Leadership skills: Delegating effectively

Hands passing green folder

Are you delegating effectively? Competent delegation is one of the key skills required to successfully lead and manage others. Core to this is knowing how to avoid the most common traps. Delegating well means neither abdicating your responsibility while disappearing completely nor finding an easy way to get rid of unattractive and mind-numbing tasks.

Workload management is critical for every legal professional. Still, if you are in a position of formal leadership, there is now an additional dimension added to it: you need to manage your time and energy in a way that leaves enough room for high-value work such as strategic planning, coaching your team towards increased performance, and developing new skills and capabilities for yourself and those in your care. All the while maintaining work which needs to be done to meet your businesses operational needs. How could you possibly achieve all this as one person, with only so many hours in each day?

The answer is: you don’t. Thinking that you have to do everything yourself, and that success will depend on staying in control of every task or aspect of the business is a mindset that will set you up for failure. It is flawed because it results in two likely outcomes:

  • it creates the need to put in excessive hours to meet seemingly impossible demands, which will expose you to high stress and can lead to burnout, and;
  • your team will stagnate in their own development, lose motivation and disengage from their work.

As leadership expert and author John Maxwell put it, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.” Delegating well and effectively is a learned skill and takes time to practice, but it is well worth your time to improve your capability in this space. It can be described as the crucial link between leading (for example, setting the direction for your team and providing an inspiring vision for your people) and managing (for example, organising, directing, and distributing work). Your potential in both fields is dependent on being able to delegate successfully.

Below are some tips on how you can strengthen your delegation skills and achieve better outcomes for you and your team:

  1. Identify what’s holding you back
    Many managers are hesitant to delegate or have received feedback to delegate more effectively and more often. But somehow this seems like a challenging thing to do. Why? We may uncover harsh truths about our behaviour when reflecting on the root of the cause of our inability to delegate. These deep-seated drivers may include the need to make oneself indispensable, a lack of trust in other people’s ability, motivation and commitment, feelings of guilt to passing on work to busy team members, or being convinced that it is more time-efficient to do it ourselves. Does any of this sound familiar? Uncover and challenge your own assumptions in this regard, either as an exercise of mindful introspection or with a trusted coach or mentor who may be able to expose entrenched attitudes that prevent you (and your team) from growing and moving forward.
  2. Invest time on the onset
    You reap what you sow. Spending time and effort in the sowing (or engagement) phase may yield impressive rewards later on, including a multiple of freed-up time for higher-value activities and more productive days. One of the biggest obstacles many managers point out when explaining why they do not delegate more is the time it takes to explain the task, teach the required skills and put necessary support structures in place for the employee to do well. But this limited perspective ignores the ongoing and compounding future rewards of having a team of competent, experienced and motivated staff who are able and willing to help you bring your vision to life, and who you can trust to provide outstanding service to your clients. It can help plan your initial delegation conversation in detail, to ensure it will be productive and motivating, provides a comprehensive overview of what needs to be done, and leads to desired outcomes. Using a checklist or other conversation planning tool1 will ensure that you cover all relevant aspects of the assignment.
  3. Build accountability in others
    One of your biggest responsibilities as a leader is to be your team’s coach and develop individuals according to their strengths, preferences and needs. Delegation can be an important learning and empowerment opportunity for your staff–but only if you also delegate responsibility, not just tasks. Growth-oriented delegation is the opposite of dumping unattractive, boring and mind-numbing tasks on others and focusing on a careful balance between responsibility and authority. Ensure you truly enable your team members to produce the desired results by providing them with the resources they need, including the power to make decisions as necessary (within clearly defined parameters and meeting supervision requirements2). Psychological ownership and commitment can only thrive where people feel trusted and supported to do the right thing. When done well, delegating is one of your key tools to engage and inspire others by making them feel valued and connected to the organisation’s broader goals and strategy.
  4. Re-define your role
    As a successful lawyer, you may have developed a professional identity that revolved around high achievement, taking the initiative and “just getting things done”. However, to become an effective and impactful leader, your tasks and priorities need to change in focus. Instead of keeping “a tight reign” and being actively involved in every detail of the work, your goal needs to shift towards becoming an enabler and facilitator. Avoid being a bottleneck for decision-making, or competing with your team! When delegating, assess the right level of support required by taking into account the level of skill, practical experience, confidence and preferred style of younger or less experienced solicitors in your team. This can be a fine balancing act: neither do you want to risk missing pivotal issues where feedback or a check-in would be critical to ensure the client receives the best service possible, nor do you want to de-motivate staff or reduce opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills or technical ability.
  5. Create a leader’s mindset
    Not only are self-oriented and “intense” approaches to work (for example, perfectionism, unrelenting control and fierce competition) likely to undermine your own health and wellbeing, but they will also prevent you from being an inspiring leader. To motivate, engage and encourage others to reach higher performance levels, you will need to let go of rigid expectations and encourage and accept creativity, innovation and different approaches. Remember that your role as a leader is to create a sense of ownership in others, and sometimes this means to step back a bit to give others the space they need to achieve greatness. 

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

1 Some delegation planning tools are freely accessible online, such as this one prepared by the NHS Leadership Academy: https://www.londonleadershipacademy.nhs.uk/sites/default/files/Delegating_a_task-LAL1.pdf
2 See QLS Guidance Statement No. 16 – Supervision: https://www.qls.com.au/Knowledge_centre/Ethics/Guidance_Statements/Guidance_Statement_No_16_%E2%80%93_Supervision

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