How Executives Delegate Without Losing Control

Mark S A Smith

By Mark S A Smith

Does your to-do list get longer every day?

Are you swamped by the urgent but unimportant tasks that don’t move you toward your strategic initiatives?

Would you like to delegate tasks but been burned by poor performance or untimely output of your subordinates?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, read on.

Why Triage Your Tasks?

You can make only so many decisions in a day. Tasks you can delegate squander your most valuable resource, your cognitive capacity – the ability to handle the complexity of your organization.

Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day because it was one less decision he had to make, reserving his cognitive capacity for strategic thinking.

“Executives have more on their to-think list than on their to-do list.”

Even if a task takes a moment and you can do it better than anyone else, look to delegate it so that you can focus on your key strategic initiatives, the purpose of your job.

What’s Your Time Worth?

You’re responsible for $480 per hour of revenue for every $million in revenue. The formula: $1m / (8 hour * 5 days * 52 weeks) = $480.77 per hour.

You should never do tasks that you can outsource for less than your time is worth to the company. Entrepreneurs have the hardest time with this because they can do everything in the company and believe they can save money by performing the task, unaware that they’re severely limiting their ability to scale.

Dump, Delay, Delegate, Do

Classic time management recommends that you triage tasks using the mantra: dump, delay, delegate, do.

Dump – eliminate the task.

Delay – defer the task until later and the demand might just go away.

Delegate – oh, there it is. Can you get someone else to perform the task?

Do – as a last resort.

The problem: for many executives, delegation equates to abdication of accountability. That’s when you get burned.

The solution: Here’s an eight-step process to clear everything possible from your to-do list yet still retain accountability.

1) List All of Your Tasks

Review your past month of to-dos. Make a list of everything that shows up on that list to analyze what you can delegate. Don’t skip anything. If it demanded a minute of your attention, put it on your list.

2) Who is the Scorekeeper and What Do They Want?

For each task, identify the scorekeeper, the person or organization that’s placing that demand on you. This is who you must satisfy with the task outcome. Once you’ve identified the scorekeeper, you can then decide their satisfaction criteria. For example:

Taxes –> CPA and IRS –> timely, accurate
Strategic initiatives –> shareholders, board of directors, yourself –> effective, contributes to the mission
Travel arrangements –> yourself –> comfortable, convenient, cost effective
Sales strategy –> yourself, your VP of sales –> timely, strategic, solves tactical issues
Shareholder report –> shareholders, board of directors –> timely, accurate
Spouse’s birthday present –> yourself and your spouse –> “How thoughtful! Just what I wanted!”

3) What Skills Are Required?

For each task, identify the skillset required to meet the satisfaction criteria.

Unskilled – a task that can be accomplished by a low-wage person with a simple checklist, includes cleaning, filing, sorting, setting up a meeting room, ordering catering, etc. You should never do these tasks.

Semi-skilled – a task that can be performed by one with experience, such as travel arrangements, compiling reports, creating simple spreadsheets, bookkeeping, and writing standard correspondence. While you’ll be tempted, you must delegate these tasks.

Skilled – A task performed by a skilled professional as their career, often licensed or degreed, such as tax preparation, financial analysis, marketing strategy, sales copy, operational analysis, and IT administration. You have no business doing these jobs because they’ll be much better at it than you are.

Strategic – A task that requires experience, business acumen, leadership, cognitive capacity, cultural context, and the ability to foresee the future. These are the items that you’ll want to keep on your to-do list. Includes negotiating, strategy development, major purchase decisions, and executive peer conversations. This is your prime job and no one can do it better.

4) Identify the Best Person to Delegate

Your new mantra is eliminate, simplify, automate, outsource, and insource.

Can you eliminate the task? Ruthlessly dump anything that doesn’t contribute to your outcome. Often these are legacy tasks that no longer serve a valuable purpose.

Can you simplify the task to delegate to a lower skill set? Can you create a checklist that you can outsource to an unskilled person?

Can you automate the task? Many common tasks can be automated with web tools such as Zapier, Mulesoft, and Microsoft Office Suite. Consider using a business process consultant to help with this.

Can you outsource the task? Consider finding a vendor to perform the task. This lets you turn the cost into a variable expense and scale up without having to hire new people. Outsource vendors have their own processes that potentially mean higher quality, faster turnaround, and lower costs.

As a last resort, insource the task. Who in your organization can execute the task? Do they have the capacity to take on the task: do they have the knowledge, can they physically accomplish it and not impact other assigned tasks, and do they want to do the task. Key: make sure that your delegated task doesn’t impact their other duties, or you’ll cause friction with their scorekeeper.

5) Document the Task Procedure

Turn each task into a procedure with step-by-step instructions. A task has a start trigger, a procedure, inputs, outputs, a stop trigger, and quality control. There may be a timeline and milestones for a complex task that lets you manage it. Build in milestone triggers to alert you when a task needs to be partially completed.

“The secret to consistency: document what you do and do what you document.”

The fastest way to do this:
a) Start the audio recorder on your smart phone and tell the story about how you execute the task. Include information about the acceptable level of performance. E.g., you don’t want graphic design effort on an internal report that gets filed but do want a customer-facing document to conform to your branding standards.
b) Transcribe the audio recording ( does this fast and cheap).
c) Read the transcription to the delegate you want to perform the task watching them execute the task.
d) Watch for unclear instructions, missing steps, and quality control metrics. Update your task procedure document.

Congratulations, you’ve just started to systematize your work.

6) Determine the Task Triggers

Identify the situation that triggers a task and the output that stops a task. You’ll use these triggers to automatically cause the task to get done. Is the task routine, such as a Monday report, or on demand, such as when you’ve scheduled an out of town meeting?

7) Build a Delegate Calendar

Create an on-line delegate calendar, like Google Calendar, that hosts all of the stop triggers and milestone triggers. This keeps your calendar clear, yet lets you stay on top of the delegated tasks.

When you want to trigger a delegated task, just schedule it on your delegate calendar, triggering the task assignment via email to the delegate. When they agree to the “appointment” they’ve confirmed that they’ve accepted the task.

Routine tasks get scheduled as recurring events.

Part of your daily routine becomes checking the delegate calendar to monitor progress and assure that the tasks get completed on time.

8) Feedback and Troubleshooting

Make sure you provide lots of feedback during the initial delegation phase until the task gets performed smoothly and on time. Then providing regular feedback with appreciation will go a long way to keep the delegate motivated.

If the delegate’s work is unacceptable, go back to the procedure document to determine if the problem is a flawed procedure, “don’t know”, or if a situation came up that they “can’t do”, or if they’ve lost motivation and “don’t care.” This lets you quickly troubleshoot the root cause and fix the problem.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully delegated your tasks without losing accountability for their completion. You now possess a valuable executive skill that will last you a lifetime.


Mark S A Smith works with leaders to predictably grow their organization through upgraded executive leadership skills and effective customer acquisition systems. He regularly hosts the Executive Strategy Summit. If you want to up-level your executive mindset, skillset, and toolset, plan to attend. You’ll leave with a fresh, Monday-ready plan for your organization. Details at Connect with Mark at or


Leave A Comment