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How To Stop Failing At Scaling — And Start Winning At Delegating

The 4 Keys to Effective Delegation

a pit crew swaps tires on a race car

“I’m on the verge of burnout,” Manish told me. “Now that I’m managing a big team, I never have enough time to get all my work done.”

I could hear the frustration in his voice. “I’m giving this job everything I have, and I’m working longer hours than ever,” he complained. “But my boss just told me I’m not ‘scaling up’ fast enough. What am I doing wrong?”

When I asked Manish what his day-to-day schedule looked like, he heaved a big sigh. “My calendar is overrun with all kinds of meetings – one-on-ones, staff meetings, all-hands meetings, update meetings, project meetings. The meetings never stop!” he cried. “Plus, my HR partner is constantly riding me about the ‘people processes’ I’m responsible for. By the time the day’s over, there’s no time left for my real work!”

Manish’s story was starting to sound all too familiar. I've watched many budding leaders struggle with scaling up when I was a senior leader at companies like Microsoft, during my stint as CFO of a Silicon Valley startup, and in my executive coaching practice.

Fortunately, the solution he needed was within reach. But it would require him to shift his thinking in significant ways – and that would require focused work and practice on his part.

Old Habits Are Hard To Break

It can be challenging to grow from a subject matter expert supervising a few employees into a leader of a large organization with dozens (or hundreds) of people. The good news is that this challenge almost always boils down to a single sticking point: habit.

In particular, many leaders get into the habit of relying on their technical skills and know-how in order to get the job done. The problem? Technical expertise won’t get them to the next level of performance. In fact, it’s only table stakes.

Let’s put it this way: At great companies, everyone’s got mad technical skills. They wouldn’t be there otherwise. That means it’s going to take something beyond technical skills to land your next promotion. That something is leadership – skill in leading your peers.

Scaling Up To Leadership

So, what exactly does it mean to “scale up” to a leadership role? In business, scaling means growing an organization and/or its processes to handle more volume in more efficient ways.

Similarly, scaling up your leadership means developing the capacity to manage a greater volume of work. This typically requires sharing your workload with more people – in other words, delegating.

Building Your Delegation Muscle

As obvious as this principle seems, I’ve found many new managers struggle to put it into practice. This often happens because they’ve spent more effort building their technical muscle than their delegation muscle.

Maybe they just love their technical work and don’t want to give it up. Maybe they’re unsure how to apply the delegation principle to their day-to-day work. Should they always delegate? Or only sometimes? How can they know with certainty when and what they should delegate?

The answers to these questions are simpler than you might think. In fact, you can start applying the following principles right now to lighten your load and focus on more strategic work.

The 4 Keys To Effective Delegation

To determine what to delegate to your team, use these four key criteria while objectively assessing your team’s abilities – as well as your own.

  1. Consider your team’s level of skill, experience, and vision for the task at hand. The stronger they are, the more likely they’ll succeed on their own. The weaker they are, the more help they’ll need from you.

  2. Consider your own level of skill, experience, and vision for the task at hand relative to your team’s. If they’re stronger than you, they’re more likely to succeed than you are. Delegate work that they can do better than you.

  3. When in doubt, delegate more. Micromanagement is far more prevalent than effective delegation.

  4. Be clear with your team about your delegation plans and your expectations for their performance. Using the language in the graph below, speak straightforwardly about who will do the work, and who will be consulted about the work.

Scaling Up Through Delegation

The graph below is inspired by a decision-making matrix I learned working with Axialent, a global leader in culture transformation. It illustrates how you can decide whether and how much to delegate to your team. Their capability, of course, is the variable which determines the most effective level of delegation you’ll need for each project.

Note that micromanagement flourishes in the lower-right quadrant where a manager doesn’t delegate despite the team’s high capability level. Alternately, in the upper-left quadrant, the manager abdicates responsibility when the team needs help most.

Less Burnout, More Leadership

After I explained the issue of varying delegation needs, Manish understood he’d been wasting time and brainpower either micromanaging his team or cleaning up their messes. Now he could also see how to solve his own leadership problem. Motivated with the right tools to scale up, he was able to strike the perfect delegation balance, stop attending unnecessary meetings, and focus on leading strategies for his company.

If you’re struggling to scale up your own impact, start by putting my four principles into practice. Figure out which of your team members can multiply your effectiveness. Then communicate clearly with them to balance your workload more efficiently. You’ll soon find that you’re scaling your way up to an even more impactful leadership role.


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