How you delegate difficult projects actually matters.

I had been asked to coordinate a team to develop specific resources for an international client. I found the right people, organized the task and coordinated meetings where we would be constructing resources in an efficient way, with double-checking before each product was delivered.

I probably assumed too much.

When I took on this project, I assumed that I was expected to complete the task effectively, taking ownership as often as I could and giving him updates as we finished deliverables. I was a seasoned leader at this point, and had proven my expertise to complete this role many times over.

What I found out was that my boss didn’t trust that I would do the job properly. Instead of speaking with me about it, he coordinated his own meetings with my team, and told them that they were to report directly to him instead of me. He also told them that they were to keep this quiet, but I quickly realized that something was wrong when I would ask for status updates from my team and they would say that they had already provided a status. After the project was over, and I was no longer reporting to this person, one of my team members shared the details.

At the time, I wasn’t in a position where I could question my boss, but the end result was that I felt seriously undermined by his controlling project management approach. A little consideration would have gone a long, long way.

A strong leader carefully considers what needs to be controlled directly.
Leadership competencies often include statements around delegation, team dynamics, and clarifying team goals. When you delegate projects or responsibilities to team members, you are paving the way for your team members to grow their own skills, as well as meet team objectives. In my story above, my boss clearly did not want to delegate this task to me, although that was my specific role on the team. Instead, he opted for control, demonstrating his distrust of my work and damaging our professional relationship.

As a distance leader, clarifying team goals, and then expecting your team members to support those goals, shows leadership maturity. Yes, mistakes will be made, and that’s part of learning to be a leader. Your employees and all aspiring leaders will make both small and large mistakes, just as you have made both small and large mistakes on the path to leadership. The secret ingredient that can transform an adversarial delegation process into a fantastic learning opportunity is consideration.

Goals, structure, and measurement
Being considerate of your employees’ personal styles to accomplish work tasks supports future independent work and helps employees demonstrate both competence and confidence to successfully complete projects. In her book Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, Charlene Li lists example after example of balancing both control and consideration to delegate successfully for outstanding business results.

Li recommends a triple-play of ingredients for success when delegating: goals, structure, and measurement. If your team members clearly understand what the goals are, then you are establishing the foundation for the project and the expected outcomes. Structure, including reporting, communications, resources, and personnel, gives employees and other leaders the tools they need to do the job well. By defining how success will be measured, an effective leader integrates the goals and structure into business objectives (Li, 2010).

How does distance leadership change consideration or control?
As a distance leader, I have struggled at times with delegating tasks to others because I could not informally evaluate whether or not my team members shared my expectations to accomplish the tasks. In person, I can informally measure whether or not my message was being received with fidelity and could immediately reinforce what may have been misinterpreted. As a distance leader, I had to change my tactics.

Focusing on consideration instead of control means that I am not trying to make cookie-cutter versions of my own work from my team members, and allowing my employees to use their skills to do great work. Trusting employees to do their jobs effectively takes time and requires you to relinquish your control, but will often result in stronger products. As a distance leader, you have to practice clarity, ongoing communication strategies, and employee check-ins more frequently than in-office counterparts.

Use rich distance communication tools
One other note: use rich media whenever possible. When discussing those things that needed to be accomplished according to a predefined plan or process, I tried to use video and whiteboard technology to ensure my emphasis, my inflections, and my emotions were shared with fidelity. As a side benefit, I often recorded the conversation to review it later or share with absent team members. Having delegation conversations with video and audio is often more effective than emails or text-only communications.

Examples for the win
One practice that aids in delegation is by providing examples to your team members. For example, in one project with my team, I asked some of my team members to conduct research and then report their findings in a particular way. This was new territory, and I only had a vague idea of what information would result from the research. Instead, I explained what I had seen, and then shared some examples of other similar projects. What resulted was a far better project than I expected, because my team identified a better way to report the information.

Another practice is the demonstration of behaviors that will lead to success. I have given examples from my own experience around successful and unsuccessful projects so my team members know that making mistakes is part of the project completion process. Explaining what I have tried myself, and what worked for me, helped build team trust and helped my team understand a little more clearly why I needed to control some tasks but not others. In response, they were more considerate of my needs as the team leader.

The Process

Delegating as a distance leader requires a slightly different skill set than in-office counterparts. Here are some initial steps you can use the next time you are delegating a task to your team members.

  • Business goals first. Starting with business goals provides a common point of departure, and helps communicate the organizational culture and project setting as well.
  • Give examples if possible. Sharing what you expect, either through documents or stories of your own personal experiences can help your employees take on delegated tasks with more fidelity to your expectations.
  • Be considerate of your employee’s expertise. Your employees may have some unique skills and talents that they will apply to the project tasks (and I sincerely hope they do!), and you should be considerate of that when delegating to them. Sharing what you need to control, as well as what they can figure out on their own, is a way to grow their expertise and leadership ability.
  • Provide structure and communication. Agree on a communication strategy that helps support your employees’ successes in delegated tasks. Describe your expectations, and check in with your team members as they begin a new project.
  • Be considerate of the outcome. If your employees have worked hard on a project, even if it is not quite what you wanted or needed, be considerate of the work that went into the results. Share your ideas for improvements, but make sure to emphasize what succeeded in their work.

The Results of Balancing Consideration and Control as a Distance Leader

Do you have any other processes or practices for delegating as a distance leader?

Comment with your answers below!

Links

Charlene Li provides a wide variety of examples and resources in her book, Open Leadership, How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, and I especially appreciate her discussions on leaders’ uses of delegation strategies. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy this text from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.

References

Li, C. (2010). Open leadership: how social technology can transform the way you lead. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Photo by Brayden George on Unsplash

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