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Learning to Delegate Is Critical to Lead Teams and Develop Staff, IW Talent Advisory Board

June 26, 2023
It's easy to say leaders should hand off tasks to their teams, but it's a lot harder to let go and trust people to perform, manufacturing leaders say in response to our June question. Part 1 of 2.

The IndustryWeek Talent Advisory Board offers monthly advice on how its members got to where they are in the manufacturing world. They offered so much great advice for June that we're breaking it into two parts, with half of the responses running Monday, June 26, 2023, and half running Tuesday, June 27, 2023. If you have a question for the group, please send it to [email protected]. This month's question was:

One of the biggest challenges in moving into leadership roles is learning how to delegate tasks instead of taking on more work yourself. How did you manage that transition, and how do you decide which tasks to delegate to which people?

Don’t Wait to Delegate

Tami Wolownik, Head of People & Organization, North America, at Siemens Mobility

Delegation is essential to effective leadership, but it can feel daunting as a new leader. I know it did for me when I took on the first leadership role of my career as an office manager for an insurance company.

I was so used to being an individual contributor who had proven myself by my results that during my first few months in this role, I would find myself immersed in the granular details of my team’s projects or taking on too many assignments myself. I didn’t realize that my focus needed to be elsewhere. Looking back, my involvement in the small things was ultimately taking away my focus on the big picture as a leader.

Time is a leader’s most valuable asset, and more delegation means more time for strategy, analysis and yes, the big picture. As I’ve gone on in my career and am now responsible for more than 4,000 employees as a People & Organization Leader, I’ve learned to trust that someone else can handle the granular, while I focus on being the best leader I can be.

Successful delegation takes practice! My advice and the strategy I use with my team is:

  • Recognize the strengths of your team members and where you can challenge them to grow—Each member of your team offers a unique skillset and perspective. It’s your job as a leader to understand where they excel and which projects will help them apply those skills.
  • Take a risk!—You’ll never know the full capabilities of your team members unless you give them the chance to show you what they can do. Present your employees with a task that may be out of their comfort zone but you think is a good fit. See how they manage it with your guidance. If it’s not a success, it’s a learning opportunity to improve next time.
  • Take the time now to save time later—Training a team member on a particular tool or task can take time out of your schedule in the short-term, but save lots of time in the long-term. When deadlines are approaching and tasks start piling up, it often feels easier to say, “I’ll just put in some extra hours and get this done myself.” Don’t fall into that trap. Teach your team members up front so you can effectively delegate tasks to them later.
  • Recognize and reward employees who are open to learning—One of the most valuable skills an employee can have is a strong willingness to learn. Show your appreciation for employees who take initiative to brush up on a new skill or take on an unfamiliar project. They will be your greatest assets when it comes to delegation.

Letting Go, Without Letting Loose

Billy Ray Taylor, Founder and CEO, LinkedXL

As a leader, it is critical that you embrace the difference in things you must do and the task you should delegate, and most importantly the differences in the people you delegate to. Letting go without losing control is a delicate and emotional balancing act, akin to a mother bird encouraging her fledglings to leave the nest while remaining ready to assist if needed. It involves trusting in your team’s abilities, empowering them to soar while providing a safety net for the business’s well-being.

Letting go means relinquishing the desire to control every single detail, the impulse to shoulder all tasks. While your way has merit, it may not be the only way. It’s about recognizing the diverse skills, perspectives and unique brilliance of your team members—creating an environment where these can flourish.

My transition into a leadership role was like sailing through a tumultuous storm. Deciding which tasks to delegate wasn’t merely about offloading work. It was about understanding the strengths and interests of each team member. A key principle I followed was: “Delegate not just tasks but responsibility.” This resulted in a more empowered and accountable team.

To make this transition smoother, trust became my anchor. I had to trust in the potential, capability and resilience of my team. Initially, this was challenging; the worry about things being done “my way” tugged at my heartstrings. But I quickly realized that different perspectives can often result in better solutions. I had to let go, without letting loose!

Overcoming these challenges required me to shed my cocoon of comfort and venture into the territory of vulnerability. It meant embracing and appreciating mistakes, both mine and my team’s. Every setback became an opportunity for learning, growth and strengthening our bond, ultimately leading us to reach our highest potential for success.

Trust Is Essential

Carl Livesay, General Manager, Mercury Plastics Inc.

The hardest part is not the act of delegating assignments. Rather, it is letting go and placing your destiny in the hands of others.

The process begins with establishing and assessing trust. Trust is comprised of two essential components—the desire by the person to succeed in the task and their technical ability to perform the task. Both must be present for trust to exist.

As leaders, it is our job to bring out the best in others. To do that, we must identify, nurture and protect their trust in us and our trust in them. If the person has the desire to succeed and the ability, trust the team member and trust yourself in your evaluation of the team member.

I’m a fan of Readers Digest, so here are a few “points to ponder”:

  1. In leadership, surround yourself with a team of first responders—people who lean towards the problem and not away from it. Someday there will be an emergency, and these are the people you want on the team.
  2. Avoid measuring people based on how they handle their successes. How they respond to failure is what really matters. A person cannot truly appreciate the sweet taste of success until they have experienced the bitterness of failure. Remember Ray Kroc? Before he built McDonald’s, he owned a failed milkshake-mixer company.

Set Clear Goals

Chris Coates, Human Resources Director for Drug Product Development I Pharma Services, Thermo Fisher Scientific

As I moved into bigger roles in my career, I realized that if I did not delegate to my teams, I would not be successful. Also, they would not have opportunities to gain experience, stretch and gain exposure. Right or wrong, I still try to take some of the less- desirable tasks just to demonstrate that we are a team.

When I decide to delegate a task and am choosing whom to delegate to, I consider a couple of things. Sometimes I assign tasks to individuals whose personal purpose aligns with the task. When someone is enthusiastic about a particular subject, you typically get a better product, and the person doing the work enjoys the experience. Sometimes I delegate based on individuals’ need for exposure to others in the organization.

Performance, brand and exposure are often identified as the three most crucial factors in upward mobility, with exposure often stated as the most important. On other occasions, I select individuals who need a particular experience to round out their tool kits.

There are a couple of cardinal rules I follow when delegating:

  • Set clear objectives so that the person receiving the task is not guessing.
  • Be available as a resource and check in without hovering.
  • Accept that the path taken does not always have to be how I would have done it.
  • Give credit where credit is due.

In the end, delegation can be a gift for me and the person receiving the task.

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