The Delegation Conundrum

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Overwhelmed? Recognising how delegation may restore your strategic perspective

Crunched and overloaded? Desperately trying to get back on top of things? Delegating may be your next best move. Free up your time whilst potentially enhancing employee satisfaction. It seems like a win-win situation. However, how can we possibly contemplate delegation when we are stretched too thin in the first place?

You can’t simply drop a project on someone’s lap. Sufficient instruction and training is required. That person must be held accountable in a supportive way. This requires time and planning. Secondly, and this is no small thing, who do you choose to take over?

The truth is that delegating productively takes considerable up-front effort and some thought. And when we’re struggling for time as it is, the temptation to buckle down, put in the hours, and just get the job done ourselves is fierce. In an urgent situation, go for it. But once the task is done and the smoke clears, you need to consider why delegating some of your work may be the best way to prevent deadlines from beating you down again.

Why is it so hard to relinquish control? There are many reasons why we are reluctant to delegate. As an entrepreneur, delegation was something I struggled with a lot. I was used to juggling different roles. I started a company as the head of marketing, sales, CFO, CEO and Receptionist. While I don’t miss answering the phone, ordering coffee, and compiling year-end accounts, I really enjoyed spearheading the marketing campaigns, attending every show and conference, and taking sales calls. With growth it was impossible to do it all. I admit that in the early years I delegated through gritted teeth, begrudging the ownership of certain projects to contractors or members of staff.

In retrospect, there were many reasons. I felt I was better and faster. I was concerned about relinquishing control regarding the strategy and focus of my company. I enjoyed the work I was doing and felt proud of what I was accomplishing across a wide spectrum of responsibilities. I was super busy and associated this with productivity. And quite frankly, I wasn’t entirely confident in the members of my team. New employees tolerated my possessiveness and over time they reassured me that they would maintain my standards, when in fact they usually surpassed my expectations.

Most of the entrepreneurs I know have had similar experiences. New ventures are started with passion and excitement. However, eventually we feel overwrought with the unsurmountable volume of responsibility. It’s difficult to determine how and where to let go.

Moreover, when we desperately need help the most, every minute is at a premium. Hiring, coaching and leading people in new projects requires a commitment that is intimidating when we are barely getting by as it is.

“I missed that feeling of excitement when I turned on my computer in the morning. I felt so bogged down. Eventually I was working all evening and every weekend.  I understood that my work-life balance needed a major face-lift, but I wasn’t sure where to begin.” Millie Walton, Co-Founder, Materialise

Don’t ignore the signs. Oftentimes we don’t consider delegating until we’re desperate. Neglecting responsibilities, feeling lost and disorganised, and approaching exhaustion are often the impetus for change.  Don’t ignore your work-life balance. Friends, family, exercise and hobbies are all necessary components to our personal well being.

“I started skipping the gym to put in more hours at work. I wouldn’t have lunch unless I had a lunch meeting. Business was great but my work continued to pile up and I just couldn’t see how I could clear my plate. I was facing a burnout and decided that I needed to get someone to help me tackle things straight away.” Simon Motson, Co-Founder, C6

The United Nations’ International Labor Organisation has defined occupational stress as a “global epidemic”. Workplace stress costs U.S. employers an estimated $300 billion per year in absenteeism, medical insurance and other stress- related expenses.

Some stress is normal. It can be exciting. But too much stress is dangerous. Stress can reak havoc on your physical and mental health, and is a detriment to productivity in business.

Delegation is the key to making time for the work that matters. Despite the obstacles, delegation is worth pursuing because it is critical to business growth. As business leaders, we must recognise where our contribution will make the most impact. Executing strategy. Building important relationships. New business opportunities. Profitability. We are in charge of the big picture. Taking on too many projects simply clouds our focus.

Avoid getting caught up in tasks. It’s true that you have a lot of untapped skills that would be appreciated in many corners of your organiation. But as a leader, force yourself to take a step back for a clearer vision. Or else you run the risk that while you are proofreading the new website for typos page by page, you may miss out on a truly big opportunity for your company.

In a study for Harvard Business Review , Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw interviewed executives at thirty-nine companies and found that 41% of their day was filled with discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others.

