The Art of Delegation

Six experts share words of wisdom on creating community through delegation.

The task is at hand—a series or movie—and as the person in charge, you are the one who has to make sure things are operating like the proverbial well-oiled machine. To accomplish this, you will need to hand off large portions of work to various team members. In short, delegate, a task that can be as challenging as it is necessary. But as supervisors within the field of animation and experts in management will tell you, the art of delegation can be mastered if you have the right tools.

The Experts
Be Open

With apologies to Billy Shakespeare (who not only wrote a few plays, he also helped run a theater company), some are born managers. Some achieve manager-ium, and some have management thrust upon them. Many people who end up running shows or supervising departments start their careers as artists and move up through the ranks. Some are groomed to be supervisors. Others are tapped perhaps before they express interest or even before they’re necessarily ready to lead. 

As for the best managers, they are the people who want to be managers, according to Upton. “It sounds simple and straightforward, but not everyone wants [this]. People typically start a career because they love the craft,” but the further they go, they might find themselves forced into a management position. “Sometimes that’s fine,” Upton says, “because you may be inclined and interested in developing those skills.” But it’s important that this inclination and interest is genuine.

Leadership, particularly within a creative industry like animation, also takes a special mindset—an openness to, well, being open to others. 

“One of my guiding principles is [to] embrace humanity,” says Upton. “No matter what process you use or what delegation techniques you apply, the people on the receiving end are the trump cards. So I think it’s important to come from an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to everything you do as a leader. It’s a bit about being humble.”

Enjoy the Ride

Certainly, there are deadlines and deliverables that come with any project. But as any Type A creative will tell you, when you focus too much on plowing through the work just to get it done, that’s when the quality suffers. The same goes for management, says Walker, who maintains that supervisors who delegate with a “get-it-done mindset” can miss the bigger picture. 

“It sets you up for a really bad frame of mind,” she explains. With all of your attention on the endpoint, it’s hard not to think of every step as “my work,” and the idea of someone else doing “my work” can be stressful. So you end up doing—or micromanaging—everything yourself. 

A more productive way of thinking is to view the project as a system. As the manager, how do you make your system as robust as possible? What resources do you have? How can you deploy those resources to make things work effectively? In this way, “my work” becomes “our work” and the outcome is a natural result of the process.

Choose Wisely

In a perfect world, you are given full control over each of the departments you oversee. You are also given ample time to hand-pick every team member, each of whom is someone you have worked with multiple times before. You know their style; they know yours; you speak an unspoken language, and the work distribution flows naturally. 

In the real world, the above-detailed scenario doesn’t often happen. You probably have some creative control over who is in your department, but you will inherit team members who have been selected by producers or other higher ups. In addition, crews shift from movie to movie, and series staff can change from season to season as members move on to other shows and new people need to be brought in. All of this is common. But when you’re dealing with people whose work you don’t know, there may be an adjustment period of figuring out who does what and to what extent. 

Davila looks for people with strong time-management skills who don’t have problems hitting deadlines. She also looks for those who seem especially skilled at managing their own departments. One example is Katya Bowser, a storyboard director on one of Davila’s current shows (not to mention TAG Shop Steward at Atomic Cartoons). 

“Katya had never directed before, but I had seen how well she listened and worked with artists on other shows,” says Davila. “Her strong board skills definitely gave her an edge when we were looking at all our directing candidates, but it was her ability to lead, rather than micromanage or talk down to people, that really put her at the top of our list. It seemed like a little thing at the time to work well with others, but seeing how she’s stepped up into leadership positions in the Union and how well she works with greener artists really sealed the deal. She’s been an incredible asset to our show.”

The result: Davila doesn’t get bogged down in just one department and has more time to work with all the departments on her show. 

Offer Opportunities

In a creative industry, it’s not just about who is—on the surface—best able to do the work. You may have multiple people with varying skills and talents who could be plugged into different situations if the need arises. Delegating is about empowering your team as much as it is about getting the work done. When you give someone a chance to spread their wings, it can produce great results. 

Within his team, McKee seeks out people with diverse skills sets, both artistically and technically, and people who are fun and will be able to keep things light. He also looks for people whose work has shown promise, but who may not have received the recognition they deserved … until now. 

