Jacob Kaplan-Moss


How to Delegate Meeting Attendance

I want to wrap up my delegation series with a concrete example. Lots of management advice describes delegation in fairly vague or abstract terms. I’ve certainly been guilty of that in this series! There’s a good reason: there’s a surprising amount of theory behind effective delegation; as we’ve seen, it’s really not as simple as “hey Fred, please do X for me.” But, just covering theory means leaving new managers without a solid idea how to really execute delegation in practice.

So to close the series, let’s look at a very common delegation scenario: delegating meeting attendance. You don’t need to have read the previous parts in this series to follow this example, but you can use them to dig deeper and to understand the theory behind each part of this example.

If you’re a manager, you probably attend a ton of meetings. Your calendar might look like a game of Tetris (that you’re losing (badly)). To some degree, this comes with the territory: much of the important work of management happens in meetings, so if you want to be a successful manager you need to get okay with living your workdays in 30-minute increments.

However, most managers also need to find some time for deep work, and most struggle at finding time for that deep work around a calendar feel of meetings. One reason for this is that remarkably few managers delegate meeting attendance. There are likely to be several meetings on your calendar where outright skipping isn’t an option, but where you may not need to attend personally. Delegating those meetings to someone else on your team can be a great move: it frees up time on your calendar and allows your direct to practice new skills.

Here’s how I’d approach delegating a meeting:

1. Choose the right meeting

First: be sure that this is in fact delegation, and not task assignment. Delegation needs to have two purposes: getting work off your plate is one of them, but the other is giving an opportunity to the delegate. This means that when you’re looking to delegate a meeting, you should be looking to give the work to someone who’s looking for an opportunity the meeting might provide. For example:

  • You’ve got someone on your team looking to move into management (or from a line manager to a director, etc.); the meeting could be a chance for them to learn some new skills.
  • It’s a meeting that folks with lots of organizational power attend (i.e. directors, executives, important clients), so sending one of your directs will help get them more time working directly with that person, helping them build relationships and thus their own organizational power.
  • The meeting in question will set some important strategic direction, one that you’d like your delegate be directly involved with.
  • Your delegate is someone you’re training to be your replacement; this is a chance for them to learn more about what your role entails.

If it’s not something like this – if it’s just a way for you to free up some of your own time – it’s not delegation. It may still be a fine idea to assign the meeting to someone on your team, but understand that it would be task assignment, not delegation.

For more, see: What’s Delegation?

You should also generally choose a meeting that you enjoy or feel is valuable to attend. Again, this isn’t just about freeing up time. Great delegation means “giving away your toys” – choosing a meeting that is one of the better parts of your job.

In my case, this often means delegating planning sessions. I enjoy mapping out upcoming work, setting priorities, establishing direction and themes, etc. But project planning meetings are fantastic delegation opportunities. They require someone from my team to attend, but there’s no particular reason it has to be me. They are often time-consuming (especially activities like quarterly planning, which can be several hours or even days of meetings). They provide high exposure and visibility to whoever I delegate. So even though I quite enjoy this work, it’s something I seek to delegate.

For more, see: Give Away Your Toys

2. Clear a path, and make failure safe

Next, you’ll want to spend some time trying to set your delegate up for success. Once they attend, you’ll want to leave them alone to choose their tactics and to succeed or fail, but that doesn’t mean throwing them into a situation without some help.

In the case of a meeting, this means preparing the other attendees to know that your delegate is attending instead of you. If the stakes are fairly low, or if the meeting is unlikely to be contentious, or if you and your direct have strong relationships with everyone else who’ll be there, this can be as simple as a quick email or Slack message: “Hey, April’s going to be attending this meeting instead of me; whatever she decides is great with me.”

But if those things aren’t true – if it’s likely to be contentious, or if you or your delegate don’t work well with the rest of the group, etc. – it’s well worth your time to meet individually with everyone else who’ll attend and let them know that you’re delegating. These don’t have to be long meetings – 10-15 minutes is fine – but don’t skip this step unless you expect things to go smoothly.

However you do it, it’s important to be clear about the extent to which your delegate brings your authority with them. Delegation of work needs to include delegation of authority, and it’s important to make sure everyone knows this is the case. If there’s a decision to be made, everyone in the room needs to know that your delegate is empowered to make that decision.

Once you’ve cleared a path, and briefed your delegate (see below), you’ve done as much to set them up for success as possible, so you can be hands-off once the meeting takes place. Things could still go wrong, but it’s better to let delegates work at the edge of their abilities, even if it means a chance of failure.

For more, see: Make Failure A (Safe) Option

3. Brief & Teach

Delegation isn’t just “hey go do the thing”; effective delegation includes a briefing. In the context of delegating a meeting, this means:

  1. Ask, don’t tell. Again, delegation isn’t just task direction; it’s an opportunity for someone to step up. So, you should ask: “hey, I’d like to you attend this meeting instead of me, are you open to that?” Explain why you’re asking them, in particular: “I think you’re the best person on our team to do this work”, or “this is a great opportunity to practice some of those conflict resolution skills we’ve been talking about”, or “this’ll give you some time with our CTO, which will help that promotion case we’re making”, etc.

  2. If they say “yes” (or “tell me more”), brief them. At a minimum, you should:

    • Describe the meeting: the context behind the meeting (why it’s happening in the first place); who will attend; what the format is; what you expect to happen; what your role (and hence their role) will be; any challenges you anticipate; any required pre-work; and anything else you think is import for them to know

    • Explain the outcome(s) you’re looking for. It’s important to delegate outcomes, not methods: don’t tell your delegate what to do; explain the results you’re looking for and let them decide on how to achieve those results.

      For more, see: Delegate Outcomes, Not Methods

    • Cover whatever report-outs or deliverables you’ll expect. At a minimum, it’s probably a good idea to ask the delegate to report back to you (by email, Slack, in a weekly 1:1, etc.) about how things went.

    • Outline to what degree you’re delegating decision-making power. Most meetings (the good ones, at least) have some sort of goal or purpose: decisions to be made, work to be scheduled, roadmaps to be committed to, etc. When you delegate, you’re delegating your authority to some degree, and you need to outline where they can and can’t make commitments on your behalf.

      Ideally, the answer will be that you give them full authority. But, there might be areas where you can’t fully delegate. So map this out with them.

  3. Ask what help they need – what else they need to make them comfortable and confident. Answer questions, provide additional training material, etc.

One option for regularly scheduled standing meetings, if a single briefing seems to not be enough, is to work up to them taking over gradually. First, have them attend and observe you, and debrief after. Then, at the next meeting, reverse this: have them take over, but you’ll attend and observe (and debrief). If that goes well, they can take over and go it alone. This is particularly useful for meetings where a smooth handoff is important like recurring planning sessions, regular staff meetings, ongoing client meetings, etc.

For more, see: Briefing a Delegate

Wrapping up: questions?

That wraps up this series on delegation; I hope it’s been useful. My experience is that most managers don’t delegate nearly enough, so I’m hoping this has been a good resource for managers looking to delegate more (or more effectively).

If you have questions about delegation, let me know (@jacobian on Twitter, or email to jacob@<this domain>). I’d love to try to answer whatever questions you’ve got! If I get some good questions, I may do a follow-up answering some of them here on the blog.