin is run. Fantastic people throughout the Virgin Group run our businesses, allowing me to think creatively and strategically.” — Sir Richard Branson
On the surface, we delegate simply to manage an otherwise-impossible workload. But both leaders and employees benefit from the process. Most employees feel more engaged as they take on deeper responsibilities. They feel invested and empowered, and that’s good for everyone. Because “employee engagement” has become such a common business phrase, it’s worth untangling exactly what it means.
Digital media consultant John Boitnott writes that engaged employees demonstrate four observable traits and behaviors:
- A better understanding of the company’s long-term goals and how their work advances those goals
- A personal belief in the company and a commitment to its mission
- More harmonious relationships with fellow team members
- A commitment to keeping their skills sharp and learning about industry developments
Challenging employees with opportunities to learn and grow ensures they’re fully in the game. And it’s exciting to see someone knock a project out of the park. In fact, I often find that staff deliver better results and improve the underlying process when we hand over the keys and let them drive.
Know how to maximize your time
Before you can entrust your staff with new challenges, you need to decide what you shouldn’t be doing. A task is ready for delegation when:
1. Someone else can do it better
After 13 years in business, there’s always someone in our company with more niche or technical skills than me – and that’s fantastic. It means we’re hiring the right people, and they’re sharing that specialized knowledge across the team.
2. You can save precious time and energy
It’s so easy to fall down a day-long rabbit hole of calls, emails, meetings, and busywork. Instead, use your energy to tackle the work that only you can do. Hint: it probably hinges on people and strategy.
3. It’s wildly time-consuming
As a leader, you shouldn’t do work that doesn’t require your unique expertise. Others can conduct research, crunch data, prepare reports, and lay the foundation for big-picture thinking. Remember that you can always pick up a project partway through, once someone else has tilled the soil.
4. You have bigger priorities
There’s never enough time in the day, and too many competing priorities. When you’re facing multiple deadlines, choose the highest-impact option. Focus there and assign the other project to someone you trust.
Delegation can feel uncomfortable even when you know it’s in everyone’s best interest, so start small. For example, if you want to re-assign an HR process, set a time to walk your employees through it. Once they start to manage it, create a calendar reminder to review their work every few days, or at an interval that works for you. Over time, you can check in less frequently – to the point where they only come to you with questions.
I started by hiring just one customer support employee. I trained them to take over all the requests, then I slowly built a full support team. Eventually, we hired someone to manage that team. We repeated the process with each part of the business, until almost every function was systemized and running smoothly without my input. I’m still there, of course, for questions, feedback, but I’m free to steer the ship.
How to delegate like a champ
Effective delegation demands context. You need to explain why you’re reassigning a project, and how that project fits into the company’s mission. Next, tell the employee why they’re the right one for the job. In my experience, this dramatically increases the chances that they’ll knock your socks off.
But wait – don’t stop there. Just as you wouldn’t pass the ball and walk off the court, successful delegators measure results and offer feedback. They provide a safety net, of sorts, and check in with their teams on a regular basis. Whether you set a recurring meeting or create an open-door policy, be sure that employees feel supported at all times.
Resisting the urge to micromanage is equally essential. The best way to avoid it? Assign the task, then let your employee figure out how to get it done – other than any necessary training or systemized processes, of course.
Give them the keys, explain the destination, and then let them determine the best route. This approach ensures that they feel challenged and valued, instead of having a backseat driver on the journey. Also, don’t sweat the specifics of a job description. If someone has the right stuff, give them a chance.
Finally, involve your employees in critical decisions. This might include financial discussions, strategy development, hiring, or team formation. Opening up the inner workings of the business might make you feel vulnerable, but transparency almost always pays off – and your staff will feel respected in the process.