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A few years ago, an agency owner confessed to me that he was frustrated with two of his junior employees. Tasks that took him only 20 minutes stretched into four hours for them.

As we dug into the problem, I observed it was actually his fault that his team members took so long to complete tasks. They had only recently graduated from college. He had never dedicated time to training them, and he hadn't told them how long the tasks should take. He'd also been doing that particular work for over a decade—so of course it took him less time.

Essentially, his employees were newer to the work than he was; they didn't know his shortcuts; and they had no idea they were taking 12X as long as his benchmark. It was no wonder he was frustrated. He wasn't helping his team grow professionally, leaving him discouraged about delegation and doing the work himself instead.

You may have faced something similar. You want your team members to grow professionally, but they're not making progress in their new responsibilities. You want them to be independent and self-sufficient, but they can't read your mind. They keep interrupting you to ask questions, but it might be your own fault.

Why? Because you're bad at delegating. But small changes can give you big results.

The first thing you need to do is ask: What can I delegate?

It may help to make a list with two columns: things you need to do yourself, and things you can let others take off your plate.

It may also help to go back to that list after you write it to see what else you can move from your side to someone else's. A second look may reveal that there's more you can delegate than you originally thought.

Once you figure out what you can delegate, you'll want to do so efficiently to help your team learn more and help you do less long-term.

Ideally, you'll follow John Maxwell's 10-80-10 rule: that is, you're involved in the first 10% of a project (setting goals, assembling the team, etc.), your team does the 80% in the middle (implementing the plan), and you're involved in the last 10% (review and debrief).

However, you may need to be more involved up front (and midway) the first time someone does something. Rather than 10-80-10, I recommend something like this for new tasks: 20-30-10-30-10, wherein each 10 is a pre-scheduled regular check-in that keeps everyone on the same page without your needing to do everything yourself.

There are many effective ways to delegate that will help your team get things done faster and help you do less of the work you don't enjoy. Let's look at five specific tips to help you delegate better as a leader.

1. Assign tasks using SMART goals

As a goal-setting framework, SMART is an acronym to help set better goals. It also helps teams understand what "done" means.

Versions of the acronym vary, but in agency work, the letters stand for...

  • Specific: The goal clearly conveys what you're trying to accomplish.
  • Measurable: It's easy to quantify the results.
  • Assignable: You can assign the goal to someone—preferably someone on your team.
  • Realistic: The goal is achievable; you're not giving your team impossible tasks.
  • Time-bound: You have a deadline, so you know whether you're done on time.

2. Ensure your team understands your values, goals, and resources

Values, goals, and resources (VGR) indicate what values your team members should follow as they make decisions, what goals they are working toward, and what resources they have available to support them along the way.

3. Use the ARCI Matrix

The ARCI Matrix helps clearly define who is in charge of what work activity. Also known as the RACI matrix, it clarifies responsibilities by considering four roles for each project or task.

The four roles (I like to have the "A" first on the list because it designates the "owner" of the work):

  • Accountable Who is in charge of getting the thing done? It may or may not be the person who actually completes the tasks, but it is the person on the hook for its happening. That could be you, a manager, or another employee.
  • Responsible. Who is the person doing the task? Although that person may or may not also be Accountable, he or she should know there will be consequences for not completing the task on-time and according to your quality expectations.
  • Consulting. Who needs to give input on the task before it's completed? That input might include insights, expertise, or additional data for getting the job done.
  • Informed. Who needs to be updated during or after the process, but who doesn't have a direct voice in what happens?

4. For less complex activities, consider implementing swim lanes

Swim lanes are a strategy to reduce confusion and save you from being sucked into every decision. Essentially, it refers to who's in charge of what.

Implementing swim lanes means you and your team members know who is handling what so that people can stay out of each other's way. They also reduce internal drama and second-guessing.

5. Ban the phrase 'almost done' as a status update

Instead, ask your team to share specific timelines for what needs to get done and what risks may keep the project or task from being completed. That way, you'll be able to adjust your internal estimates (and your padded external estimates) accordingly.

For example, instead of your team members telling you, "It's almost done," they should be saying, "I've asked the design team to review my work; they said they'll be done Wednesday, but there's a chance they'll need an extra day. I've scheduled proofreading time on Thursday, and we can ship for final approval on Friday."

* * *

Although you won't become an expert delegator overnight, improving your approach can make life easier for you and your team.

Want more help making your work life easier, especially if you run a marketing agency? Check out Work Less, Earn More for more ways to increase your income and improve your work-life balance.

This article was adapted from Work Less, Earn More: How to Escape the Daily Grind of Agency Ownership (2023).

More Resources on Delegating Tasks

Delegation Tips From 10 Successful Leaders [Infographic]

Outsourcing and Delegating: Two Keys to Excelling in Your Career

Four Tips for Hiring Accountable Team Members Who Actually Get Things Done

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image of Karl Sakas

Karl Sakas is the founder of Sakas and Company. He has provided consulting, executive coaching and training to over 600 agencies in 36 countries. Karl has also written three books on marketing agencies.

LinkedIn: Karl Sakas

Twitter: @KarlSakas