To delegate effectively, and free up time for yourself as a leader, you need to do more than just hand out tasks. It’s about setting up a feedback and learning cycle so that you elevate everybody’s level of work. Here’s how to do it using a coaching style of leadership.

PERHAPS THE greatest wish of most corporate leaders today is to alleviate the time pressure they’re experiencing. They know that they could achieve this if they could only delegate effectively. Yet, despite having been on so many leadership programs, they don’t seem to be able to. They feel constrained. Not only by the resources available relative to the amount of work, but also by the standard of those resources. I can’t trust them to do it to the standard required. That’s the most common reason I hear. It’s just quicker if I do it.

The nett effect is that those leaders are probably doing what the people in their team should be doing if they were delegated to effectively. It’s like the pilot is serving drinks down the aisle instead of flying the plane. As a result, they’re beset by busyness. They’re so busy, in fact, that they don’t have time to delegate—or, to be precise, to deal with everything that comes with delegation. They probably don’t even have time to read this article! (Clue: share it with them if you know someone!) As with most disempowering behaviours, it’s a self-reinforcing spiral with no apparent exit.

A good news case study

Here’s a good news case study. One client of mine—a senior manager in the banking sector—recently completed a coaching program. When I asked what evidence we were going to record to show that he’d accomplished his performance goal, he opened his diary on his phone and showed it to me. I’d seen it before, at the start of the program. Typical of people in that organization—and most organizations today—it had been 100% full, with back-to-back meetings. Now, he had 30% of the time marked out for his own activities, time in which he could think, plan and do stuff that was important, not urgent. He had even started getting home at a reasonable hour and was finding the time to exercise again.

What was the key thing he’d learned that enabled that shift? In a word, you could say he’d learned to delegate effectively. But we all know it’s easier said than done. For delegation opens up a can of worms. There’s the possibility of risk. Things might not be done to your standard. It can take time, too. You have to explain what you want and make sure they understand and get it right, by which time you could just as easily have done it yourself. Then you have to check the work that’s been done and give feedback. Ah, let me just do it myself!

To delegate effectively is not only about handing out tasks

Here’s the crux of the matter, and what my client got right. He recognised that to delegate effectively, it’s not only about handing out tasks. It’s about setting up a feedback and learning cycle so that, by doing it, you improve team performance in such a way that each time it gets easier. Yes, the goal is to elevate everybody’s level of thinking and decision-making, and therefore performance, in such a way that the need for delegation becomes minimised, if not redundant.

Essentially, you want to spend less time giving the instruction, and more time giving the feedback, and doing it in a way that creates a learning cycle.

When you set up a learning cycle, people get to know what’s expected of them, both in terms of tasks and in terms of standards. They develop the skills, the know-how and the confidence to do stuff even before they’ve been asked, or tasked. They learn to get on with the job and simply check in with you when they need to. This outcome arises naturally when you delegate using a coaching style of leadership.

It’s probably true that doing it this way takes even more time in the beginning. And, yes, setting people free to try things is risky. Yet, there are benefits on the other side. Like freeing up 30% of your diary time when people have learned to think for themselves, answer their own questions, make decisions, and get things done without you.

The 7 key factors to delegate effectively – the coaching way

Here are 7 key factors to consider if you’re going to delegate effectively using a coaching style of leadership:

1 Develop a coaching mindset

If you’ve experienced or are familiar with coaching, you’ll know that it’s not about giving answers or advice, or telling people what to do. It’s about asking questions so that they have to think for themselves and come up with their own solutions. When they do that, they’re more likely to own the idea and commit to it. They’ll also learn to ask themselves those same questions when they’re outside of the coaching context, and thereby become self-sufficient.

There are other important elements to a coaching conversation, each with its particular reason for being, and benefit. You can find out more about coaching conversations at this link.

So, yes, ironically, delegating means NOT providing the answers; it means NOT telling people what to do. It means agreeing what outcomes are needed, and by when, and then—in the beginning at least—asking them what they think they should do, or what ideas they have on how to do it, then waiting for the answers. Indeed, this takes time. However, you can look forward to the time when you’ll no longer have to ask; they’ll be asking and answering for themselves.

2 Communicate clear standards

Over and above any agreements you make for each particular outcome or task, you’ll want to have some general standards and, more importantly, you’ll want to communicate these very clearly and explicitly. These can be formal measures provided, for example, by an ISO standard or measure. (Very often, they’re in place, but not adhered to or enforced.) They may be internal company standards, or you might set your own standards that are known and agreed upon within your team. These may be specific and measurable, or they may be more general, like “Make sure you understand the context of the client when coming up with a design”, or “Make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors in a presentation”, or “Make sure there are no errors or omissions in a legal document”.

Sometimes you might even decide that your people are professionals; they should know the standard and, if they don’t, they must figure it out. In this case, instead of marking up their work and giving them detailed feedback, you might just send the design or the report back, with no comments. You just say, “This is not good enough, go and find out why and bring it up to standard.” There’s a time and a place for this. It’s not about bullying them, but rather to be used with empathy and discernment as a means of getting them to think for themselves.

3 Ensure the commitment to achieve those standards

One of the reasons why coaching works, and works so powerfully, is that you always check for agreement and commitment. If that’s absent, you’ll get nowhere, so you never move forward without it. By corollary, if your coachee isn’t performing, that’s the first thing you as a coach would check. If you’re going to develop a coaching mindset as a leader, then it won’t be enough to just communicate your standards. You’ll also need to get agreement and commitment to those standards. Often this is overlooked, and so it’s provided here as a standalone factor—one you might need to keep revisiting.

