As we are all aware, most college leaders have some obvious strengths but few have all the skills and technical know-how needed for running large, complex, multimillion-pound, organisations. To be successful, they need to build a senior team that complements their skillset and delegate.
This article is about why you should delegate, how you can do so effectively, what this will do for team members and what it can do for you.
Looking back over the two decades since I first became a principal, I recognise that I outsourced everything that wasn’t a natural strength. I spent my working life focused on what I do best and where I could make the biggest impact. Having become a peripatetic, part-time chief executive supporting a new person coming into the role, I am increasingly aware of how hard the work is without my office support.
While there is a disappointingly long list of things that I now recognise I am not very good at, I am a consummate delegator.
Now, you might be tempted to think that delegation is easy – handing out tasks to your direct reports and sitting back. Or you might feel that, as leader, you have to do most of the work yourself or, worse still, that you are the only person who can be trusted to deliver.
I would argue that successful delegation is hard work and takes great skill. In the first instance, you have to surround yourself with talented and conscientious senior staff whom you need to nurture, build trust in and form into a team. That cannot happen unless you have a clear and compelling vision of what the college is trying to achieve and you ensure that colleagues feel confident about your expectations of them.
Clarity about vision and values is essential for effective delegation. Unless you are going to micromanage, individuals will need a framework for sense-checking and making decisions. You do not want them to be second-guessing what you would do at key moments – you want them to test the options against the college’s vision and values.
Give them the responsibility but keep your door open in case they need to run details by you or hit a problem where your experience could save time. Resist the temptation to treat this interaction as an opportunity to show how clever you are – rather, use it to develop their thinking skills.
Leaders rightly focus on succession planning, and this will provide a rich source of information about where potential lies.
When delegating, remember to ensure that there is awareness of each team member’s responsibilities while stressing the collective responsibility for success.
Get delegation right and college staff will have access to a variety of role models and different styles of leadership. Colleagues will feel more valued and will appreciate the experience they are gaining, and it will galvanise the team. One of the challenges of the principal’s role is its sheer breadth. Unless you delegate, you are unlikely to have the breathing space needed to think strategically. As a leader, you don’t have to be expert in every aspect of the college’s work but you must be clear on what you need to know.
I am not a trained accountant and have never felt an urge to study the 15 pages of the forward cash flow closely or get to grips with our online financial ordering system. The latter is in the same category as our online risk-management system as being a source of deep frustration for me. However, I am focused on what the college needs to do to maintain its financial strength. I work really hard on developing the overall strategy and understanding the nuances of the key risks, even if I remain incapable of updating any online system. In essence, leadership is about doing high-level tasks of coordination, which is where my skillset truly lies.
This is a tough time for FE but if you can build a team of highly skilled professionals and give them the freedom and confidence to lead in their specialisms, then you have a fighting chance.
As John C Maxwell, the US leadership expert, put it: “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”
Tips for effective delegation
Recognise that successful delegation is hard work and takes great skill.
Surround yourself with a talented and conscientious senior team.
It is essential to have clarity about the college’s vision and values.
When giving advice to your team, resist the temptation to treat it as an opportunity to show how clever you are. Instead, develop their thinking skills.
Don’t try to be an expert in every aspect of the college’s work. Focus strongly on where you can add value and commit key information to memory.