In a recent public talk with Esquire editor Jay Fielden, Virgin brand honcho Sir Richard Branson stressed that his ability to delegate is one of his most valuable skillsets – which he cultivated mainly because he likes to start and finish each working day with a tennis match.

As Branson told Fielden: “I learned from a young age the art of delegation, and that is absolutely, utterly critical in my life – and I believe it should be critical in anybody’s life. Whether you’re a manager in a big company or department head, you’ve got to be able to think about the bigger picture and move the company forward on the bigger areas that matter.”

The tycoon’s words chime with a Gallup poll of 2014, which highlighted the staggering performance advantages of Inc 500 CEOs classed as having high levels of so-called ‘delegator talent’. Of the 143 company chiefs that Gallup surveyed, those in that category posted an average three-year growth rate of 1,751% - that’s 112 percentage points greater than their counterparts with limited, or low, delegator talent. They also generated 33% more revenue.

But amid the cut and thrust of daily firefighting, how can leaders tell when delegation is appropriate? And what sort of outlook should they adopt that would make the process of delegation easier?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “Ronald Reagan had a strong line on this topic, which he boiled down as: ‘Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.’ He later came up with a more colloquial version of that to explain his appetite for delegation: ‘It’s true that hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?’ Now, clearly, Reagan coined that second quote with a certain glint in his eye, but the message remains pretty salient.”

James points out: “There’s so much to be said for the benefits of delegation, and yet I’d imagine it’s one of the areas of management with which leaders have the greatest struggle. If you are struggling with it, then I suspect that stems from a lack of trust. You’re not trusting people to take tasks on. Is that because they’re genuinely not good enough, or because you haven’t developed them sufficiently? Did you select the wrong people when you were hiring, or – having hired them – did you fail to provide them with the training that would have enabled you to hand important work over to them?

“Or there’s the flipside of that – it may not be an issue to do with the capacity or capability of the staff around you, but a kind of nervousness on your part: ‘If I do delegate this work, then what am I going to do?’ In other words, you may be suffering from an insecurity that if you farm out tasks becoming of your stature, then it makes you feel – or even worry that you’ll be regarded as – somewhat weakened.”

James explains: “So there are two levels to this inner struggle: one, ‘Do I trust people enough to take on this work?’, and two, ‘If I pass it on, then can I trust myself enough to use the time I’ve freed up to take on other challenges that befit my leadership role?’ And the answer to both those quandaries has to be an emphatic ‘Yes’. By all means, extend that trust – but remember that training, developing and preparing the people around you will make that decision so much easier.

“We at the Institute consider delegation an essential part of the empowering process. For a leader, taking ownership of particular areas of work and responsibility is a prelude to empowering their staff to do a great job through the channels of delegation. When the Institute talks about delegating, we always stress that is must be done appropriately. It’s only empowering if the person to whom you are passing the work has the required skills, responsibility and/or authority to carry it out effectively.”

He adds: “You need to have the confidence that your staff are going to succeed – because to delegate inappropriately, and almost set someone up for failure, is the absolute opposite of empowerment. Particularly if it’s then followed up with elements of blame: that’s when it becomes an abdication of leadership responsibility, when in fact it should be about encouraging others to deliver.”

For further thoughts on how to empower staff through delegation, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Sir Richard Branson enjoying the fruits of delegation courtesy of Dominic Lee of Priory Studios, via the Wikimedia Commons