Delegation is a unique skillset — Many people don’t realize that the star player isn’t always the best team captain. While it’s extremely helpful to understand the nuance of the task you’re delegating, delegation can be extremely effective even if the person delegating knows nothing about the task they’re delegating. More valuable things are knowledge on their personal limitations, an understanding of the strengths of the person they’re delegating to, clear goals they want to achieve, and an openness to discuss what the best way to achieve those are with someone who may know better how to accomplish the task. It is incorrect to assume someone good at a job can effectively delegate and realize it’s worth investing energy into teaching people how to do so.
As part of my series about the “How To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anahita Dalmia.
She recently graduated with a B.A. in Narrative Studies at the University of Southern California. She is a two-time published author and co-founder of Alterea (Yes, it’s a play on Alternate Reality). Alterea (www.altereainc.com) creates large-scale immersive experiences allowing participants to enter a different world in which they have agency and impact within an unfolding story. In Anahita’s free time, you’re equally likely to find her at a Forbes conference or exploring secret underground tunnels.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always been a little preoccupied with fantasy. My favourite pastime was imagining how things would play out if I was in those incredible situations myself — I remember sitting and spending hours in the bus to and from school staring out of the window and envisioning the first Pokemon I would pick and which friends I would take with me on my adventure.
I then went into 4 years of theatre in high school, which encouraged me to bring my imagination to life in a live, visceral sense. I became obsessed with the question of how to create experiences in which each person can be a hero and impact an unfolding narrative with their decisions. My first attempt to create this kind of work was a Halloween themed maze which turned into a city-wide carnival with over 200 students involved, 50 stalls, music shows, competitions and art auctions.
In college, drawing inspiration from my maze, created a Harry Potter themed experience in which participants competed in a Tri-Wizard tournament and contributed to an unfolding battle for which we welcomed over 400 participants. Next year, I applied the lessons from this earlier attempt and created a mythology themed experience with an even larger budget, team and story world. Using all of this experience, I finally founded Alterea to produce such experiences professionally.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
One of the most formative experiences was when I came up with the Halloween Maze I organized in high school. I first needed to give a proposal to my school for which I needed to figure out how to accomplish the task; set up an organizational structure; recruit for very specific positions, and then define a plan of action to meet our production goals. The month spent putting this together was incredibly intense. Yet despite our efforts, the school rejected our idea by saying that we wouldn’t be able to implement it.
My mother encouraged me to submit the proposal to the Rotary and we incentivized 200 students from across the city to work with us before we had a budget and even a venue confirmed. We finally got a venue but it was only available a later during which month we had summer vacation and SATs and after which we had exams. I had to choose whether or not to take the venue and by making that decision, I risked losing many teammates. I remember the gut wrenching stress that came with the decision: a number of people who had put tremendous love and time into this project and trusted me to make it. If I made the wrong decision, I wasn’t just screwing myself over; I was taking everybody else down with me. I’d much rather just go down alone. The only thing that kept me going was that we were so close. We had accomplished so much and we could achieve so much more — if we just held on for a little longer.
Despite the roadblocks, the event finally happened. I was initially upset that it wasn’t exactly as I envisioned. But it was all worth it when a team member came to me saying he didn’t want this event to end because it “made him feel extraordinary.” I had accomplished what I wanted. Bizarre, my project, had changed lives, including mine.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The first time we were building my Halloween Maze we didn’t try building the structure before that day and we turned up day-of with plenty of cloth and paint — but no way of hanging the cloth. We were missing nuts, bolts, hammers and all the other connective materials. Luckily, we managed to run to the market and grab everything we needed. But that moment still carries a lot of metaphorical significance.
The bigger elements can’t stand without the smaller ones. It’s crucial to get into the details of building something to prepare appropriately and necessary to test beforehand to catch problems before the final date.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of our most striking qualities is that we’re a very young company that came together in college. The majority of our team is still in college or recent grads, which makes us responsive to the desires of Millenials and Gen Z: our generation. Furthermore, this started out (and still is) a passion project. So the team remains intrinsically motivated and holds themselves to a very high standard — all while having fun. Our collegiate roots allowed us to gather people from a variety of backgrounds and build strong professional and friendly relationships with each other. Especially considering we’ve done several projects together forming a company and inched closer to our ideal team every time. We’re used to working with nothing, so we’re very adaptable and take risks to achieve our goals.
Our adaptability and commitment became especially apparent when the pandemic hit. While most companies in our industry collapsed, we pivoted. We built our Agents of Influence: a digital spy adventure to combat misinformation during these trying times. As we’re old enough to know what we’re doing but young enough to live on our parent’s couches, we were able to pour time into something that was less financially secure because we believed in it. I remember asking everybody during a meeting what they were most grateful for. 4/6 people said the support and dedication of the team.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is an extremely tough question — one that we’re still struggling to find an appropriate answer for. I think it’s particularly tough in our industry because people’s personal ‘hobbies and interests’ often overlap with professional obligations. As such, it’s extremely hard to draw a line between professional and personal life. Here are some things that we’re still figuring out how to implement that might help:
- Draw that line: Have days off, regularly scheduled work hours, and other processes to separate work from personal life. These are not always implementable in our industry and that’s important to remember. But it should be clearly defined when exceptions should be made.
- Make a list of ‘Burn Out Processes’: that can be referred to when people start feeling burnt out. Things like, ‘If it’s late at night, go to sleep, You can’t be creative if you’re feeling exhausted.’ It’s worth it to compile tips and tricks that have worked in the past and can be independently referred to when the occasion arises.
- Keep the purpose in mind: Many people often encourage younger people to “do what you love”. I disagree. Do what makes you feel purposeful. Because it’s impossible to love what you’re doing 100% of the time. You’ll feel burnt out, start resenting the work and want to quit. Instead, if you feel like you’re moving towards a meaningful destination, you’ll accept that sometimes things will be hard and unpleasant. The important thing to remember is that it’ll be worth it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m very grateful to my mother, who actively made efforts to remove any roadblocks we encountered. But I would also like to call out to my friend and teammate: Lillianne John. During the first event I ever did, Bizarre Carnival, she encountered me sitting on the high school field and trying to draw a maze by eyeballing dimensions of the venue. She then helped me draw the space and sent me computer-generated plans that evening with the games marked.
Lillianne took full ownership of the project even when it seemed like it was on the brink of failure — and she played an enormous part in making it happen. She took control of operations, staying with me till 3am to make pitch decks and a website, sending emails, and even writing affidavits. If I was the heart of the event, she was the brain. I absolutely could not have done it without her. She taught me so much about operations which has allowed me to accomplish every single project I have after my first one. And her investment in the project held me accountable to delivering what I had initially attempted to; it was her involvement that made the matter bigger than me. Made it worth fighting for. And she armoured me, supported me and accompanied me for every battle.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Delegating effectively is a challenge for many leaders. Let’s put first things first. Can you help articulate to our readers a few reasons why delegating is such an important skill for a leader or a business owner to develop?
Delegating is an absolutely crucial skill to develop because significant growth is impossible until it is utilized. And when done effectively, it exponentially accelerates growth. It’s literally impossible for one person to do everything due to limitations in time, skill, and perspective. By delegating effectively, the whole becomes much bigger than the sum of its parts and it allows leaders to grow their organizations in ways they often could not have imagined alone.
Can you help articulate a few of the reasons why delegating is such a challenge for so many people?
- Delegation is a unique skillset — Many people don’t realize that the star player isn’t always the best team captain. While it’s extremely helpful to understand the nuance of the task you’re delegating, delegation can be extremely effective even if the person delegating knows nothing about the task they’re delegating. More valuable things are knowledge on their personal limitations, an understanding of the strengths of the person they’re delegating to, clear goals they want to achieve, and an openness to discuss what the best way to achieve those are with someone who may know better how to accomplish the task. It is incorrect to assume someone good at a job can effectively delegate and realize it’s worth investing energy into teaching people how to do so.
- Trust — It’s impossible to effectively delegate if you don’t trust the person you’re delegating to can get the job done. Trust is a two way street — it needs to be given but it also needs to be earned. Sometimes, the problem is that the person delegating believes that they are the best person to do most of the important things, an attitude which is detrimental to the growth of the company. But on the flip side, teammates need to perform when given the opportunity to earn the trust of the person delegating.
- You can’t assume everybody functions the same way — Different people need different things when you’re delegating to them. They need different resources, different ways of explaining things, different levels of instruction, and have different motivations. Until you can recognize what the motivations of each teammate are and what they need to effectively get the job done, you will always be delegating ineffectively to certain people.
- Inability to communicate the initial vision — my favourite quote about communication is “the biggest mistake people about communication is assuming it happened. People have biases and assumptions and often what you mean will be incorrectly interpreted. As such, it’s essential to set up systems to make the initial communication as clear as possible — with written communication along with verbal communication and, if necessary, visual cues. Regular check-ins should then be scheduled at different stages of the production process to catch anyone entirely off-track.
In your opinion, what pivots need to be made, either in perspective or in work habits, to help alleviate some of the challenges you mentioned?
- Differentiate between the star player and team captain — don’t just promote the best salesperson to the sales manager. Make a list of qualities of a good leader and delegator. Ensure that the person you have in the delegation position isn’t just good at the job, but good at getting the most out of the team. And don’t glorify the leadership position to mis-motivate star players to desire that role; you’re reducing the effectiveness of the individual and the team by putting them in that situation and it’s important to acknowledge their value as a star player.
- Be particular in your recruitment process and give people time to work together/ learn about each other to build trust (bonus points in getting ‘captain’ involved in recruitment)
- Have conversation on work styles/ personal quirks. Do group exercises that highlight differences with lessons on how to deal with them
- Recognize delegation is an investment — the process of delegation and training requires people to expend resources, time and energy up-front for long term benefit–even though it can lead to short term cost. Expect that short term cost.
Can you please share your “Five Things You Need To Know To Delegate Effectively and Be Completely Satisfied With the Results?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- Plan Effectively — There are a number of factors to consider while delegating: the time to onboard someone compared to the time to do it yourself; the skills, availability, and interests of the person you’re delegating to; as well as team dynamics. Delegating is an early investment of time to create a better product than you could have made alone. Yet when badly planned, it typically leads to miscommunication, wasted time, a subpar product, and frustration on all ends. When I asked a teammate to write up a post for recruitment which was a one time task and I had clear specifications for, it took me as much time to edit their draft as it would’ve taken me to write it myself showing that that was bad delegation. But there is no way I could’ve written 15 scripts for the same project, so it was necessary to onboard a dedicated writer.
- Delegate to the right people — I remember once we were working on a project and I asked the team, “Who would like to do this? You know, Jasper, you’re pretty good at this…” Even though it was a boring note-taking task, Jasper had laughed and quipped “Ah yes, flattery is the best form of delegation.” While the action was mostly subconscious, if you delegate to the right people then they should be able to do the task better than you would have been able to and draw some level of satisfaction from doing it. Each teammate brings unique strengths that are needed to complete the goal and, in the best teams, it’s almost intuitive who will be doing what task because each person’s role and capabilities are so clear.
- Find optimal level and style of collaboration and communication: Each person functions differently and it’s important to understand what resources, information and support they need to do their best work. Some people need one page write-ups of assignments with examples, inspirational references and the criteria for a good deliverable. Other people just need goals. Some people prefer sweetened feedback and time to arrive at the conclusion you reached, with suggestions on how to fix problems. Others want to-the-point feedback and space to figure out appropriate solutions themselves. When I take the same problem to two of my teammates, one of them wants to talk until they find out how to fix it and another always asks if we can come back to this in a few hours so he can think about it. Both are fine, but it’s important to give each such teammate the space to ask for what they need and provide it to them.
- Empower them to own the job — We don’t use the word employees, we use the word ‘collaborators’. We make sure everyone is aware of their contributions to the big picture and that the end product is our collective responsibility. Our teammates volunteer for jobs, even though we suggest who we think may be best suited to fulfill it. This makes people take more ownership of what they are directly doing — but we keep them involved in things they’re not directly responsible for as well. While developing our most recent project, Agents of Influence, each game designer pitched a game and was responsible for its execution. But they workshopped different games, gave extensive feedback to others, and incorporated detailed suggestions to make a product that was far from only theirs. They took responsibility for its development and, many times, they held themselves to even higher standards of performance than I would because of their pride in what they were working on.
- Trust and respect — One of my teammates once joked that, even when they know they’re doing work for me, I make it feel like a privilege for them to do so. And the heart of that is really trust and respect. I always pick the best people to accomplish a task, so when I ask someone to do something they perceive it as a compliment to their abilities. It’s important to give teammates almost complete control of whatever task they’re doing, even while providing guidance and goals, as they should do it better than you can. Furthermore, to be respectful of people’s time and retain their trust, be completely transparent about what people gain by working with you — compensation, recognition, appreciation, an opportunity to learn something new, and, sometimes, even nothing — with an opportunity to turn down the ask. Unless people trust each other and respect their abilities, delegation is impossible.
One of the obstacles to proper delegating is the oft quoted cliche “If you want something done right do it yourself.” Is this saying true? Is it false? Is there a way to reconcile it with the importance of delegating?
I think this is blatantly untrue. A truer phrase is ‘If you want something done exactly the way you would do it, do it yourself.’ Many times, others can reach goals and accomplish tasks better than you can — but they might not do it exactly the way you would. I think this goes back to the idea of delegation is key to growth and to overcome the limitation, any and every individual has. Only people who value control over growth cannot take that leap.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Sounds super cheesy, but pursue what calls to you and pursue it relentlessly. Each person is unique with values, skills, interests and personalities. There is a place that they will be useful — and I would encourage them never to compromise on doing things they find value in.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!