Former City lawyer turned executive coach, Jamie Butler, discusses five important questions to consider when making the switch from ‘doer’ to ‘delegator, a key skill so many mid-level business professionals shy away from.
Delegation is a common topic raised by mid-level lawyers I speak to and coach. Whilst navigating the transition to becoming a more senior solicitor and the associated responsibility of managing a team, many to struggle with effective delegation more so than other business skills (e.g. business development or client relationship management).
I often hear “I don’t have time to delegate” or “I end up having to re-do the task myself” despite an understanding of the broader benefits of delegation: efficiency; opportunities to develop others; being freed-up to do more complex or higher value work; or increasing time for non-fee-earning tasks. There’s also a reluctance to “dump” work on more junior members of the team who they may regard as “friends”. Often, these objections arise from a broader lack of confidence in having effective delegation conversations.
Delegation is a core skill of any effective manager or supervisor. When combined with regular and constructive feedback, these are for me the most important skills to develop when supervising juniors. There are many definitions, but I prefer the idea that delegation is a partnership of both authority and responsibility to carry out a particular task: this encourages a team-building approach and shared accountability (although ultimately the delegator remains responsible for the outcome). As a mentor once told me, “delegation is about development, not dumping” – finding work that encourages development and not just dumping those tasks you don’t like doing from your own desk!
Juniors tend to be most motivated when they have some level of responsibility and challenge, often with a degree of client contact. Whilst this type of work may not always be available – there’ll frequently be an element of the administrative or procedural – it’s worth bearing in mind when considering potential opportunities. It may also help you frame delegation to a “friend”.
In my coaching or training sessions, we often role play a delegation “briefing” to help provide structure and build confidence to have more effective conversations. There are a number of delegation models, however I’ve devised the following approach which requires the delegator to answer five important questions. It also encourages the junior to raise questions if areas are missed or rushed over.
Be clear on what you’re asking the other person to do and what the output or outcome is. Most people agree that we should first be able to carry out a task ourselves before we then delegate it to others, although it will sometimes be necessary to delegate a task because you need to rely on someone else’s expertise or particular skill.
Why is the task important? Consider the bigger picture or context (and how a specific task may fit within it) and also the value to the client. In terms of someone’s development, it’s often necessary to complete a certain task before moving on to another (often more complex or interesting). “Selling” the task is critical to motivation.
Who is best placed to help with the task – not just from a capacity perspective but in terms of providing an opportunity to work on something which a junior may not yet have had exposure to? This also links back to “development, not dumping”.
It’s worth addressing the deadline question before going into a detailed briefing as this may impact capacity. Consider both internal and external timeframes – to manage expectations and create time for you to review and feedback wherever possible.
How the task needs to be completed will depend on a number of areas and further questions. Are you or the client expecting a particular layout, format or quality? Is there a cap on budget which reflects the amount of time you expect the junior to spend on this? Can the junior liaise directly with the client or does everything need to come via you? What resources or precedents can you share or point them in the direction of (without “spoon-feeding” too much)?
Where possible, I prefer to delegate the “what” not the “how” – focus on the end-result and, unless your colleague is inexperienced or very junior, allow them to determine how best to achieve it. If you prescribe exactly how to do it, you’ll likely limit the learning opportunity and potentially the chance of finding a better way of doing something.
It’s also important here to talk about any other support you can give or others who may help – and encouraging the junior to seek support when needed. Also agree when you’ll pick up again – whether to check they are on track or to review the final piece of work. Beware though the risk of micromanaging!
From my own experience of following this approach, I always felt confident that I’d covered all bases and that the junior was clear on what to do. Rather than checking for understanding at the end of the conversation, I encouraged the junior to ask questions as we went, which gave me a good steer as to whether they were on track. They often pre-empted the next question on the list. I also made notes during the conversation and encouraged the junior to do the same. This allowed me to wrap up with something like “OK, on my to-do list is X, Y, Z – what’s on yours?”. Again, this created a partnership approach but also opened the door to ask further questions to clarify if needed.
So, try out the “what, why, who, when and how” approach and you should soon start to see the benefits of delegation, both for the junior and you.
Jamie Butler is an Accredited Executive Coach and Facilitator. He trained and qualified as a solicitor at CMS and worked as an employment lawyer at Clifford Chance before moving into learning and development. Most recently, he was Director of Learning and Development at Cleary Gottlieb, London.