If your standards are way out there relative to those of your staff, then this will be your elephant in the room that you need to deal with. In many instances it can be a generational or a cultural difference that you’re dealing with. Some negotiation may be needed, and you may find that you have to compromise more than you’d like to. Then, you may find that you have to move people forward step by little step—a lot slower than you’d like to. If you find that intolerable, move to the next point to see how you can deal with it. Or move to Switzerland!

4 Decide what really matters

Most people struggle with this. A perfectionist typically only has one setting: perfect. And you don’t stop until the output is perfect. Or a control freak typically only has one setting: total control. My way or the highway. In both instances, anything less would seem like it’s the end of the world. We literally do think of it that way—that it’s the end of the world. To bring people down from their mania, we even say that: “It’s not the end of the world.” Therefore, you can ask yourself that same literal question: Would it be the end of the world if this is not done exactly my way, or to my standard?

Here’s the rub. Most leaders in today’s corporate world will find a reason to say, “Yes, it would be the end of the world.” Perhaps you’re dealing with other African regulatory environments, and a slip-up could mean consequences like the ones MTN faced in Nigeria. I’ve heard that before. Or perhaps you’re in the mining industry, and a slip-up would cost actual lives. I’ve heard that too.

It’s not the end of the world

My response in both instances was, “Really? Is it the absolute truth that every single matter you handle could bring down the company, could cost lives? Every single one?” In both instances the response was, “Well, no, not every single one. I suppose there are some that are not end-of-the-world or life-or-death issues. There are some I could let go.” Exactly.

You have to do a cost-benefit analysis. You have to assess the probability of something happening. Then you have to make a call. You have to be more entrepreneurial, go with your gut, take a chance. Or you can carry on driving yourself crazy and doing it all yourself. Naturally, there will be some things that are mission critical, that are going to get your attention, no matter what. However, that should be closer to the 20% mark than the 80% mark.

5 Use feedback to create a learning cycle

Feedback is critical to getting delegation right. To delegate effectively, you want to spend less time giving the instruction, and more time giving the feedback, and doing it in a way that creates a learning cycle. It goes like this. Once you’ve done the cost-benefit analysis, for those items that are not mission-critical, don’t over-explain your requirements or the how-to. Express the outcome you require, point to the standards that you’re all committed to uphold, and send them on their way. Then wait—perhaps with bated breath!—for the outcome and evaluate what’s been done.

By giving positive feedback, you’ll enthuse your people to strive for more by getting even better at what they do.

Once you’ve evaluated the outcome, give feedback in a way that reinforces what’s good and point out what could be done more efficiently. Studies have shown that a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative feedback is optimal for improving performance. So don’t treat it as, “They’ve just done their job.” Tell them. You’ll enthuse them to strive for more positive feedback by getting even better at what they do. And remember, just because it wasn’t done the way you would have done it, doesn’t mean it needs to be done differently. To delegate effectively means to focus on the outcome and not the path people took to get there. Most often, you’ll want to focus on efficiency more than style.

Make the feedback count

If you want to make the feedback stick, you can ask them, as you would at the end of a coaching session, to sum up what they’ve learned. You can also create a forum for them to share their learning with others in the team who might need to know. There might even be a need to feed the learning back into the system more formally, for example by changing procedures or updating learning materials. Taking the time to do this will add to your time savings later on. In entrepreneur-speak this would be termed, “Working on the business, not in the business.”

6 Delegate the responsibility, not just the activity

One thing a coach knows is that you can’t carry more commitment or responsibility for achieving the goal than your client does. Similarly, one thing you probably know about being a leader is that when there’s shared responsibility, there’s always a back door. Each person will be inclined to relax their attention because they have this idea in the back of their mind that the other person will—or should—do it. At worst, you have someone else to blame if things go wrong. It’s a disastrous approach.

If you’re going to delegate effectively, then make the person feel the responsibility by handing it to them completely. In that way, it’s their brain that will mull the problem while they’re asleep at night, not yours. It’s their attention that will spot what’s missing and make sure that thing gets put in place, or handled. To anyone who’s ever parented, it’s like dropping your kid off for their first day of school. You can’t go in with them. You’ve got to leave them at the gate. Yes, it’s like that.

7 Expose your people to your level and your thinking

This was one thing that my client did most effectively. He took his people, one at a time, to sit in on his exco and other meetings, so that they could get a view of the bigger picture—of the client they were servicing. After each meeting he’d answer their questions in a way that put things into context for them.

Then he’d ask them, coaching style, for their view on the decisions that needed to be made. Once he had their responses, he’d share his thinking on those matters. Naturally, they learned to think for themselves and make better, more informed decisions within their own context. They began operating at a higher level.


As you can see, this approach takes time. Yet, by doing it, you’re starting to put your attention where it should be, for you as a leader. To borrow once again from entrepreneur-speak, you have to get through the dip. The dip, for entrepreneurs, is that barrier to entry for any business. It might be a legislative obstacle, or a logistical one. Either way, it’s the thing that stops most people from going there, from trying it out. The real entrepreneur will know that beyond that barrier lies the reward, if only he or she is brave enough, or determined enough, to get past it.

It’s the same if you want to delegate effectively. There’s a barrier you need to cross. It’s going to take time, effort, courage and determination. The question is, how badly do you want the rewards that lie on the other side of the effort and the risk?


book personal effectiveness executives neil bierbaum

For more information and/or coaching on how to delegate effectively, try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.


book personal effectiveness executives neil bierbaum

For more information and/or coaching on how to delegate effectively, try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.