Take time to delegate

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John M. Thomas
  • 425th Air Base Squadron commander
Delegation is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the act of giving control, authority, a job, a duty, etc., to another person."  However, delegation is more than a simple act, it is a skill.  Unfortunately, it is a skill that is used incorrectly, or not at all, by many individuals who find themselves in leadership positions.  When used correctly, delegation will lead to the development of everyone involved and will also lead to increased productivity in the long term . . . if you take the time.

What do I mean by 'take the time' to delegate?  Imagine that you have a task that is due in five days.  You know the material, and you know that you could simply spend several hours working on this task yourself and turn it in exactly the way you want it within a single day.  You also have a subject matter expert on your team that should be able to complete the task, and you have several other issues that need your attention.  This is your chance to delegate and improve your team. 

Could you perform the task quicker than your SME?  Perhaps.  Could you perform the task better than your SME? Possibly.  Will the task be completed exactly the way you want it done if you do it yourself? Probably.  Will your SME, and anyone they may choose to involve in the project, learn from the experience and improve their abilities if you do it? Not at all.

So how do you execute delegation of a task?  In the example above, you have five days to work with.  Sit down with your SME, explain the task, explain what you would like to see in broad terms, specific only if required, draw a picture (literally) if you think it will help, and then set a deadline to get back to you.  In this case, three days might be a good target.  Then, leave them alone.  Do not engage in their work unless they come back for assistance or clarification.  This is the crucial 'taking the time' part of delegation.  You already know that you can accomplish the task in a single day if you need to, so even if the product you receive is completely off-track or garbage, you have time to fix it.  However, the product you receive will quite often surprise you and be better than expected, or it will at least provide a solid platform for some touch-up work on your part . . . but much less than the several hours you would have previously needed to commit.  Trust your troops and give them time.

By applying the technique above, being clear in your request, and being patient with yourself and your subordinates, everyone involved will grow in capability and learn how to improve when the next task presents itself.  Still not convinced?  Imagine that you delegate a task to one of your weaker subordinates.  They come back in three days with a product that is not formatted correctly, has multiple misspelled words, and generally does not meet your intent.  What do you do?  Sit down and begin working on the project yourself, but have them stay there and watch you for a while.  Fix several of the slides, or perhaps a few pages of a document, to match your intended guidance.  They will likely see that they have the right content, but they took the wrong approach to formatting or aesthetics.  Perhaps they will simply realize that they did not put enough effort into paying attention to detail such as listening, spelling, etc. 

By taking this approach, you have spent only a few minutes to adjust their vector and then sent them on their way to complete the task.  Day four should provide you with a much better product with only minor corrections.  If not, tell them 'thank you very much,' and finish it yourself.  Either way, they have learned what you expect of them, what you like to see with regard to slides, formatting, etc., and I guarantee that the next time you provide them a task it will look much more like what you initially expected. 

Over time, all of your troops will understand how to complete assigned tasks that match your vision and that of the organization.

Can this be a painful process?  Yes, sometimes.  Can it always be done? No, sometimes you just need to complete the task yourself for various reasons.  However, if you take the time to delegate to your subordinates, leave them to their own devices after being provided with proper guidance and/or vision, and then correct their vector, constructively, when a returned product does not meet your expectations, then everyone involved will learn from the experience and become more capable members of the organization.  And the best part is, your personnel will appreciate your confidence in them to complete the task without interference, even if you need to provide a 'vector check' along the way.  That will in turn give them the confidence and motivation to do even better on the next task you delegate to them, and it will also teach them how to take the time to delegate properly when it is their turn to lead.