To Mentor or to Delegate?

Managers often obsess about which projects to delegate. They wonder if the team can handle high-stake assignments and fear that a project will spin out of control without their direct involvement. When managers are unwilling to delegate major projects, employees may suspect that those assigned to them aren't highly valued.   This is both inefficient and dispiriting. However, when delegating is paired with mentoring, it greatly increases the likelihood of project success and improves team morale.

The purpose of delegation is to make the best use of everyone's time. Ideally, managers should focus on responsibilities that only they can address and delegate projects that their employees are capable of handling. If an employee is well suited for a new area of responsibility, mentoring can prepare them for the challenge. In addition to equipping the employee for the project at hand, mentoring further complements delegation by supporting employee professional development. It shifts the focus from "How do I get this off my plate?" to "How can I promote both team productivity and career growth for my employees?"

Mentoring is an approach to coaching that involves communicating the significance of new assignments while motivating the employee during the transfer of knowledge. The result is that ambitious junior professionals will feel they are valued members of the team as they assume project ownership and develop a better understanding of their role in the success of the organization.

In order to align company and team goals with individual professional objectives, ask yourself these questions before deciding who is best suited to work on a project:

"Does someone already possess the necessary experience?"

"If not, which team member's professional goals make him/ her the best candidate to learn new skills?"

Once these questions are answered, managers can determine the right combination of mentoring and delegating. Delegation alone can leave an employee feeling lost, unaware of the significance of the assignment and, in the worst case, undervalued. Mentoring gives the manager an opportunity to clarify a project's value and to provide the employee with the tools for success.

Case Study

One of our clients was experiencing growing pains, with customer demand outpacing employee resources. The challenge was to handle the expanded workload while recruiting additional staff. We first identified individuals who could be readily promoted to leadership roles, as well as less experienced team members who could assume additional tasks with some coaching.

Since the organization was "flat," with no formal reporting structure, we paired junior and senior team members for mentoring on client service, multi-tasking, project management techniques and effective communication. Coaching on such broad professional skills gave employees the ability to shape projects instead of focusing on isolated tasks, as they had in the past. They developed a better understanding of the purpose behind their contributions and were motivated to stretch professionally in order to position themselves for future leadership opportunities. This combination of mentoring and delegating motivated the less experienced employees to assume more responsibility, enabling the senior team members to focus on hiring and training new staff to support future growth.

What approach does your organization use for delegation?

12 Responses

  1. Jon

    Wow Gina, how true! Are you sure the case study was not ours! This is exactly what our current focus is, as it is very crucial in a growing business for the top to keep pushing down, so the new growing positions can be challenged and take on new responsibilities while freeing up senior staff to continue to the growth cycle.

    So close to home it is not funny! We keep working on it, but thanks for reminding us why it is so important. JGM

    • Gina Fedeli

      This is a common struggle for many organizations. It is imperative for business owners to remember that they need to handle what ONLY they can do. To accomplish this, it is time to let go of some of the control and pass it on to folks that are capable, willing and wanting to take on more.

      • Tony Rescigno

        Gina, right on and very timely for businesses looking to improve their operations. I would urge everyone to read this article but also reach out to Gina for some individual help.

        • Gina Fedeli

          Thanks for the endorsement Tony! It is one of the many approaches that can be used to improve operations and to position an organization for growth.

  2. Gina – We have worked with a number of teams who struggle with this topic. More often they delgate and don’t take the time to mentor. Your question “Does someone already possess the necessary experience?” is the best question as determining the readiness of an individual or team to take on tasks can make or break the success of a project. Next is your recommendation to deliver the appropriate level of mentoring to equip the individual and instill confidence. Great topic!

    • Gina Fedeli

      Often managers think that delegation is a quicker approach. In the short term it may be but in the long term an opportunity has been missed. One that would bring lasting benefit to the organization and the employee.

  3. Gina, this has been our strategy to success for many years. This allows you to keep your over head low and your quality higher. Not all positions require the highest paid individual all of the time, although clients expect high quality all the time. A mentor can make a junior level employee into senior level employee by coaching and mentoring in the areas need. This then frees up the senior level guy to work on more important tasks.

    • Gina Fedeli

      That is exactly right Scott. It is a great way to invest in the growth of your staff and to grow your organization simultaneously. It is a win-win.

  4. Insightful post Gina. Mentoring also makes it possible for small businesses, that rarely have formal training programs, to hire new employees who may lack certain skill sets but have the soft skills the company knows are important for fit. Companies that are successful with mentoring tie responsibility for doing so to their company values. I happen to also be an advocate of tying it to compensation systems.

    • Gina Fedeli

      Great point Karen. Tying mentoring to compensation plans is a great way to provide additional incentive to the employees while pushing the company ahead.

  5. When coaching companies whose culture undermines an open willingness to delegate, I find that being risk averse is part of their DNA and permeates their entire organization. These companies are not very innovative and usually operate on low margins at the low end of their industry’s market share. They don’t have the confidence to allow their people to make and learn from mistakes and neither the company or its people grow. The best people leave.

    I’ve also coached self-confident companies who are not risk averse, but delegation is overlooked as a key to innovative success. These companies allow individual manager’s “to delegate or not to delegate” as their personal preference. These companies are not being the best they can be because they don’t expect and measure delegation as a key to success.

    • Gina Fedeli

      I agree with your insight John that often the most talented players will leave an organization when the leadership team is unwilling to teach and mentor new skills. There is a level of risk with passing over responsibilities however through partnership and communication, that risk can be kept to a minimum.

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