When I was writing website content for a new healthcare client recently, I asked them what they did to maintain a healthy life balance. The response? There was no balance. As a philanthropist with their own international organization, they worked 100+ hour weeks and loved the challenge. Being extraordinary, they said, requires doing extraordinary things.
My client isn’t necessarily “wrong” for working so much. If they are happy and healthy, then kudos. Many people aren’t, and they work far less. Some of the biggest names in business right now (e.g., Elon Musk) keep their noses to the grindstone, too. Working tons of hours is a legitimate option for getting more done and reaching higher levels.
But it is not the only way. Delegation is the secret weapon.
Delegation Means Trusting, Not Loss
Delegation is not for everyone. Some people like getting into the nitty-gritty of all their work. There also comes a point where, if a person delegates too many things, they can feel like their touch did not color any of their labors.
But when someone delegates well, they often set much more in motion than they could without tapping other people. Their legacy can be larger and their levels of productivity higher as a result of the exponential collaboration that develops. The willingness to use teams to pursue more ideas is a trait common among successful leaders.
Take industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who sold his steel company to J.P. Morgan in 1901 for $480 million. In addition to pursuing multiple business interests, Carnegie was also a dedicated philanthropist. He used his fortune to support libraries, museums, nonprofits, schools, and colleges — and to even purchase church organs. Carnegie turned to a large network to make everything work. His philosophy was clear:
“You must be a lazy man if it takes you 10 hours to do a day’s work,” he said. “What I do is get good men and I never give them orders. My directions do not go beyond suggestions.”
Instead of micromanaging, Carnegie got people started and then trusted them to be creative about solutions, make good decisions, and work hard. More than a century later, modern gurus insist that empowering employees in this way is foundational for both a healthy culture and an outstanding bottom line.
More recently, Richard Branson has tossed responsibility to others, in part because of his dyslexia. But he recognized that there was just too much to do alone. “Most entrepreneurs are driven personalities,” Branson says, “but you can’t overcome challenges and bring new ideas to the market through the sheer force of personality alone. You need to learn to delegate so you can focus on the big picture.”
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Why Many Leaders Struggle To Let Go
Many people don’t have a network of experts to turn to and try to bootstrap on their own. The habit becomes ingrained. Then when they really do know the right people, it’s hard to let go.
This is why it’s so important to listen and respond to the requests of others, even if they aren’t direct. When individuals fail to pay attention to spoken or unspoken pleas, people who otherwise have a natural inclination to delegate come to believe that there isn’t anyone to hand off anything to — and the only way to be extraordinary is to be hands-on.
Not all extraordinary things take an extraordinary amount of time. A McKinsey survey showed that during the pandemic companies executed digital transformations 20 to 25 times faster than workers expected. With the virus crisis serving as a change catalyst, many businesses are years, not months, ahead of where they thought they would be. They are in a significantly better position to compete in hybrid environments from anywhere within the global market.
There is a bias towards time and work. If a task takes time, people tend to think that it must be a difficult, extraordinary job. By contrast, despite an emphasis on speed for the sake of competitiveness, if the task is done fast, people often conclude that the task must not have much value, at least when it comes to setting individuals apart for the years, decades, and centuries to come.
But influence or extraordinariness does not come down to the time required to finish. It is a matter of how much potential resides in the result to change the thinking and behavior of the people in the world. It’s not Thomas Edison’s hundreds of patents people usually remember, just the light bulb.
How To Ignite the Delegation Process
Delegation can have its bumps, but a few tips can smooth the journey.
- Reflect and get feedback about strengths and weaknesses. It’s rare for people to have a 100% accurate concept of their personality, knowledge, or skills. A clear picture of what someone does well or fumbles at shows where they need to pull in helpers.
- Set and agree on clear expectations. People can get to the finish line in multiple ways, as Carnegie knew. But they need to know what the objectives and boundaries are to work well independently.
- Stay present. Delegation doesn’t mean disconnection. Continue to communicate with the people who are helping so they can ask questions, build a sense of shared vision, and have a source of encouragement and mentorship.
- Pay attention to load and relationship. The “best” person to delegate to isn’t always the one with the most accolades. It’s the one who has the bandwidth to apply appropriate skills while also getting along with the team.
- Support career goals. Delegation can be a powerful way help people advance to different positions. Think about people in terms of capability and potential, not just what they have completed up to today.
- Give the right resources. Tight budgets are often a business reality. But to keep stress low, give helpers what they actually need to do the job without cutting corners.
What Change Do You Want To Build?
Delegation can be a leader’s biggest challenge. It requires them to properly assess themselves, others, and what they want to do. It also means people have to abandon biases that contemporary business culture can exacerbate. But leaders across generations have pointed to delegation as a key ingredient in the recipe of their success. If leaders can keep trusting that they can tap other people who can help them achieve their goals, becoming extraordinary might not be such a battle after all.