Have trouble delegating? Do, Drop, Delegate, or Defer

Delegating work as an agency leader: Do, Drop, Delegate, Defer
Written by: Karl Sakas

Many agency leaders feel like they have too much work, there’s not enough time, and they’re under huge amounts of stress.

They decide something has to give, and they’re looking for help. Sound familiar?

Fortunately, the solution is deceptively simple: they need to become better delegators. But while becoming a better delegator may be simple, it’s rarely easy.

During our early coaching meetings, my new clients often list-out their huge to-do list, explain how they haven’t taken a vacation in years, or mention that their doctor told them they need to lower their blood pressure.

They know something needs to change. But when I suggest they delegate some of their work to their team, not everyone’s ready. I hear a lot of excuses:

  • “It’ll take just as long to teach someone else to do it as to just get it done, so I do it myself.”
  • “[Employee] messed it up last time; so it’s better that I just handle it myself.”
  • “I believe in leading by example—it’s a boring task, and I don’t want my team to think I find it beneath me, so I do it myself.”

All potentially true. But if they don’t make some changes, history will repeat itself.

My next step, when someone is really overwhelmed by what they need to do? Ask them to show me their calendar and to-do list. We review it together, looking for easy wins…

Doing a “Calendar Review” and “To-Do Review”

When I sit down with an agency owner to look over their to-do list, I ask them to label each meeting or item with one of the following “4D’s” labels: Do, Defer, Delegate, or Drop.

  • If they label something “Do,” it should be something they absolutely have to handle themselves and that needs to be done that week. That stays on the calendar or list.
  • If they label something “Defer,” it gets bumped later on their calendar to free up a bit of extra time that week.
  • If they label it “Delegate,” then we review who on their team should be handling that task and talk about ways to make that happen.
  • And if they label it “Drop,” it just gets deleted… we decide it was never important and isn’t actually something that needs to be done. (If someone else was expecting it, my client or their deputy lets the person know it’s not going to happen.)

You can do much of the same exercise yourself if you can block out 10-15 minutes today. It’s worth it! In my experience, agency owners can often find 2-10 hours of extra time each week, which translates to your getting an extra 100-500 hours of free time a year.

Why delegating is so hard (and how to make it easier)

Once you have a more concrete list of things you might be able to delegate it’s often a lot easier to conceptualize actually assigning those tasks to someone else. There’s a psychological step you need to take here—you need to accept that your job is to get results through other people.

That is, your job has shifted from Technician to Manager and Entrepreneur. Delegating is actually about growth—for you and your team. You’ve learned how to do the tasks you’re going to delegate; the next step is to teach someone else how to do them so that you can move on to doing higher-value work. But this means you have to be ready to let go of doing it all yourself.

Remember, delegation is a win-win when done well. You provide someone else on your team an opportunity to grow and develop their own skills, and gain extra time in your own schedule so that you can do a better job at the things you decided you needed to handle yourself.

7 steps to make delegation easier

The trick to making delegation easier is to establish a framework you can use to delegate both smoothly and effectively. For each task you plan to delegate, follow these 7 steps:

  1. Clearly articulate the desired outcome. Understanding the outcome helps you focus on results rather than methods, allowing your team to feel empowered to make choices do follow the process that works best for them.
  2. Share constraints and boundaries. While giving your team decision-making powers is important, it’s also important to give them some guidelines; an agency owner I know likened it to handing an artist a sheet of blank paper and asking them to create art versus asking them to paint a cityscape. The latter still leaves the artist a lot of decision making power, but it also ensures you don’t end up with a portrait.
  3. Choose the right person for the job. If a project requires attention to detail, don’t give it to the biggest thinker in the room; similarly, if the project requires big-picture planning, don’t give it to someone who’s always getting bogged down in the details. Ideally, you’ll assign it to someone who already has compatible skills and knowledge, even if you still have to invest some time in guiding them on the specific task or project.
  4. Provide adequate support, and be available to answer questions. When agency owners have horror stories about projects they delegated that failed miserably, this is usually what went wrong. After assigning a project, build in regular check-ins to respond to questions and make sure things are on track for success.
  5. Build motivation and commitment while helping your team through problems that arise. This means when they come to you with a problem, you should ask for their recommendations; you should also discuss how success will impact their future—what future opportunities it may provide, informal recognition, and potentially financial rewards as well, depending on the assignment. Then make sure you provide that recognition, as early as possible after the work.
  6. Provide constructive feedback. Your team can’t read your mind—if the outcome wasn’t what you expected, they need to know what you want them to change now (or in the future). If you don’t like telling people negative things, you can use the sandwich method (give the negative feedback between two positive points) but this can undermine your feedback.
  7. Finally, “rinse and repeat.” You should regularly review your schedule and to-do lists and keep an eye out at all times for tasks that it makes more sense to hand off to your team than to tackle yourself. Several of my clients have this on their standing agenda for their weekly meeting with their assistant or deputy.

Accept that yes, delegating requires an initial investment of time and training, but that it’s worth it—in the long term, it will free up time and result in a better, more effective team so you can finally take time off for a vacation or gain the time you need to grow and work “on” the business.

And yes, delegating may mean things don’t get done exactly how you would do them. But different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes your team may find solutions you weren’t aware of—and those solutions may even be better than what you came up with. Best of all, you didn’t have to do that all yourself.

Finally, recognize that it’s now YOUR JOB to delegate. After all, the difference between a freelancer and an agency owner is their team; an agency can’t function properly if the owner tries to do it all.

Question: What task can you delegate from your to-do list today?

Book cover: Work Less, Earn More (by Karl Sakas)

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