How Learning to Delegate Can Lead to a Promotion

I first saw the power of delegating when my mom published her housecleaning plan on our refrigerator. Each family member had to clean a room by a given date. Except for my mom. She cleaned the house without lifting a sponge.

From that, I learned that the person who excels at delegating gets the most done. A light bulb went off, and I proceeded to build my career on that knowledge. I realized that the key to climbing the corporate ladder was to quickly finish my work and then volunteer for a plum project that would earn me a promotion to management. Next came the most important part of my plan: delegating all my day-to-day work.

My employees loved having me as a manager because, by delegating my work to them, I challenged them to do more than they assumed they could. This kept them from being bored, and since the more I coached, the more work I removed from my plate, they received a ton of coaching.

Sure, I overestimated some of them, which meant I sometimes had to clean up the mess. But those times paled in comparison to the moments when someone exceeded everyone’s expectations — simply because he or she had received a chance.

And, of course, I was the great beneficiary. I was known for having motivated, overachieving teams, and I always had someone trained to replace me as soon as I received a promotion.

In truth, I view delegating as a generous act that comes from the heart. But you must trust the strength of your employees and have faith that they will rise to the occasion. If you can’t find it in your heart to believe in your employees’ potential and don’t delegate, your career will stagnate. Here’s why:

1. You’ll seem scared.

The best way to make time to be a manager is to delegate all your work to the people you manage. That’s right. All your work. By getting everything off your plate, you’ll teach others how to do the same thing. A good manager helps his or her people learn to handle new responsibilities, so start with your work. You’ll free yourself and motivate your employees to extend themselves in surprising and exciting ways.

Why would you pass up this opportunity? Because you’re scared you’ll fail at managing people to exceed their current capabilities, taking on new responsibilities or that your employees will do a better job than you. You’re scared to try something new.

2. You’ll appear mean and stingy.

When you do all the work yourself, you announce that you’re the only capable person on the team. You send a message that you won’t be providing your employees with learning opportunities. This will cause a riot, or, in a better economy, a mass exodus. You’ll be seen as someone who doesn’t know how to be part of a team, and no one will want to work with you.

3. You’ll seem disorganized.

Management requires balancing your work and the work of other people with the end goal of getting promoted. If you’re a manager, you should be delegating all but a few hours’ deskwork a day. (Some managers can get by with doing just an hour of deskwork daily.)

Managing other people should always take priority over you doing the work. It’s understandable to mess up your own work because you’re poor at time management. However, it’s unacceptable to mess up an employee’s work because you didn’t have time for him or her. People who can’t delegate can’t make time to manage.

4. You’ll seem arrogant.

The most common reason managers don’t delegate is that they think they can do the work better themselves. Newsflash: No one cares. All work doesn’t need to be done the way you would do it. It’s a rare day, in fact, when a job needs to be done perfectly to be done well. If you want to aim for perfection (which you shouldn’t), try to be a perfect manager and applaud employees who evolve beyond perfectionism.

5. You’ll seem like an incompetent coach.

Remember when you were in your first job after college and you got to do something besides straighten files? Whatever you did, you did it poorly at first. But the person who allowed you to try helped you to grow. So return the favor by helping someone else to grow. And don’t redo the person’s work once he or she finishes. If one of your employees isn’t doing good work, you’re to blame: You’re either an incompetent coach — and you need to improve — or you’re coaching someone who should be fired.

6. You’ll be asking for a demotion.

If you’re poor at delegating, you devalue your own time. When you do work that your staff should be doing, you’re really saying that your and your staff’s time is equally valuable. This means you’ll never be promoted. And, if justice is served, people who can’t delegate will be demoted to a spot in the hierarchy where they’re supposed to do the work instead of delegating it.

Delegate Now

Admittedly, some work shouldn’t be delegated, such as writing a weekly report to your boss. (However, you can delegate most of this chore by collecting and then cutting and pasting weekly updates from your direct reports to create your report.) But if you need more than an hour or so to complete your work, you aren’t delegating enough.

Think of it this way: If you fell off a cliff, someone would have to do your work, and it probably wouldn’t be your boss. She’d probably delegate your work to the people who report to you. So because it’s highly unlikely your company would go out of business if you fell off a cliff, start delegating everything now.

Still reluctant? Keep reminding yourself that your staff will love you for trusting them and will laugh at you if you continue to do all the work yourself.

In fact, once you delegate everything and master the art of managing people in a time-efficient way, you’ll have the time and the ability to pick up some of your boss’s work — the first step toward getting another promotion.

— Ms. Trunk is a career coach and free-lance writer who has launched new businesses for Fortune 500 companies and founded two of her own companies.

By Penelope Trunk