Successful Delegation: The Art of Letting Go

Many years ago I took a television station job. I knew nothing about the technical elements of the medium. In a tiny, dark room lit by several TVs and a galaxy of glowing buttons and switches my trainer told me push a certain button 2.25 seconds before a certain commercial was to start. He didn’t notice my nerves and continued to explain the various technical aspects of my new job. Suddenly all the TVs went black. The talk show murmur was replaced by the low humming of machinery.

“You didn’t push the button!” he shouted, and scrambled to get our commercials on air.

At the next commercial break we sat together and watched for just the right moment. He all but guided my finger to the button. Eventually, of course, I got better at this and began training other new people as they came on. I never forgot this important lesson, however: Delegate responsibility only to those ready to take it.

Let Go
The first step to delegation is realizing you need to let go. You probably don’t need to let go of everything, but you very likely need to let go of something. No matter how small your business, if you are trying to do it all, you are likely to either collapse or screw up. No one can do everything in their business. Film directors have a Second Unit with a second director that shoots sunsets and landscapes while the first team works with the talent.

A good first step is to look at all the things you do – or need done – and decide which you can delegate to a subordinate. Then, match the duty to the skill set of the person you are delegating to. Don’t simply hand off the least pleasurable things on your list. Hand off responsibilities that the person is ready to handle. Make sure they are comfortable pushing the button 2.25 seconds before it’s time, then give them that responsibility.

Clear Process
Something you’ve been doing every day for years – like pushing the button 2.25 seconds before it’s time – may be second nature to you. It might be wholly foreign to someone else, however. So, before delegating, be sure you have trained the new person. Show them how the job is to be done, what all the steps are, why it is important, and where they can go if they have questions. Maybe there are written instructions. Be sure to go over them verbally, too. Some people are visual learners, and others need to hear it.

Clear Goals
Like all jobs, it is vital to know how success is measured. Before you delegate responsibility, go over how the person delegated to will be assessed. Maybe it’s a pass/fail – they pushed the button or they didn’t. Or maybe success is on a more graded scale. The Second Unit photographed the sunset correctly; maybe they can handle a car chase. If mistakes are made, OK. We had mixed success. We can learn from that and build.

Once you’ve delegated responsibility, it’s time to let go and trust. It’s fine to check in, but resist micro-managing. Maybe use a three-strikes-and-you’re-out approach. If something goes wrong, train, and then re-train if it happens again. And if it goes wrong a third time, it’s either time to claw back those responsibilities or find someone else to do it.

On the other hand, be trustworthy yourself. Be an ally and mentor when needed. Listen to questions and concerns without undue judgment.

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