Lessons on Leadership: Learning to Delegate

By Monica Compton, CMP, July 19, 2013

A hot topic in professional circles right now is job burnout, a feeling often experienced by hyper-organized, self-sacrificing overachievers in demanding industries whose intense dedication to their jobs makes it difficult to properly manage their professional and personal lives. It doesn’t only affect those who are late in their working years; it can happen at any stage of a career. Meeting planners, especially those who think they can do it all and fail to delegate, are particularly susceptible to burnout.

I started in this industry when I was 21 in an internship position. At 22, I was a full-time event planner. Now that I’m over 40, I look back and realize I experienced overworked fatigue and stress-heightened motivation that came with trying to be a “super planner” and manage all the details myself. Seven years into my career, I started getting help when I began managing a team of eight planners in three U.S. offices. We organized international meetings, and I worked an inordinate amount of hours and weekends. I quickly realized that managing people is far different than managing events. I had to become educated in the fine art of delegation.

Having always managed a myriad of meeting details on my own, learning to delegate was difficult. I had to determine which tasks could be delegated, who was capable of taking on each task and how to oversee the work at a macro-level. The latter was perhaps the most difficult. Up until this point, I had focused on the micro-level—each logistical element rather than the overall strategic vision, each line item of the budget rather than the bottom line. When you’ve reached a level within your organization that requires you to manage others, remember these rules about delegating:

1. Delegation begins with hiring. Before bringing anyone on your team, you need to determine what their job responsibilities will be, and more importantly, which of your tasks you’re willing to give up to them. Even interns need a vision of what tasks they will merely support and those they will eventually manage. (Yes, interns should be allowed to manage aspects of a project. This is how I was trained and eventually landed a job.) Hiring someone without knowing what responsibilities they will have is like booking a hotel without performing a site visit. Know the objective first and make sure the candidate fits with that vision.

2. Interns aren’t always the answer. At one time, I was responsible for the management of a series of CIO executive roundtables for a Fortune 100 computer company, both domestically and abroad. These meetings were high-level programs due to the seniority of the executives and partnerships with their valued customer reference accounts. Many of the keynote speakers were internationally known in the technology sector and required special handling. When these programs grew in number and global reach to the point where I needed assistance, I had to know the new hire would be able to manage all the details of a high-level roundtable and report to me with updates. I also knew I’d like the person eventually to manage the project solo. If you need someone to step into your shoes and run a program immediately with little training, an entry-level candidate is not an option. If your HR budget does not allow for more mid-level to senior experience, then the entry-level candidate must be trained to take over tasks. An intern tasked with taking on administrative tasks isn’t always the help you need.

3. Embrace trial-by-fire training. Many senior planners likely were hired to perform specific roles in an entry-level position and moved into more demanding positions as their responsibilities grew. Often this happens with thrown-into-the-fire training. It did for me. Once you begin to see a new hire can take on more tasks, give the person more responsibilities. Once, when working with a new hire, I decided to give her a challenge with little training or explanation to see how well she could analyze the situation and determine a solution. If she stepped out of the fire with a viable idea—or better yet, multiple resolutions to the challenge—I felt more comfortable delegating important responsibilities.

Managing and delegating are a marriage and a partnership of learning. As you train and develop the person you are supervising, you can at the same time determine which responsibilities he can handle and which are best to continue managing yourself until he has had more experience, more time to process, and more instances of stepping out of the flaming fire and on to the cool, concrete ballroom floor.

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