Leadership & Strategy
Lessons in task delegation: the right and wrong approach
In the transition from one-person operation to a fully-fledged small business, owners usually find themselves having to wrestle with something they haven’t faced before: task delegation.
When delegating a task for the first time, it can be daunting. There’s a list of questions that will race through the mind of any business owner: which member of staff do I ask? How much freedom do I give them to perform the task on their own? Should I say ‘please’?
To help unravel these questions and other key issues around task delegation, we turned to three experienced founders who went through this and more as they built up their business.
Be patient and take small steps
“The first time I delegated it went well… ish,” said Martin Port, founder and CEO of BigChange, a provider of workforce management technologies.
“Like most things in business, you’ve got to find time to sit down and explain to people what you want. I think I was quite young at the time and I was probably a bit impatient. I’ve come to realise that patience is very important when delegating tasks. You need to give people time to listen, and also find time to answer questions about what you’ve asked them to do.”
Over his career, Port has learned that throwing an employee in at the deep end isn’t usually the best option if you want something done well.
“If you want to know if someone is up to whatever you’re trying to delegate, you have to ask: have I given them a task before, and did they do it well?” he said.
“You build up to bigger tasks – it doesn’t just happen overnight.”
Introduce checkpoints for bigger tasks
This “small steps” approach to task delegation is recommended by a number of business founders. For Darren Hockley, co-founder and MD of eLearning specialist DeltaNet International, it’s a way for bosses to mitigate against disasters – and avoid micromanaging.
“If you’re checking in every five minutes, you’ll never build trust,” he said. “What you should do is start with a smaller task, so if it doesn’t go quite to plan, the consequences aren’t too bad.”
When tasks start getting bigger, introduce checkpoints along the way. With checkpoints, you should be able to reduce the chances of something going wrong.
If a new employee is tasked with designing a new product, for example, get them to report back after they’ve researched competitor models, then after they’ve made some preliminary sketches, and so on.
According to Hockley, this “feedback loop” is different to micromanaging, because you’re not breathing down the employee’s neck. When you start to build up confidence in their abilities, you can increase the size and importance of their tasks.
Take employees on your business journey
Task delegation isn’t easy for a lot of SME owners. It can be hard to shake off the feeling – especially in the early days of business – that no one can do something as well as the founder.
“We all have our own ways and idiosyncrasies about how we do things,” Hockley said. “We have our own standards. As a business owner, you often expect more from yourself than you do of the people working for you.”
These days, Hockley delegates regularly. It’s one of the reasons his business has grown. And while his delegation checklist isn’t carved in stone, he does have some guidelines on the subject:
- Don’t ask an employee to do a task you’d never do yourself
- Make sure the employee has the right skills, knowledge, and support to perform the task effectively
- Try and sell the benefits
Often, successfully completing a task will be good for the employee, founder and business. “You’ve got to take people on the journey of what you’re trying to achieve if you want them to buy in and do a good job,” Hockley said.
Choose the right person for the task
Juliet Barratt is the co-founder of active nutrition and sports performance brand, Grenade. As Barratt said, it’s important to delegate tasks to someone who’s well-suited to the job.
“Ask yourself, who is best for the task?” she said. “If there are several employees with identical skill sets, then I’d ask for a volunteer. If everyone was too busy, it would come down to, ‘Well, could you do this please?’”
Barratt doesn’t recoil at the idea of saying “please” when delegating. There’s a common assumption that bosses lose their sense of seniority if task delegation comes across as a request rather than a command. But BigChange’s Port shares Barratt’s sentiment – politeness is important.
“The calmer you can be and the more time you can spend with someone, the better,” Port said. “And I think you would thank people too, where it’s relevant. As long as you can do it in a way that isn’t patronising.”
Don’t panic if a task goes wrong
Delegating in a fractious workplace is always going to be tricky, so it’s essential that you hire the right people.
“You want people who are a good cultural fit for your business,” Barratt said. “You need people you like, people you can train up to certain roles, or those who come in with the skill set you need who also understand the brand.”
And when something goes wrong? Try not to make too much of a big deal about it. Mistakes in delegated tasks are bound to happen sooner or later.
“I don’t think there’s any issue at all with staff making mistakes,” said Barratt.
“I think the issue comes if they don’t tell you, or they keep making the same mistake. We have an open door policy here and we encourage people to talk to us. We say, ‘If you’ve made a mistake, just let us know and we can sort it out. But we can’t do that if you don’t tell us.'”
On a final note: if your office is running smoothly, don’t be surprised if one day an employee tries to delegate upwards – to you. This isn’t a bad sign, especially if you’ve made moves towards a flat management structure.
“It does happen,” Barratt said. “And I haven’t got an issue with that, because everyone is in this together. We have a culture where I hope staff would feel comfortable saying, ‘Are you OK to do this?’
“My co-founder and I are the first in and the last out. We’ve built the business from the ground up and we’re still really hands-on.”
Interested in learning more about delegating? Read A look at the management style changes made by successful business leaders.