“I’m always looking to give people opportunities,” he says. “It’s incredibly important. In addition to having the senior people you depend on, I’m also looking for new artists who show promise. As you‘re doing that, you’re fulfilling their needs because they’re growing and they’re also getting these opportunities to shine.” 

“The deepest job satisfaction tends to come from having our existing talents recognized, utilized, and valued,” Walker says. “People enjoy doing what they are good at.”

Hold on and Let Go

With your team in place, it should be easy to just let the various departments do their jobs while you make sure everything is on track. But suppose you came from the creative side of animation, and suppose you still love doing the tasks that you now oversee?

With all of your attention on the endpoint, it’s hard not to think of every step as “my work,” and the idea of someone else doing “my work” can be stressful. So you end up doing—or micromanaging—everything yourself.—Carol Walker

That’s okay, as long as you recognize your limits. There will be a certain necessary amount of letting go, of realizing that you no longer have the time to step in and take over a task that now falls to a department that you supervise. But there’s no rule that you are required to delegate absolutely everything. 

Neary, who took great delight in storyboarding throughout his career, heeded the advice of Steven Universe creator, Rebecca Sugar, who counseled that a showrunner still needed to draw on their own show as a kind of treat. “You have to reward yourself for your own satisfaction,” Neary says. “Once you realize that, you can assign yourself some shots and not worry about having to do every single thing.” 

Of course, there will be times when circumstances demand that you give the responsibility to someone else. Neary recalls a recording session for an episode of The Fungies! that would feature the voice of Stephin Merritt of the band The Magnetic Fields. A huge fan, Neary wanted to be present for the session himself. One slight hitch: his partner was going into labor for the birth of their first son.

With his time limited, “I needed to hand this off to my director, Katie Aldworth,” says Neary. “She’s amazing and a super-talented artist who has been in so many sessions. The problem wasn’t her covering for me. The problem was me letting go and realizing, ‘Hey, you’ve got other stuff to do right now. You’re pretty busy, and that’s okay.’”

Clarify Before You Clarify

Communication is a critical factor of management and delegation—giving your team members a clear and consistent idea of what is expected of them, and letting them know that you are there to answer questions or address problems as they arise. 

Admittedly, the COVID landscape that drove many to work remotely has created additional hurdles to keeping everyone on track. But the basic principles apply across the board, starting with this one: Task-setting or delegating meetings should be held early, but not so early that you’re not yet firmly clear about what you want or expect.

“This may sound obvious, but many leaders make the mistake of starting a delegation discussion with their employees while they’re still in brainstorming mode,” says Osman. “This problem is further exacerbated when coupled with the fact that employees usually won’t question their manager’s request because they want to avoid being perceived as incompetent. An invitation to discussion from a manager may instead be interpreted as a hard directive, leaving subordinates to try and execute ambiguous tasks. These factors can lead to situations where employees are confused about delegation expectations, which can result in failure.”

Evaluate and Teach

The work has come in, and it’s close, but not there yet. The more hands-on person might be tempted to step in and quickly finish up the job. That’s how Davila was inclined to proceed as a storyboard director. But as a supervising producer, she realized that the process wasn’t working. 

Back when she was the storyboard director, she could open up the storyboard file and mark the poses she wanted or give the revision notes and say, “Here you go. I wrote down which shots need what. Get to work on this, give it back to me, and I’ll review it and send it on to the editor.”

Now that she’s supervising, she attends meetings with executives to discuss music, casting, and other aspects of the show. She no longer has the time between reviewing and sending work to the editor to make final corrections herself. “I found that the more I did [this], the more I was stretching myself too thin,” she says. “And I wasn’t really letting [my staff] learn. I had to back off.” 

Set Yourself Free

A good manager knows their strengths and weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of their team. One of the benefits of becoming a supervisor is the ability to delegate things that are less in your wheelhouse to team members who A) might be grateful for the assignment and B) might therefore do it more skillfully than you would. 

There’s no shame in giving a task away. It can be one of the best ways to set up an effective system, according to Walker. “To me there is nothing more powerful than saying to a second-in-command, ‘Look, you are fantastic at this. It doesn’t come as naturally to me. Would you be interested in taking over this aspect?’ This is incredibly empowering,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to delegate stuff just because your brain doesn’t work as well in that area. That’s strength, not weakness.”  

*Osman’s views are his own and not those of Cisco Systems.