The SME Toolkit: How to Delegate

The SME Toolkit: How to Delegate

It can be hard for a founder to let go, but the leader who can’t delegate runs the risk of burning out and alienating his team. Here are some tips for learning to delegate. The SME Toolkit: How to Delegate:

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Take a look at any large business and mentally press the ‘rewind’ button. As history reverses and the company steadily shrinks, you eventually arrive at the day when an ambitious entrepreneur with a vision set out to conquer the world.

What’s pretty much guaranteed is that their day-to-day duties when the business was in its infancy will have very little in common with those of anyone running a large firm. Somewhere down the line, the ambitious entrepreneur has to ‘let go’. And the only way to do that is to delegate.

“Many new business owners often think that it’s just easier to do everything themselves,” says Dominic Irvine, founder of learning and development consultancy Epiphanies. “But what that means as the company grows is that you have to either work harder, or burn out.”

For a growing business, it’s not a question of whether or not delegation is possible, he says, it’s simply a question of how to do it.

Not best use of the boss's time?

In fact, it can appear almost farcical when senior managers fail to grasp that delegating ‘menial’ tasks is important. Rajiv Nathwani, founder of bridging finance and property development company Quivira, mentions the example of a man he knows who runs a large company and still orders the stationery every week “so that no one ends up spending 6p more than they need to on envelopes”. Few would agree that this is the best use of the boss’s time.

“As a manager, you need to ask how you can add value to your business,” says Irvine. “Once you have an answer to that, everything that detracts from those activities will slow your business growth. It’s really just a question of working out how you get other people to pick up the slack.”

Hopefully that’s all the proof you need as to why delegation is important – but how do you begin?

“Delegation is easier when you have the right staff,” says Nathwani. “If you’ve got staff you can trust, you can pass things over to them and leave them to it. If you’ve hired the wrong people, you end up delegating and watching every move they make.”

“If you’ve got staff you can trust, you can pass things over to them and leave them to it. If you’ve hired the wrong people, you end up watching every move they make”

Rajiv Nathwani, founder, Quivira

Irvine agrees that your hiring choices are critical, though the good news, as he so rightly points out, is that most people come to work to do a good job. When managed correctly, many employees handle delegation perfectly well.

Begin by involving them in the process. “The research is very clear,” says Irvine. “By involving the person in developing the solution, it will help drive motivation.” Next, give them a clear framework in which to operate. Irvine says that giving people ‘free rein’ is unlikely to yield the best results because people “need a framework of what’s acceptable and what’s not”. Factors such as budget, time, what’s negotiable and so on.

Knowing this may be a comfort to any control freaks among us – although if your boundaries are too narrow and requests for updates too frequent, then staff will simply think you doubt their abilities. “Work out what are the risks of handing a task over to someone and then think about how you can mitigate against these,” Irvine suggests. “Work out what early signs you’d need to see to prevent there being a mistake.”

Recommended reading: Learning to Delegate: Smart Leadership

Success breeds success

When a job is done well, congratulate. Studies have shown that the part of the brain that lights up when someone is given a piece of chocolate is the same part that lights up when someone gets positive feedback. Success breeds success, and an employee who feels valued will want to take on more responsibilities.

Nathwani admits that it took him some time to become comfortable with delegation, and says that it was perhaps made all the more complex when he made his wife, Seema, a director, and started delegating to her. “I was the one who had started the business and she was learning the ropes,” he says. “Telling your wife what to do is difficult at the best of times.”

Things quickly became easier, however, and Nathwani says that the fact that they were married probably took away some of the competitive edge that can exist between directors. Competition between senior members of a team is far from uncommon, and can be another reason why SME owners are often so reluctant to hand over important responsibilities.

But your ambitious high-flyers needn’t be a problem. The trick is to delegate to them those things that both really push them and also benefit the business. “Here’s an individual with energy and motivation,” says Irvine, “so channel that into something that will keep driving the company forward and that will be challenging and rewarding to them, too.”

Recommended reading: 5 Tips to Keep Your Business Running Even During Vacations

Top tips for delegating

1. Make yourself unavailable

Claire Kelly, director of Indigo Herbs, suggests creating a distance that ensures the person you’ve handed over the responsibility to has to get through any ‘I'll just ask this question’ moments and work out the next bits themselves. “It’s the tough-love side to delegation, but it’s win-win in the end,” she says.

2. Train the team

“If your staff are well trained,” says Chris Yeatman, co-owner of the White Hart and Venga, a restaurant in Somerset, “then they can cope and they can work in the way you’d like them to when you’re not there.”

3. Avoid delegation by email

Says Mark Homer, co-founder of property education company Progressive Property: “Tonality in your voice in a phone conversation can convey a much greater array of communicative signals, and with really important delegation discussions, a face-to-face meeting will push this to an even greater level.”

4. Get help

Learning to delegate isn’t easy, and Natalie Lovett, founder of wedding and event planning company Love to Plan, turned to a mentor – development expert Sara Tye – when she needed help in expanding her business. “Delegation has enabled me to push through ideas that have been in my mind for a while,” she says, “and take on so many valuable new ones.”


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