Stella Smith: What you don't do is as important as what you do

Leaders can take on too much, so find ways to use your time more effectively and delegate

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I’m recovering from a nasty bout of flu. It’s not an experience anyone really relishes, but apart from all the usual aches and pains the thing I really hated was not being able to get on with what I wanted to do. I resent asking for help, stubbornly convinced that only I know how to do things properly.

This obsession with doing things ourselves is not uncommon in the sector. Just about every manager complains of having too much to do. However, when you look more closely, they’re often doing tasks someone else could do or that wouldn’t be missed if they didn’t do them at all. We all need to learn to delegate.

Delegation is a critical leadership skill, as a study into business entrepreneurs with dyslexia has highlighted. Did you know that about 35 per cent of company founders identify as dyslexic, compared with 15 per cent of the general population?

These include famous names such as Lord Alan Sugar, Sir Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver. Researchers have attributed their success to their exceptional delegation skills. The theory is that at an early age people with dyslexia get comfortable with trusting others to help them with tasks they know they can’t do well. This in turn frees them up to focus on what they know they are good at.

By not delegating we think we’re being helpful, but in reality we’re getting in the way, preventing others from using their skills and demotivating them, which in turn makes it more difficult to delegate.

We also don’t make the best use of resources. After all, when charities pay leaders good salaries, the expectation is that they will use their energies to drive strategic visions and inspire systems change, not organise meeting rooms or resolve diary clashes. And for ourselves, if we try to do everything, we end up making ourselves ill… which is probably why I got flu in the first place.

So if you’re prone to taking on too much, here are a few tips to help kickstart your delegation.

First, look at every meeting in your calendar and ask yourself why you are going. Is it a good use of your time or could someone else provide input? Does there even need to be a meeting? Could you, instead, simply pick up the phone and make a decision?

Second, list the tasks you have to do right now and identify other people who could take on some of these. That doesn’t need to be people who are already skilled, but could be people who are motivated and willing to learn.

Third, get better at identifying the key moments for a project, scheduling time to check what progress has been made and then get out of the way and let other people get on with the work.

Fourth, wait before you respond. When a problem comes up, instead of jumping in to resolve it, take some time and let someone else take the lead and sort it out. When people do ask for your help, support them to think through the options and implications and build their confidence to do it themselves.

What I’ve learned during my absence is that we’re all dispensable. When I’m not around, the world still turns, people get on and get things done and, much to my dismay, they often do it better than me.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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