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Strategic delegation: a ‘must’ for business leaders striving for a competitive advantage

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen AirBnB become the largest accommodation provider with no properties, Uber become the largest taxi company with no cars and Alibaba become the largest retailer with no stock. Tesla, which is changing the rules of the game in the automotive industry, is led by someone with no industry experience and has an entire salesforce of people who’ve never been car salespeople before.

Each company has recognised that competitive advantage no longer comes from winning on the basis of patents or location. It comes from tapping into the human potential of their organisations.

As a business leader, success is now determined by your ability to turn the potential energy in your company (the latent talent of your people) into kinetic energy (these same people fully realising their talent, in collaboration with each other). This is the greatest source of competitive advantage on Earth and is the root cause of all the other sources of advantage.

How does this work?

People do the best work of their careers when they feel a sense of autonomy – when they feel they are making their meaningful choices. It doesn’t require anarchy or unbounded authority; it simply requires that we feel a sense of sovereignty over our actions.

In the 21st century context, therefore, ‘delegation’ has a new level of meaning. It means that if you want to compete, you need to provide your employees a sense of autonomy, so they can unleash their potential and give their best for your company.

But where do you start?

How to delegate effectively

Let’s be clear. Delegation isn’t giving others the jobs that you don’t want to do. It isn’t abandonment or a mechanical process of work distribution. In today’s organisations, delegation can be better thought of as empowerment and trust. All work should be given to the least senior person(s) capable of doing the work to the required level of quality or impact (e.g. a satisfied customer).

But how do you decide when to keep control and when to let go?

There are two key elements to this decision: capability and risk. Is the person (or persons) you are delegating to someone you trust (even if this may be a stretch for them)? And if this didn’t go well, would it create major damage? If the answers are yes and no, respectively, then what are you waiting for? If it’s yes and yes, then delegate but stay close. And if the answer to the first question is no, then no matter what the answer to the second question, you need to either replace, re-locate or rapidly develop the person.

If your direct reports are broadly capable, one very helpful technique is the ‘half step up. Although we talk about ‘levels’ in an organisation that match levels of capability, that’s really a fiction. Right now, some of the work is a ‘half step down’ for you (you could do it at a canter) but a ‘half step up’ for a talented direct report (they can do it, as long as they stretch themselves outside their comfort zone). All things being equal, this work is the very best to delegate – it frees you up to do work that demands your attention and it not only stretches your direct report but also gives them increased capability for the next opportunity that comes around.

So let go!

Can your people be trusted to make the right decisions? If not, you should make some changes. And if they can, stop second-guessing them. The energy you will give them back may be just what you need to stop worrying and start winning.

About the author

Anthony Mitchell is an organisational leadership expert, a regular contributor to Dynamic Business, and  Chairman of strategic leadership advisory firm, Bendelta. He’s also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, which provides accelerated education opportunities for high potential Indigenous students and Chairman of Amnesty International Australia from 2011-16.

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Anthony Mitchell

Anthony Mitchell

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