Five tips on how to delegate

Delegation is leadership—here are the secrets for effective delegation.

By Amy Smith, PhD, Jones International University, Centennial, Colo. April 17, 2014

I recently vacated a leadership position at one university to accept a promotion at another. In doing so, I was fortunate enough to recommend my successor, and spend a few months coaching her into the new role. Her new role included managing 8 direct reports and 50 adjunct faculty; a budget of more than $1 million, managing 10 programs with 1000 students; and launching 5 new cutting-edge online degree programs over the next year. This is no small leadership position.

Our coaching sessions included a series of e-mails and text messages where we’d exchange ideas, discuss strategy and tactics, and evaluate problems and solutions. In one exchange, the topic of delegation came up. My colleague asked me how I could possibly have gotten done all that I had. My secret, she learned, was deciding when and what to delegate to whom.

Long story short, it worked. And when reflecting on that experience, I thought it would be useful to share my “trade secrets” for effective delegation.

Managerial roles have many issues that involve time span, timing, and capacity challenges. Just when you think you can indulge in a forward-thinking project (like initiating a corporate mentoring program), you are besieged by work/time requests from others. Or, it’s just sheer volume. Who hasn’t undergone corporate fiscal year planning at the same time as a major project deadline, and a key staff person gets sick or leaves the company? This stuff happens so often that those forward-thinking projects get pushed to the back burner, where they sit until next year’s strategic planning session.

Delegation can help solve this problem by building capacity with existing staff through enhancing their skills, stimulating their motivation and independence, and being overt and generous when they earn positive recognition. I have found that this formula works very well for me, and it is working well for my colleague above. Here are five steps for effective delegation:

Step 1: Know your people. Effective delegation begins with reflection on staff capabilities and needs. Who in your organization has untapped talents? Who is hungry for challenge and leadership opportunities? Who wants to try out new technologies or workflow processes? As a manager, you need to regularly talk with your staff about these things, not only so you know if they are content or probably looking for another job, but also so you can delegate to them more effectively.

Step 2: Know yourself. Also, thinking back to the Career Smart column in August 2013, Managing micromanagers, you need to reflect. Delegation is not only about sharing work, but sharing management, too. It is, in essence, sharing decisions. My favorite executive coaching guru, Marshall Goldsmith, reminds us that the goal of delegation is delegating more effectively, not more frequently (Goldsmith, 2007).

Delegation is not about giving work away, it’s about really cultivating a working climate where people are empowered to run with assignments, take initiative on ideas, and really drive the fate of their work (Goldsmith, 2010). In fact, noted engineer and management author Gerard Blair reminds us that if we fail to delegate, we lose the full value of the employees we hired. After all, delegation is not about losing control or not being able to let things go like we see in micromanagers; as Richard Branson of Virgin puts it, it’s about stepping back, which frees you “to focus on the bigger picture” (2011).

So, you also need to reflect upon yourself. Are you delegating enough? Do you keep the plumb assignments for yourself or do you share them with your team? If you aren’t delegating, your people do not have authentic opportunities to grow. And are you celebrating enough—even the small stuff?

Step 3: Cultivate confidence. I once read that a chief role of an engineer is to instill confidence in clients that the project will get done on time and on budget, and that it will work as intended. One hallmark of effective delegation is that it cultivates confidence throughout the chain of the firm—from top management, to the team, to the clients. As your staff gains confidence in their work, you gain confidence in your staff. And the good work that results instills confidence in clients. So, if you think about it, delegation is GREAT for business.

To cultivate confidence, never just hand over a major task to someone as a first-time experience. It’s a good rule of thumb to build up tasks gradually, making the assignments stretch assignments, but not things that are so overwhelming that the person certainly wouldn’t be successful. To complete new tasks, people have to know what you want of them, very specifically. In fact, the best delegators have formalized check-in points to check expectations. You might have a vision of what something you delegated should look like, but the person to whom you delegated cannot read the picture in your head. Show a straw man or draft as a model before really diving into a complex task. Set follow-up meetings to review progress (Akalp, 2012).

Step 4: Provide resources and authority. For delegation to really work, people need to have access to the information and physical resources to accomplish the task, and the authority to make decisions. Basically, delegation goes two ways. Sure, we delegate down to our direct reports, or in a matrix system, across perhaps, to our peers. But we can also delegate up or out. We can pick the things that require us to become mini-experts in something and delegate those to an actual expert (Akalp, 2012). After all, how many of us really handle the accounting or legal side of our business? We don’t. We hire that expertise out. The same practice can happen within our organizations.

Step 5: Celebrate the small stuff, not just the big stuff. Team achievements should result in team celebrations, as quickly as possible. Individual achievements should be celebrated in a way that motivates the individual. Know what motivates your people individually. Some like public recognition; some like a day off; some want a financial spiff or to attend a conference.

Amy Smith is the director of accreditation at Jones International University. She has more than 15 years of experience in organizational leadership, adult teaching and training, and research. Her research and writing focus on the human side of management and leadership.


Akalp, N. (2012). 6 Tips to master the art of delegation. Mashable.

Blair, G. The Art of Delegation.

Blair, G. (1996). Starting to manage: The essential skills. United Kingdom: Chartwell-Bratt and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Branson, R. (2011). Richard Branson on the art of delegation. Entrepreneur. July 19, 2011.

Goldsmith, M. (2010). Sharing leadership to maximize talent. Harvard Business Review Blog.

Goldsmith, M. (2007). How can I become better at delegating? Harvard Business Review Newsletter. Harvard Business Publishing.