Four Elements of Effective Delegation

One of the senior leaders I coached today told me a classic failed delegation story: “I delegated some research work to one of my junior staff members. I asked her to follow up with a client who needed us to assess the effectiveness of their web site. I gave her the client’s phone number, asked her to call and get the URL, then look over the web site and give me a report on what she found on the web site. A week later, she emailed me ‘Here’s the URL you requested.’ ”

You can almost hear her sigh of frustration, can’t you?

I find as I coach leaders that there are very specific elements that go into effective delegation. Without these, delegating becomes a frustrating cycle of failed attempts to get work done that leave you wishing you’d just done it yourself. Maybe even questioning the competency of your staff.

Here are four key elements to effective delegation:

  • Explain context and big picture.

    People do tasks more effectively, independently and intelligently when they understand how the small task fits into the larger picture.

  • Ask questions.

    Don’t assume you’ve been clear. Find out. For example, the leader I coached today might have asked:

    • Are you clear about what I want you to look for on the client’s web site?
    • That was a multi-part request–will you recap it for me so I’m sure you caught it all?
    • What questions do you have about how to summarize that in a report back to me?
    • What’s your workload like? When will you be able to fit this in?
  • Build in ownership and full responsibility.

    I’ve heard more than one leader complain about staff not following
    through on assigned tasks. Here are a couple of ways you can build in ownership:

    • Have your employee take notes on your request and send them to you in email. This allows you to verify they heard and understand all parts of the task. It also gives both of you a written record of the request. Easy to forward the email to them later and ask “where are we with this?”
    • Make it clear how and when you want them to update you on progress. Not every employee realizes that it’s their responsibility to loop back with you. Successful delegating means you don’t have to track and follow up on your requests.
    • Be clear about the priority of the task and consequences of not doing it well or on time. Like understanding how a small task fits in with the larger picture, people are more likely to take the appropriate level of care and responsibility when they’re clear on it’s importance.
  • Assign a deadline.

    Even if there isn’t a clear deadline, assign one. We all tend to put things off until they’re due.

About Jane: Jane Cavanaugh is an internationally acclaimed business leadership and career coach who has helped more than 6,000 professionals develop their career and leadership skills. Jane is creator of The Passionate Professional: How to Make Your Ordinary Career Extraordinary, a guided career transition program, and a co-author of Breakthrough! Inspirational Strategies for an Audaciously Authentic Life. Contact or visit Jane at

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