Career Advice

Building Your Delegation Chops
Christian Knutson posted on January 06, 2015 |

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 see this as a good thing.  Equally as bad, they may not understand the opportunity they have to delegate.  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 give tasks to subordinates.  However, instead of leveraging their people to more effectively accomplish a project, many first time engineer-leaders horde the work.

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 a leadership role!

Getting Emotional About Delegation

Delegation is first and foremost an emotional issue.  Although we may be thought of as lacking emotions, engineers can be, perhaps, the most emotional when it comes to delegation.  Instilled with a strong desire to get the work done to our version of perfection we often lack the ability to willingly accept anything less than perfection.  This is what’s drilled into our minds through college and our early years in engineering positions.  Failure is not a desired option!

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 the organization 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

Let’s approach delegation from a different emotional mindset.  We understand delegation to be the act of entrusting a task or responsibility to another person, typically one that is less senior than oneself.  Most people enter into the delegation mode because the span of control of the work they’re entrusted with – that was what forced me into my first delegation foray.  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, it’s a nice process and once we get comfortable in letting go and accepting less-than-perfection life will be grand.  But this takes time and for some the comfort needed to be a delegation maestro may never come.

So let’s approach delegation from a different mindset, one of service.

Delegating isn’t about you.  It’s about your team.  When you delegate with a mindset of service, you allow your emotions into the process but this time from a position of positivity versus negativity.  Whereas before your mindset was all about getting more done without it being wrong, from a mindset of service you’re all about getting people engaged to get things done that will grow them into better engineers, better technicians, better assistants, 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 leadership and self-confidence.  And 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 all stakeholders affiliated with the project.  In review, delegating:

  • Allows you to focus on the tasks only you can do.
  • Gives subordinates a stake in the game.
  • Grows tomorrow’s leaders.
  • Increases workflow.
  • Capitalizes on the teams diversity.
  • Contributes to the teams esprit de corps.

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

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is international infrastructure development program manager, engineer, and author. He has 21 years of experience in leadership, management, engineering and international relations earned from a career in the U.S. Air Force and is author of The Engineer Leader, a recognized blog on leadership and life success for engineers and professionals.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

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