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How to delegate when you can’t rely on a team

A common obstacle I see keeping women stuck in their career is delegation. Either they don’t do it at all, or when they try it’s executed poorly so they give up and revert back to trying to do everything themselves. 

We know that a key task of leadership is setting the strategic vision and focusing on the work that matters… and yet this cannot happen if you’re stuck in the weeds of day-to-day busywork. This is why delegation is so important – you have to get things off your plate so you have the space to focus on that bigger picture work. 

When I ask women in my community what is holding them back from delegating, they tell me they either don’t have a team to delegate to, or that they’re not comfortable delegating to their team. Let’s look more closely at each roadblock.

I don’t have a team to delegate to

Just like you don’t need to have a team to demonstrate impactful leadership… you don’t need to be leading your own team to be able to share the load. Instead, how can you leverage the strengths and capacity of those around you? This might be your peers, or a project team you are part of, or other people within the organisation.

When you’re able to let go of what you do, you create growth opportunities for others by allowing them to tap into their strengths and interests and develop new skills. I’m confident there will be people in your organisation who would relish such an opportunity so don’t be afraid to cast a wider net to find them. 

You can also practise delegation outside of the workplace if that’s what will free up your capacity for creative thinking and impactful leadership. This might look like engaging a cleaner, outsourcing some meal preparation, or enlisting family members to help with getting the kids to their after-school activities. 

I’m not comfortable delegating to my team

For the women who do have a team, reluctance to delegate often looks like:

  • They’re really busy too, it doesn’t feel right to ask them to do another thing; or
  • I don’t trust them to do the task well and/or it’s quicker to do it myself.

When you share the load with others, you’re creating the opportunity for them to grow and develop in their own careers – so give them the chance to show you what they’re capable of! When we visited this topic in The Leadership Connection, my membership community for high-calibre, mid-career women, one of our members captured this perfectly: “(Holding tasks back because they might be busy) doesn’t allow for their development, it doesn’t help them grow in confidence and ability… and it just buries me!”

Now, let’s talk about trusting your team (or colleague, or cleaner) to take on new tasks. Trust is fundamental to delegation… but it’s also something that is nurtured over time once you start sharing the load. And it relies on you! If your efforts in delegation so far haven’t been very successful – I’m sorry to say – the problem starts with you. It is up to you to create the conditions for success here.

How to delegate effectively

1.  Prepare for short term pain.

Even with the best team, the journey to effective delegation will be slow, and at times frustrating. Right now, it probably is quicker for you to do things yourself! But over time you will empower your team and build their confidence to take more and more off your plate. This is a long game strategy that will pay off in spades over the coming months and years.

2. Leverage and develop existing strengths.

Take the time to understand people’s strengths, and consider how you can tap into them to deliver the outcome needed. When you assign responsibilities that play to their individual talents and interests, you’ll also be fostering a sense of ownership, motivation and accountability.


3. Clarity creates momentum

Ensure you are clear on the desired outcome, so you can communicate this to your team. One mistake leaders make is that they get too caught up in the ‘how’ and end up micromanaging the process. If you’re a detail-oriented person who is at risk of this too, shift your focus to the detail of the outcome you want to create. Create clear accountability, and provide ample space for your team to confirm they understand what’s expected from them.

4. Delegate, don’t abdicate.

Just shifting things off your plate is not effective delegation! Instead, create a collaborative atmosphere with your team and include space for regular check-ins. Again, make sure they understand what to do and what’s expected from them, and stay available for questions and support until they’re able to manage it on their own.

5. Let them fail (a little)

One of the best ways to build capacity and foster trust with your team is to give them space to muck things up, and be gracious when you help them get back on track. It sounds counterintuitive, but I’m sure you’ll recognise from your own experience – sometimes our biggest lessons come when we make mistakes. This doesn’t look like walking away and letting them crash and burn (that will destroy any trust you’ve developed and shatter their confidence). But creating safety for them to have a little wobble can speed up the learning process significantly.

When we refuse to delegate, we stunt our professional growth and put ourselves on a sure path to burnout. Plus, by holding on to all the busywork ourselves, we limit our capacity to take on new challenges and expand our sphere of influence. It’s time to break free from this self-imposed barrier and embrace delegation as a catalyst for success.

As leaders, our time is precious, and by delegating effectively, we can focus on strategic initiatives that drive our organisations forward. Moreover, delegation fosters professional growth within our teams, empowering individuals to take ownership and develop new skills. Simply put, effective delegation is the cornerstone of impactful leadership.

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