by Tony Gerth

Delegation IS leadership development

Sep 18, 2019
IT LeadershipIT Skills

CIOs need to be open to delegation and learn to do it effectively as they themselves grow into more strategic leaders.

There is a lot of discussion about CIO leadership in professional and academic circles. One topic that rarely makes headlines is developing the next generation of CIOs. Technical training and the accumulation of acronym-heavy credentials is the norm in IT organizations. This is important given the changing nature of information technology.

However, there is no more valuable set of skills than the “leadership” type – especially for professionals with a technical background. Such skills as executive communication, relationships with business partners and articulating the value of IT are required for all IT leaders and must be intentionally developed over time. Leadership development should be led by CIOs, not HR professionals.

Delegation is one way that CIOs can develop leadership skills in their team. Delegation is often centered around the benefits to the leader. Delegation helps the leader manage their time and prioritize tasks effectively. Learning to effectively delegate is a benefit to the CIO leader, but let’s flip the coin over and focus on how delegation can be used to develop the leadership skills in others.

Barriers to effective delegation

Leaders often avoid delegation as more trouble than it is worth. A few of the barriers to delegation are as follows:

  • It takes too long. The leader feels like they can do the task faster themselves. This is generally true at a task level, but the ignores the role of the leader in developing others.
  • Quality will suffer. Maybe, but this demonstrates a control issue for the leader and also ignores the development responsibility they have.
  • I can’t pick the right person. With some thought and the right task this can be overcome as I’ll cover below.
  • No one is capable. This is probably related to the quality perception rather than the quality of the team. Remember you are developing someone. That assumes they will require some coaching to become successful.

These barriers exist because the leader is not comfortable with delegation or their team. If the team is that bad, then significant changes need to be made. Usually it is the leader that requires coaching to overcome their objections to delegating more. See the five levels of delegation below to get started.

Benefits of delegation to the individual

The benefits to the individual and team are many, some of which are clearly relevant to IT professionals.

  • Seeing a broader view of the organization. Giving someone a new task or responsible will broaden their understanding of how the business and/or function actually operates. Broadening perspectives will get people out of their usual functional silo.
  • Rise in confidence level. Performing a new task successfully boosts the confidence of your employee and may motivate them to take on additional tasks/responsibilities.
  • People become more engaged. Only 32% of employees in the U.S. are engaged at work. Increasing engagement is required in every organization. Employees take more ownership of the success of their function and business. Better engagement can contribute to higher retention of IT professionals which is always a challenge for CIOs.
  • Being accountable builds leadership muscle. Delegation includes accountability and being accountable builds resiliency and confidence.
  • Opportunity for innovation. Done right, delegation can provide the employee an opportunity to innovate. Let them tackle a task in a new way and encourage their creativity.
  • Reinforces skills through experience. Experiential learning is critical for professionals. While skills such as communication, negotiation, relationship building, decision-making, etc. can be taught to professionals, the experience of applying those skills is necessary to complete the development cycle.

When an employee completes tasks/projects that have been delegated to them there are significant benefits in the short-term such as confidence and engagement. There are also benefits that increase in significance over time such as becoming more innovative, accountable and being able to see the “bigger picture” of the organization. Effective delegation will create a rising tide of engagement that will develop both average and high performers.

5 levels of delegation

Leadership development by delegation can exist at 5 levels. Applying this concept of “levels” of delegation helps you start out slow with some employees (and maybe yourself!) and provide more advanced opportunities for your high performers.

Level 1: Assess and report

You can simply assign someone to research a topic or problem and prepare a report for you. Examples might be to review vendors of a technology, assess new technology, review budgeting processes or how service tickets are handled. The deliverable could be a formal presentation or report or simply be a verbal discussion. Of course, a formal presentation and/or report would also double up the development to include communication skills. The report should include as much evidence as the employee could collect.

Level 2: Recommend

This assignment focuses on critical thinking skills and builds on the Level 1 approach by including a recommended solution to the problem or issue. Assign them to recommend a technology, vendor or process change. Often employees are good at identifying problems, but not solutions. It’s critical to give them constructive feedback on the recommended solution they propose.

Level 3: Develop an action plan

This approach adds the implementation plan to the Level 2 assignment. Often employees and/or managers do not consider implementation in their recommended solutions. The focus might be on the technical purity of the solution rather than considering whether it can be implemented by the organization.

Level 4: Make the decision

The next level of delegation is to let them make the decision on how to solve to problem. At this level and the next, you need to tell them you trust them and provide them with the coaching that they need to make a confident decision. You will also need to monitor them without micro-managing their work.

Level 5: Full delegation

This is the holy grail of delegation!  This consists of letting the employee decide, act and follow-through. One benefit of starting them off at a lower level is that you give them the opportunity to build credibility with you that you can trust them at Level 5.

Every level of delegation is an opportunity to develop your team. You can start someone at a low level and let them work their way up. Higher performing individuals can be assigned tasks/projects at a higher level and will probably progress to Level 5 quickly.

Steps to successful delegation

There are five steps to effective delegation that apply at every level and with every employee. These steps will ensure you manage the delegation process and the risk you may perceive in delegation.

  1. Choose the right task. Choosing the right task to delegate is the first step! Start with tasks/projects that have a low risk in the event that the person does not meet expectations. Even more important is to choose tasks/projects that have a high probability of success.
  2. Choose the right person. After you have an appropriate task/project you need to choose the right person. Be sure they have the right background to be successful. The point is not a sink or swim project. Don’t assign your data center manager a project to recommend a solution to a critical business application issue. Stretching them is a good idea. You want them to stretch, not to snap! Also be sure they actually have the time to do the project. If you already know they’re putting in 50-60-hour weeks (which you need to address, too) don’t load them up with another project.
  3. Clearly explain expectations and what success looks like. Confusion over your expectations or the scope of the task will result in a failed attempt at development. Define success right from the start so you both know what you’re looking for.
  4. Provide support (tools, education, authority, resources) as needed for the employee to be successful. This support is dependent on the level of delegation you use. Match the amount of resources to the type of delegation so the employee has the highest probability of success. Don’t withhold support just to “test” someone.
  5. Monitor progress and adjust as needed if the task/project is veering off-track. If you’ve effectively executed the first four tasks in this list progress should be positive but Murphy’s Law still exists. If you find you’ve made a mistake in scoping the project or choosing the person you can regroup before any damage is done.

CIOs need to be open to delegation and learn to do it effectively as they themselves grow into more strategic leaders. Selecting the right level of delegation and applying these five steps will increase the probability that your leadership development objectives will be achieved and you will reap some benefits too!  Delegation can be an effective and powerful way for CIOs to develop the next generation of IT leaders.