Letting go: how and when to delegate

NatWest Business Builder: Customer Segments
© Getty Images
© Getty Images

One of the hardest lessons for many entrepreneurs is when to share authority, but for many, it’s only by letting go that a business can grow.

It should have been a dream come true. Just 10 days before Christmas, star YouTuber Zoella made mention in her vlog about the personalised diary she’d bought from Gabi Cox’s small stationary brand.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Cox, who founded Chroma Stationary in 2014. “Zoella had 11m subscribers, and my orders went from 300 per month to hundreds per day.”

Cox found herself working 17-hour days for three weeks straight to get the orders out in time. And while spikes like these are largely unforeseeable, the surge in sales highlighted a major problem: Chroma Stationary was outgrowing Cox, and she had to delegate tasks in order to help the business thrive.

Trying to be both conductor and orchestra is a common trap many business owners fall into.

“Entrepreneurs are visionaries with an extraordinary work ethic, powered by an inner drive that only they have,” says business coach Matthew Davies, who works with leaders from companies such as mobile provider Vodafone and commercial print company MOO.com, through his business Inspiring Managers.

Working in the business, not on the business

Successful leaders are those who can move away from line management and execution to focus primarily on strategy, says Davies.

Cox now employs five freelancers to handle much of the graphic design work, leaving her time to focus on strategy and marketing, while still being responsible for the physical production.

“I was spending all my time in the business and not on the business before,” says Cox. “The hardest thing was trusting the freelancers to do it, but I did, and now my sales are up by 67%.”

Building trust

For entrepreneurs looking to scale, trust is essential – and they must be careful to delegate the tasks they enjoy or consider important, as well as the jobs they don’t like doing.

“To delegate effectively, you have to give employees a greater level of freedom. Do this and you’ll find the tasks are getting done and you have more time to think about the strategic issues”
Adrian Hobbs, founder, Workvine

“It’s about building trust so people are willing to make changes and create a different future, otherwise they’re doing the same thing over and over again,” says business strategist Rose Cartolari. “The goal should be to get everyone to a new place where they can make their own decisions with a common purpose.”

“To delegate effectively,” says Adrian Hobbs, founder and CEO at employee-engagement firm Workvine, “you have to give employees a greater level of freedom and instil that ‘get up and go’ drive in teams. Do this and you’ll find the tasks are getting done and you have more time to think about the strategic issues.”

Six steps to mastering delegation

  1. Determine why you’re not delegating There are two key reasons why a business leader won’t let go, says Jenny Knighting, founder at marketing firm Nutcracker Agency. Either the leader is insecure about their role and worried that delegating responsibility will be a threat to their prestige, or the person is fearful that by letting go mistakes will be made. “The first step towards learning to delegate is to work out which one it is,” says Knighting.
  2. Analyse how you spend your time Your commercial value as an individual is likely to be at odds with the pricing and payment structure set up in your workplace, says Lara Morgan, founder at global manufacturer Pacific Direct. “In order to maximise value, you should only be performing tasks that align with your hourly rate/profit. Your role should be 40% delegation and 60% growing the business.”
  3. Understand that delegation isn’t abdication Once you’ve analysed how you’re spending your time – it may help initially to keep a diary to determine this – and what you should be delegating, it’s not a question of simply handing over the tasks. Susy Roberts, founder at business consultancy Hunter Roberts, says: “If you’re going to delegate to somebody, you need to set that person up for success by being really clear about what you’re looking for and what you think a successful result will be.”
  4. Coach the person you’re delegating to Being as clear as possible from the outset should prevent any need to manage too closely. “If you’re delegating for the first time – whether it’s the first time you’ve delegated a particular task, or the first time you’ve delegated that task to a particular person – it’s important you coach them,” says Roberts. “Be very clear about whether you simply want the person to get from A to B regardless of the route they take, or whether there’s a specific path to follow. Help them think about how they’ll approach the task and how they’ll achieve the end results.”
  5. … And then stand back Many business owners are still guilty of micromanaging – often without realising it. Key to effective delegation is learning to take a step back once you’ve delegated the task and responsibility. “Remember that their journey and outcome will be different to your own,” says Morgan. “Nobody is perfect and your juniors may even produce better results. Understand everybody’s strengths.”
  6. Measure the results You can determine how well you’re delegating by examining the quality of your time; the extent to which your employees are developing; and by asking customers, peers and colleagues for feedback. Do a good job, and you’ll eventually “empower people to have the autonomy to complete tasks proactively”, says Morgan – who sold her first business for £20m. “This is the real difference between good and bad delegation.”

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