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Delegate: The Wrong “D” Word

Posted by Carol Seymour on Nov 13, 2019 10:49:38 AM
Carol Seymour

11.13.19 - The Wrong D Word

Years ago, my five sisters and I visited our brother in his high-rise executive office with the mahogany wood desk, the leather chair, and a view of the city. He was in a president role at a major financial institution. As we walked in, five of us ran immediately to the window to see the city, but my little sister instead noticed a strikingly clean desk with a few sheets of paper on it. She asked my brother, “Why don’t you have any work on your desk?” To which he replied, “By the time it gets to me, the work has already been done.” To be clear, my brother wasn’t just enjoying that stunning view all day. At his level, he was being paid for his strategic thinking and decision-making, and for setting priorities and direction.

“As your responsibilities become more complex, the difference between effective leaders and a super-sized individual contributor with a leader’s title is painfully evident.” - Jesse Sostrin (Harvard Business Review, 2017)

In our Signature programs, we spend time on creating capacity for bigger jobs, creating a vision, and leading with influence. We help top-level leaders learn how to get more done through others, and we often touch on the ability to “delegate.” When you get that big promotion, you are no longer valued for your ability to get it done. You are being paid for your judgement and leadership.

However, when I cover the “D” word in our programs, it usually comes with comments like, “I try to delegate, but I am a perfectionist,” or “It’s much easier to do it myself than train someone else,” or “If I don’t want to do that work, why would anyone else?” The “D” word is seen as a bad thing. We believe it looks like we are passing off work onto our direct reports because we don’t want to do it. When we have that mindset, we are limiting our own ability to grow, and in turn, the ability for our team to grow as well.

I want to challenge you to use a different “D” word.

D = Develop.

Instead of pushing work down to your team, realize that you are offering them opportunities to grow. How many of us are constantly double- and triple-booked for meetings? By preparing a team member to represent you in a meeting, they learn how to prepare and how to have a voice in the meeting, and they gain confidence as a result. Additionally, they can own the next steps for your team, collaborating with others and demonstrating their own leadership skills.

“The upper limit of what’s possible will increase only with each collaborator you empower to contribute their best work to your shared priorities.” - Jesse Sostrin (Harvard Business Review, 2017)

Learning to let go so someone else can run with it can be hard. I’ve heard many times that only when managers are forced to let go do they learn this lesson. One executive found she had a medical issue which would require her to miss quite a bit of work for the next couple months. At first, she was afraid to “dump” her work onto her team, but once she explained to her team about her needed absences, her team rallied around to help her. She learned that if you give people space, they will fill it.

Here are some great thoughts as you begin “developing” your team:

Be patient. The first time someone takes on the task is a learning curve. It will take them longer. Guide them through the process along the way, and they will improve over time.

Encourage. Make sure you support them to have space to fail. Let them know it is a learning opportunity, and you know they will take time to get there.

Give the context for WHY. Most employees get “delegated to” for tasks without knowing how that set of tasks fits into the bigger picture. Be sure to explain how this supports the broader goals, what it means for their development, and what it means for you personally.

Give feedback. Don’t wait until the task is done to give feedback. Provide it along the way, and be sure to point out things that went well in addition to things that can work better next time around.

Recognize: Share this person’s work effort with others. Employees that get recognition are more engaged and more motivated to go the extra mile.

Remember, the person you have delegated this to will never do it exactly the way you would do it. And that is ok.

If “delegation” is hard, change your mindset. Your new “D” word is DEVELOPMENT.


Sostrin, J. (2018, April 17). To Be a Great Leader, You Have to Learn How to Delegate Well. Retrieved from


Topics: Leadership, Developing People

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