How to stop doing your team’s work for them (and become a better leader as a result)

Let go of your desire to be liked and learn to let go but make sure you also build robust decision-making processes

Much of our work as leadership coaches involves helping people adjust to the greater responsibility and scope of senior leadership roles. We often cite the well-known adage coined by Marshall Goldsmith: “what got you here won’t get you there”. One central and recurring issue on this theme is learning to delegate tasks that you could do but that are no longer your job to do. This is, of course, easier said than done.

In the process of contemplating the common problem of how to stop doing your team’s work for them, I came across Martin Moore’s excellent article published by the HBR in November 2021. Rather than reiterating many of his points, I invite you to read Moore’s article and then consider the two following additions which, from my experience, are also important themes to focus on.

Time to let it go

The first is that an unwillingness to delegate is not just about protecting others (as emphasised in the article), it’s also about letting go; letting go of the areas of strength which have served you so well in your career (and probably also through early adulthood and higher education) and, as a result of your success, have effectively become sources of security for you.

Early in our careers we are paid and rewarded for this functional and / or analytical expertise, and our ability to execute / get things done.  As we move to more senior roles, however, we are paid to lead, set vision, build teams, build structures and processes;  to orchestrate and inspire; a very different skillset.

It’s understandable that we might want to stay safe in this comfort zone (and source of our success) of “doing” rather than stepping into an arena which has less immediate validation and may involve:

  • Finding yourself having less tasks to accomplish
  • Doing things for which you lack experience or certain skills
  • Accepting that the quality of work coming through from others is not as good as you could do yourself
  • Interacting with more senior people who you respect greatly and whose judgement you perhaps fear
  • Needing to influence other functions; a process in which results come more slowly and / or involve compromise 

So, given all this it’s not surprising that we often revert to doing what we’re familiar with rather than accepting the invitation to learn the new skills and modus operandi of leadership.

Putting in processes to make good decisions
Secondly, Martin Moore talks about three steps you can take to set yourself, and your team, up for success:

  1. Don’t play the game, keep the score
  2. Ask the right questions
  3. Think about your future

To these, I would add a fourth point: ensure that processes are in place to make good decisions. Delegating to and then “man-marking” an individual can work for certain narrow activities but it has its limitations. Decisions almost always involve a transversal component (for example sharing information and analysis and gaining buy in from other parts of the organisation) and are best made in forums where both subject matter experts (no matter how senior) and decision makers are present.

In the big global organisation that I used to work for, the China team were masters of this approach; running the subsidiary through a series of boards and committees in which attendees were chosen not by their seniority but for their subject matter expertise. Obviously, the relevant decision-makers were in the room but great emphasis was placed on learning and having the relevant information to make decisions. The committees also served a powerful containing purpose in that everyone knew when the board or committee was scheduled so could prepare accordingly.  We shamelessly copied this approach in the region I was running and I have seen it have a transformational effect in other companies and cultures.

With this kind of approach there is a better chance that decisions will be made once, rather than several times over; avoiding the tyranny of the slow “no” in which considerable time and energy is put into something only for the “powers that be” to reject it.

Leading more effectively

As your responsibilities grow the workload will pile up unless you learn to delegate effectively.  Getting over the need to be liked and learning to let go are the first step.  However, to thrive and get control of your time you need to set up the right decision-making processes that effectively engage other parts of the organisation

Written By Ivan Schofield

Mr. Ivan Schofield is a Managing Partner for Coaching at Metin Mitchell & Company and founder of leadership development firm &become.