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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

One Size Does Not Fit All

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Last week I had the opportunity to spend a day helping new executives in a Fortune 50 company improve their delegation skills. As I’ve written here before, effective delegation is a critical skill for leaders who need to make the shift from being the go-to person to someone who creates teams of go-to people.


The goal of our day together was for everyone to walk out with a clear take on their delegation plan for the next 90 days on what they’re going to delegate, who they’re delegating to and how they’re going to delegate.

To flesh out the What part of the plan, we used the TRACK™ approach and some frameworks to tie their business goals directly to what they need to delegate. When we got to the Who and the How part, we worked through some distinctions that prove that, when it comes to delegation, one size does not fit all.

In kicking off the conversation, I shared a story about some feedback that I got as a junior executive early in my career. In a regular performance management discussion, my CEO told me that she thought I was a very effective leader for really talented and motivated people but not so effective with people who didn’t meet that description. Her point was that pretty much anyone can lead smart and motivated people. You share the goal with them, turn them loose and they come back with great stuff. That’s one form of delegation, but it’s not the only one and it’s probably the one that should be used the least. After all, not many managers are blessed with a team that is made up of super talented, super motivated people. You get a mix.

So to deal with the mix, we mapped out (with inspiration from the work of Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey) four primary styles of delegation, what they look like and when to use them. Here they are:

  • Handing Off: This is the style you use for the super talented and motivated. Talk about the goal, what’s in bound and out of bounds, and turn them loose. Touch some or all of the bases outlined in the TRACK approach and you’re usually good to go. This is the set-it-and-more-or-less-forget-it style of delegation. It should be used with extreme caution unless you’re completely confident that you’re delegating to one of the best and the brightest.
  • Coaching: This is the style to use with people who have the talent and skills but, for a range of possible reasons, have a disconnect on the motivation. It might be that they’re feeling stuck, frustrated, fearing failure, burned out, off course or any number of factors that keep them from connecting with the task at hand. In this case, your job is to coach them in a way that helps them make the connection.
  • Telling: This is the way to go for people who are raring to go but don’t have much experience with what you’re asking them to do. It’s a more directive style of delegation that requires frequent check-ins and more explicit instructions. The use of this style with people who “get it” is called micromanagement.
  • Selling: This is the style for people who aren’t connected with the goal and don’t really know how to contribute. It requires the leader to sell why the task matters and teach how to accomplish the task. For obvious reasons, it’s time and energy intensive. It’s should be applied sparingly and thoughtfully. If, as a leader, you find yourself spending all of your time here, it’s an indicator of bigger problems with your team.

Which of the four delegation styles work best for you? What delegation advice do you have to share? What are your biggest challenges with delegation?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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