This is Part III of a six-part series about leadership for engineers preparing for their first professional leadership role.
You’re in your first professional leadership role and all eyes are on you to deliver the goods. After two months of 60+ hour weeks you’re running on fumes and the project’s only a fifth of the way done. What’s a person to do? Delegate.
The good thing about occupying a leadership role on a project is that you have a team. For some first time leaders, however, they may not understand the great opportunity they have to spread their load to those on the team. Instead, the team becomes just one more thing that they have to manage.
Many engineers find their first encounter with delegation to be anything but simple. Why? Emotions. Up to this point, they’ve been the doer and now they are in an entirely new environment where they may still be doing, yet need to pass on work to other people so they can be doing. Instead of leveraging team to effectively accomplish a project, many first time engineer-leader’s horde the work. Or worse, micromanage the work that is delegated.
I know. I was one of those first time delegation engineer-leaders. I was a perfectionist at heart and felt that the only way to achieve what I envisioned at project completion was to do the work all myself. I was fearful of the unknown that comes from letting someone else participate in the work. What if they fail and I have to re-accomplish the work myself? Or worse, they fail and the project falls apart? They fail then it all falls on my shoulders…great!
Welcome to leadership.
Getting Emotional About Delegation
Delegation is first and foremost an emotional issue. Many engineers operate with a strong desire to have their design and construction work done to a vision of perfection, or at least what they see as “right”. But when parts of the work are given over to project team members, it means giving up control for making the design or construction turn out like we would do it. This is an emotional bond each of us has to learn to dance with – allowing the attachment we have with our vision of “right” to be inclusive of different versions of “right”.
My breakthrough into the benefits of delegation came more out of necessity than my waking one day to find that I was no longer an emotionally demanding perfectionist void of fear of an employee’s failure on task. I entered into positions where there was truly way too much that needed to be done to keep a program running. In this situation there was only one way forward: I would have to put on my leadership pants and delegate.
Delegating From a Mindset of Service
We understand delegation to be the act of entrusting a task or responsibility to another person. Most people enter into delegation mode because the number of tasks within their span of control increases to a point where there is not enough time in the week to accomplish all that needs to be done. This is a mindset of necessity, where delegation is a means to the end.
When operating in this mindset, most view delegation like this: I have task; I give task to a subordinate team member I think can get it done; subordinate team member accomplishes task; I review/accept/return for re-work.
This process is all very management like. It’s a nice cycle, a nice process. But it still takes up a good portion of your time since you’re in the loop at the start (giving the task) and end (reviewing/accepting the task). This is where I started on the delegation learning curve and it’s where most people will launch their delegation learning. But after a while it can be come easy, or even tempting for some, to inject themselves back into the process micromanaging all that’s taking place.
So let’s approach delegation from a different mindset, one of service.
Delegating isn’t about you. It’s about your team, it’s about the client and it’s about the end result of the project. When you delegate with a mindset of service, you allow your emotions into the process, but this time you’re looking at the end. You also view the means – delegation – from a perspective of how can I better fulfill leverage my team member’s skills while also meeting my client’s expectations.
Whereas before your mindset was all about getting more done on your task list, from a mindset of service you’re all about getting people engaged to get things done that will grow them into better engineers, better project managers, and ultimately better leaders themselves.
Once I figured out that delegation wasn’t about me but about my team, I relished delegation. Gone were the days of worrying about the 60% solution or a failure. Instead, I viewed these as opportunities for a team member. If the solution truly did require perfection, I used the first draft as an opportunity to correct to 100%.
Through a mindset of delegating in service to my team members I grew in my own leadership and self-confidence. At the same time, my team grew in their leadership, self-confidence, and commitment to our shared outcome.
Delegating Does Wonders
Delegation does wonders for you, your team and ultimately the client. In review, delegating:
- Allows you to focus on the tasks only you can do.
- Gives project team members’ a stake in the game.
- Grows tomorrow’s leaders.
- Increases workflow.
- Capitalizes on the team’s diversity.
- Contributes to the team’s esprit de corps.
- Reduces your stress and optimizes your time.
- Increases the likelihood of delivering projects on scope and within schedule and cost.
Over the years I’ve realized that delegating from the mindset of service is a hallmark of a successful leader. Give it a try and see what success you can generate from this simple shift in mindset.
“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.” ~ Andrew Carnegie
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on delegating work as an engineer.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute