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The five levels of delegation

Module 4: Five levels of delegation

Companies can’t grow unless CEOs and executives understand how to delegate. Smart delegation helps develop the next generation of company leaders and frees up current leaders to focus on growing the company to the next level.

Delegation does not mean abdication. It means giving employees some level of authority to act on your behalf. It is more complex than simply giving someone a task and assuming they will complete it.

Employees need to demonstrate mastery at each stage of the Five Levels of Delegation before a manager can move them to the next. Likewise, managers need to assess employees’ skills at each level and coach them when they don’t get things right.

Level 1 – the report

All new employees need to start at Level 1 whether they are Senior VP or executive assistant. Give new employees a task or a problem to investigate and ask them to come up with some solutions. This first level of delegation puts information gathering in the hands of the employee, but keeps decision-making and control in the hands of the manager. You’ll never feel comfortable delegating to an employee if they do not know which information is factual, hearsay, or relevant to solving a problem.

What you say: “Investigate this problem. Report all the facts to me, then I’ll decide what to do.”

Level 2 – the recommendation

Once you are comfortable that your employee knows how to gather information, you can test their decision-making skills. Ask them to provide some alternative solutions to the problem they investigated, and tell you which one they would recommend. Again, you retain complete control of the decision that is ultimately made.

What you say: “Identify possible actions including the pros and cons of each, and recommend one for my approval.”

Note: If the employee doesn’t have good information gathering skills, or can’t come up with alternative solutions to problems, you should not progress them to Level 3. If they fail the first two levels a second time, that’s a big red flag.

The first level of delegation puts information gathering in the hands of the employee, but keeps decision-making and control in the hands of the manager

Level 3 – the action plan

Level 3 puts both the recommendation and design of the action plan in the hands of the employee, but keeps you in the role of decision-maker. Since most decisions run into problems during the implementation stage, it’s useful to discuss the proposed action plan with the employee before implementation begins. It gives you a chance to coach employees, help them anticipate problems, and discuss ways to deal with those problems.

What you say: “Let me know what you intend to do, but don’t take action until I approve the plan.”

Note: If the employee cannot develop an action plan and tell you how they would implement a decision, then that’s another red flag. You will never be comfortable delegating to anyone who can’t implement and execute.

Level 3 puts both the recommendation and design of the action plan in the hands of the employee

Level 4 – give independence 

By the time the employee gets to Level 4, you should be comfortable that they can formulate and implement an action plan. You can now begin to let the team member fly solo. Even though you will have less direct involvement, tell the employee you expect periodic updates and hold them responsible for briefing you on the outcomes.

What you say: “Decide what to do, take action, and then let me know how it all works out.”

Level 5 – full delegation

At Level 5, employees are ready to handle decision-making on their own, and to be held fully accountable for the outcome. However, there is one caveat: no surprises! Ask for exception reporting. Make sure that everyone knows that when there’s news – good or bad (i.e. exceptions to what we expect) – you want to hear it from them. Your goal is to get as many employees to Level 5 as possible so that you can move on to other tasks that only you can do.

What you say: “I trust your judgment, and believe your decisions will be in line with our mission, values, vision and strategy. I am fully delegating this to you, but expect exception reporting, meaning that I want to be in the loop when anything surprising happens."

However, there is one caveat: no surprises!


Delegation is a continually evolving process. Continually look for projects and responsibilities that you can delegate. As your company grows, make sure your team also learns how to delegate using the same five-level process described above. Your company’s growth depends on smart delegation at all levels.

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