“I was was very excited when my company started to grow. I hired someone to take over the sales and the accounts. She was good at her job and I looked forward to focusing on company strategy and growth. Yet I still found myself struggling with an incredible amount of administrative work. Paperwork for my new hire, trade show arrangements, looking for an office, proofreading brochures..l felt busier than ever yet I wasn’t at all focused on making the company as successful as possible.” Neil Finnie, Corkscrew

Start with a piece of paper. I call this activity my personal Time Accountability Project. Write a list of the responsibilities you hold. Write them down in the order that you deem most important. Throughout the course of the week, keep a note of the time you spend on each of your responsibilities. Easy right?

At the end of the week, you may see that you are neglecting the work you designated as most important. In fact, you may find that you spend an awful lot of time on low priority tasks, or even on activities that you didn’t initially jot down as part of your job.

When the week is complete, take a moment to evaluate your priorities. Are you making the best use of your time? Is it even realistic that you can tackle all of the responsibilities on your list while maintaining some sense of balance in your personal life?

Every year I force myself to tackle my Time Accountability Project. I take a realistic look at the time I put into my work. It is always an eye opening experience. Honestly, it is a struggle to remember to keep an eye on the clock and it takes me a couple of days to get accustomed to keeping track of my hours. Even though no one sees my personal assignment, I still find it difficult to be truthful with myself.  I’m tempted to overlook the ten minutes I spend picking my fantasy football lineup, or looking into romantic venues for an upcoming anniversary. It’s a bit like being on a diet. Even though it’s small, that slice of chocolate cake can still have an impact on your weight loss goals.

For several years I’ve been tackling this challenge, and the results have always fascinated me. Once I was surprised to see that I was spending most of my day on marketing and this prompted me to seek out a new marketing manager. A few years ago I was spending way too much time deciphering sales information. I decided to roll out a technology platform to make our CRM smoother and clearer and this freed up a considerable amount of everyone’s time.

Most recently, I found administration getting the best of me. I spent far too much time making travel arrangements. I travel frequently for work, to conferences and trade shows, and my family of six also travels a fair amount to visit grandparents across the globe. Reservations for airlines, hotels, car bookings, airport shuttles, taxis and any events were making me a little crazy. I spent an inordinate amount of time on hold, unable to concentrate properly on my work. The satisfaction of neatly finishing everything required for a trip would be quickly shattered at discovering the need to make a change to an itinerary.

I had always found admin daunting, but unavoidable. I felt like this was something I had to handle myself. There certainly was nobody at work who would be thank me for adding these kinds of tasks to their workload.

Taking on a Personal Assistant cleared my schedule and helped me re-focus. Assigning low-return tasks like scheduling, booking travel and research allowed me to concentrate on higher-return tasks.

My move to take on a personal virtual assistant eradicated the need for me to ever sit on hold again. It is a pleasure that still still hasn’t grown old. She checks and re-checks everything and my travel is smoother than ever. Which is a godsend, since my wife still reminds me about the time I forgot to book her ticket on a family trip to Canada.

Initially, in addition to bookings and itineraries, I also had my Virtual Assistant handle the following tasks:

  • Reservations
  • Proofreading and editing
  • Comparison research
  • Calendar scheduling
  • Conducting research

Administrative tasks yield no high return. They don’t contribute to company strategy or the structure of an organisation. Putting trust into my  Virtual Assistant allows me to focus on the work that really matters and alleviate the burden of low-return work.

It’s true that I could do it myself. There are plenty of hours in the day. I can put off exercise. Skip meditating. Tell my wife that I’ll be working a few nights and perhaps a weekend or two.

However, the question isn’t whether you can do it yourself, or even if you want to. More important is whether handling this administration is the best use of your time.

If you are an entrepreneur, or help run a small business, then chances are that you need to take an honest look at the hours you spend throughout the day and make sure you are maximising each moment to its potential. If not, getting help is not so tricky anymore, thanks the development of the virtual assistant market.

Next post, I’ll help you wade through the murky waters of this new industry so that you are assured you hire the best VA for your needs.

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