The Secrets to Effective and Successful Delegation

“You can do anything, but not everything”

David Allen (Author of ‘Getting Things Done’)

What we have come to learn from our in-depth research with entrepreneurs and business owner-managers is the crucial role that delegation plays in achieving growth. It is one of the ten characteristics that we have identified are central to personal and organisational success, and we will be exploring each of these characteristics live on the radio through our partnership with the Business Bunker.

In this month’s show we were joined by Professor Mark Gilman, a Professor in ‘SME Growth and Development’. I’ve known Mark for many years, he is a good friend and my business partner for B I G Associates Ltd. He recently moved ‘up North’ to take his new post at Birmingham City University and expand the work. As he says, “It was my dream job written on two sides of paper, I had to go for it!” Mark’s mantra is that people are the source of your competitive advantage: “At the heart of performance is putting people before profit; understanding why people do what they do, and how we best work with each other to achieve truly great things”.

My shadow hangs over the business

Over the years our research team has spoken with hundreds of business owners, and their employees, and the topic of delegation is a reoccurring one.  Many business owners talk about being challenged by ‘stepping back’ and ‘letting go’ of the operational ‘reins’. What this takes is a reconceptualisation of, and transition in your role as a leader, what Churchill [1] defines as a move from a ‘doer’ to a ‘leader’.  This leadership transition is not often an easy one, and if you do it well it supports productivity and innovation and will allow you, the busy business owner-manager, to step into a more strategic space. An analogy that one business owner that we know uses is that this transition allows for the all-important ‘helicopter’ time; to rise above the operational day-to-day and survey the business strategically, enabling you to truly appreciate what needs to be achieved, in the short and longer term. Because of this, delegation is seen to be a central element of successful strategic leadership and management [2].

The way we like to influence and demonstrate competence

At the heart of delegation are the dynamics of power and control, which in a work situation can be experienced through the way you or I want to influence at work [3]. Some people want lots of influence, like taking responsibility, and can often take on too much. Some make reference to these individuals as displaying ‘hero’ tendencies [4]. Others want less, to the point at which they may seem apathetic and disinterested.

Another aspect related to influence is competence. We all demonstrate competence in different ways. Some through being seen as hard working (perhaps by the number of hours we put in), through the amount of certificates we can amass, through the relationships we have with others, a combination of these, or through other means.

But, why does this all matter?

The way we view and approach the related aspects of influence and competence will heavily guide the way we delegate, and the way we work with others. If we, as business owner-managers, have high needs for influence and demonstrating competence we will tend to take control in the workplace and may find it hard to relinquish this control. Some refer to these types of business owner-managers as ‘meddlers’ [3]. This will ultimately mean that you become a ‘prisoner’ in your own organisation. You will delegate whilst still keeping one hand on particular activities and tasks, which will result in damaging employees’ self-esteem, hampering their initiative, and reinforcing the belief that they should come to you to ‘check in’.

“If you delegate tasks, you create followers, if you delegate authority, you create leaders”

Craig Groeschel

Some use the analogy of a task/role equating to ‘monkeys’. We all have monkeys on our back, and the aim of the busy business owner-manager is to support employees and help them nurture and love their own monkeys, rather than taking their monkeys from them, and adding it to all the other monkeys on your own back!

The nuances of accountability and responsibility

The serious point here is being clear on the way we view accountability and responsibility. Having accountability or being held accountable is when you are “required or expected to justify actions or decisions”. Being responsible, or taking responsibility, is “having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role” [5]. In the previous example, you as a business owner-manager must give over responsibility to others to perform their tasks/roles, and should make them accountable for them in whatever way you deem suitable. However, it must be remembered, that you take the ultimate accountability and responsibility for the business.

We all make mistakes, or do we?

An important point raised by Paul Andrews on this show was the fact that business owner-managers typically learn experientially – by ‘doing’ things. Many of the things we do may work well, even great! However, many other ways may work less well, and even fail. What is important when considering delegation is how much we are each prepared for others in our businesses to experiment, practice and even make mistakes like we do? We all grow from experiencing and understanding those things we do well, and we also learn from those that do not go quite as planned. What this effectively means is allowing your employees to ‘practice’ with your business.

One business owner-manager we worked with likened his business to a ‘train set’. Early on in the life of the business, he would go (secretly and mentally!) into the attic space to play with it. A key transition occurred when he moved the ‘train set’ into another room that others could access. He allowed employees to play, change and improve it; a co-creative approach that had dramatic and impressive effects.

What and how should we delegate? Start with what the business really needs

We explored an approach that you can take to analyse what you should delegate, and a process for how you can approach delegation through a blog on successful delegation that emerged from a B I G Network session. We are therefore not going to rehearse these points here. What is important to challenge ourselves with when we first consider delegation is what the business really needs? Every business has a way of doing things that has developed through the way we have chosen to serve our customers and work with our suppliers. Much of our business approach/model has also been determined by us, the business owner-manager.

However, how we ran things in the early days can become outdated and clunky. We need to continue to reinvent the way we work. So it’s important, when considering delegation to start with thinking about how the business adds and delivers value, and identifying the tasks that are critical to success. If you can run this type of activity with employees, even better! Ask them to detail what they believe customers and suppliers really value about the business, what works well, what could be improved. Once you know this, it becomes clearer on the role you and others should play in delivering a really successful business.

Click here for further information on the collaboration between the Kent Business School and the Business Bunker Radio Show. Should you have any questions in regard to this piece of the wider work please do not hesitate to get in touch with Dr Simon Raby or Paul Andrews


[1] Churchill, N. C. 1997. Six key phases of company growth. Mastering the Enterprise. Financial Times.

[2] Gallo, A. 2012. Why Aren’t You Delegating? Harvard Business Review

[3] Will Schutz developed a three factor model to help make sense of ourselves and our relationships with others. The way we each approach the element of ‘control’ (also known as ‘influence’) along with elements of ‘inclusion/involvement’ and ‘affection/connection’, influences the way we lead, manage and deliver our work. For further information see Schutz, W. 1994. The Human Element: Productivity Self-Esteem and the Bottom Line by Jossey Bass for further details.

[4] Moules, J. 2013. Leadership: Art of Delegation Provides Key to Success, Financial Times

[5] Oxford Online dictionary

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