7 Keys to Effective Delegation
(Hint: It doesn’t end once the work is assigned!)
Being a great leader requires the development and nurturing of many key character traits—self-awareness, open-mindedness, and genuine connection, to name a few. But alongside those more abstract characteristics, there are certain practical skills that effective leaders must also cultivate in order to manage their teams successfully.
In fact, in my years of working with attorneys, I’ve found that sharpening a few core practical skills can serve as both a source of immediate improvement and provide the foundation for developing the deeper character traits that support truly visionary leadership.
The act of delegating work may be the most essential—and easily overlooked—practical skill that attorneys at all levels of seniority must perfect in order to improve their leadership . If you’re delegating effectively—in a mindful and ongoing way—you’re also communicating effectively, something that’s fundamentally important to strong leadership. Being intentional about the way in which you assign work sets your delegates up for success and creates a strong, collaborative working relationship. Indeed, it’s also a powerful way to mentor others and develop talent.
If you’re delegating thoroughly and mindfully, you’re automatically acting as a good communicator and mentor as well. Whether you’re a senior associate leading a team of more junior attorneys or a partner overseeing an entire practice group, you can improve your delegation skills by focusing on the following seven crucial elements.
The more you know, the more you forget how much you know. That can create problems from the start when you’re delegating work. Don’t assume that the people to whom you’re delegating an assignment know the context of a given project, the history of a client, the client’s business goals, and other key factors that you’ve absorbed over months—and perhaps years—of work with a client. When delegating work, describe not just what the person should do, but the context in which the task arises. If at the time work is assigned, sharing such background information isn’t feasible, commit to following up and sharing that information when time permits. In following this approach, you will remain mindful of your audience, and will enable the delegate to appreciate the reasons they are performing the work assigned—something which enables them to find meaning in the work they’re doing.
2. Clarity (define the task, including the deadline)
In tandem with the knowledge-sharing discussed above, describe the specific work being assigned and the deadline by which the work should be completed. Provide an initial roadmap of how the attorney might begin to approach the assignment, including any resources they should be sure to consult. Then ask the person to reflect back to you their understanding of what they need to do and why it matters.
When you delegate tasks, don’t cut and run. Commit to being supportive and communicative. Recognize that you have more experience and knowledge of the matter at hand—and make sure the people to whom you delegate work can approach you to take advantage of that expertise. Ask yourself, “What’s my demeanor when someone asks for help?” If you find that you’re impatient, brusque, or withholding, it’s unlikely that people will feel comfortable approaching you. That’s not only unpleasant for them—it hampers their ability to effectively deliver the work you need them to do and to serve your clients. Draw on your powers of empathy to remember what it was like to be in their position. Encourage them to “do their homework” and to not run to you with every question, pushing them outside their comfort zones. At the same time, let them know that, when they truly need your guidance to make further progress, you’re open to questions. Be generous with advice and resources, and cultivate an air of approachability.
In being supportive and communicative, approachability goes hand-in-hand with responsiveness. Being responsive is about making sure people have what they need to keep moving forward on their work. When people come to you with questions, respond to them promptly, when feasible, or direct them to other people or resources in periods when you’re genuinely not available. Responsiveness doesn’t have to mean hand-holding; it’s important that subordinates learn to do their homework and get as far as they can on their own. But when they’ve truly hit a roadblock, they need your response to get past it and complete the work you need. Again, empathy is key. When you can shift your perspective and remember what it was like when you were in their shoes, it’s easier to communicate (explicitly, as well as implicitly through your demeanor) that they can come to you with questions when needed, and expect supportive input from you in a timely manner.
5. Active listening
Effective delegation requires not only speaking, but actively listening—to other people’s questions, needs, ideas, and reflections. Employ active listening skills—reflecting back what you hear, asking for more detail, affirming understanding—to create a genuine dialogue. And remember that listening is ongoing: the people to whom you delegate work will naturally have questions at the outset, but they’ll discover more needs for clarity and input as time passes. If you’ve cultivated a reputation for approachability and demonstrated your responsiveness, you will have naturally set the stage for an ongoing collaboration in which you’re an attentive and engaged listener.
6. Sharing feedback
To cement the benefits of the time you’ve invested in thoughtfully delegating work, provide feedback at the close of a project to your delegate regarding what went well and what could be improved. In doing so, you’ll foster the development of your attorneys and help them realize an even better work product the next time around.
7. Relationship-building to promote retention and engagement
When a working relationship goes south, the cause can often be traced to poor delegation, either when work is assigned or as the work unfolds. When delegation goes poorly, it can set the tone for how an associate feels about all your future interactions, and even negatively color that associate’s view of their office, practice area and firm—and their overall sense of their chances for professional development.
Good delegation, on the other hand, lays a foundation for productive relationships and well-coordinated teams. When you delegate, look at it as an opportunity to build relationships and proactively mentor. Attorneys stay with a firm when they know the people they work for are invested in their success and have their backs. Make sure the people working under you receive the kind of support that communicates your investment in their careers—and you’ll find yourself leading a team of effective attorneys who not only do great work for you, but are well on their way to becoming the kind of good leaders (and mentors) who raise the standards of success for your entire firm.