You are working on a big project for your boss. You have been barricaded in your office for days trying to finish it. But that’s nothing new. Your employees know you are always super busy. You’ve been managing this team—sixteen people now—for several years. They know how to do their jobs, so you pretty much leave them alone unless something comes up. Unfortunately, something always does. Today, a crisis forces you to come whirling out of your office, determined to solve it quickly so you can get back to your “real work.” But solving the problem consumes most of your day. By the time you finally get back to your office, you are way behind schedule.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Most managers are so busy with their own “real work” that they think of their management work mostly as an extra burden. They avoid daily managing the way a lot of people avoid daily exercise; they manage only when they absolutely have to. As a result, they and their employees get out of shape, and unexpected problems crop up on a regular basis.
When problems get out of control, these managers can no longer avoid their responsibility and they spring into action. By that point, however, they have a very difficult task on their hands—they are trying to run ten miles when they are completely out of shape.
I call this phenomenon—managing only when it can no longer be avoided—“management by special occasion.” Most of these “special occasions” are big problems that need solving, but there are other special occasions too, such as assigning a new project to an employee, communicating a change from on high to the team, or recognizing a huge success. In the absence of some special occasion, though, most managers simply don’t manage.
The only alternative to management by special occasion is getting in the habit of managing every day.
The First Person You Need to Manage Every Day Is Yourself
If you were in poor physical shape, would you go for a ten-mile run? No. First, you might start training by taking a walk every day. After a few weeks, you might walk a little faster and longer and begin gaining some muscle tone. Over time, you start to jog, and eventually you become strong enough to run ten miles.
Effective managing is a lot like being in good physical shape; the hard part is getting in the habit of doing it every day no matter what obstacles come up. So stop letting yourself off the hook. Stay in touch with your true priorities. Make yourself do it every day, as if your health depended on it.
Start by setting aside one hour every day as your sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, do not fight fires. Use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average. That one hour every day is just for staying in shape; just for taking a walk.
- What if you don’t have much experience? You have to start somewhere.
- What if you don’t enjoy managing people in a hands-on manner? Do it anyway.
- What if you don’t think that you are skilled at managing? Practice, practice, practice until you become good at it.
- What if it makes you uncomfortable? Live with the discomfort. The more you manage people, the more comfortable you will become.
Taking those first steps toward effective managing takes discipline and guts. New behaviors, no matter how good they are, often don’t feel comfortable until they become habits. It is likely that you will feel the loss of your old comfortable habits, of your former role in the workplace, and of your current relationships with your employees. The transition period will be difficult and painful. But if you do it right, it is good pain. Like exercise pain, it makes you stronger.
After you’ve built more effective management habits, you’ll still have to deal with unexpected problems, but they won’t be the kinds of problems that could have been avoided. And you’ll still have to face plenty of difficult challenges when managing your employees—the occasional ten-mile run. But you’ll be in such good shape that you’ll be able to handle it effectively with confidence and skill.
Yes, it will be difficult, but it works—guts, discipline, and one hour a day.
The Second Person You Need to Manage Every Day Is Everyone Else
In an ideal world, you would talk with every single person—reviewing his work and setting him up for success—who calls you his boss every single day. You would take that management walk every day with every person.
Some managers favor team meetings instead of daily one-on-one talks, but team meetings are no substitute. When you meet with an employee, and look her in the eye, talk about expectations, ask for an account of her performance, review her work results, or provide feedback, there’s no place to hide. In a team meeting, however, it’s easy to hide…for both the manager and the employees.
Managers often feel more comfortable sharing difficult news or providing feedback to the whole team than talking directly to one person. The problem is, the difficult news or feedback is often aimed at only one or two people. So the rest of the team is confused and insulted. Meanwhile, the very people you are trying to “manage” in that team setting might not even realize that you are talking to them.
Managers tell me all the time about that team meeting in which they meant to shine a bright light on Ms. Blue, the employee who has been coming in late and taking too many long breaks. They announce at the meeting, “We have to stop coming in late. And we have to stop taking so many long breaks. Remember, you get two ten-minute breaks—and ten minutes means ten minutes.” Most of their employees are sitting there, puzzled, thinking, “What is he talking about? I come in early every day, and I hardly ever take breaks.” But the one employee the manager is really talking to is looking at her watch thinking, “Come on already. Wrap it up. I’ve got to take my break.”
It’s also a whole lot harder to tune in to each employee in a team meeting and focus on that person’s work in a way that will be meaningful and helpful. Often, team meetings feel pro forma and include lots of discussion about things that most of the people in the room don’t need to know and don’t care about. Meanwhile, details critical to one employee or another are inevitably omitted. Sometimes the best things to come out of a team meeting are the spontaneous one-on-one huddles that typically follow the meeting, because the meeting has made it clear that they are necessary.
Team meetings do have a place in good management, of course. Team meetings are ideal when you need to share information that is relevant to the whole team. And they are often necessary when many people are working interdependently and might benefit from listening to what others are doing, what issues are coming up in their projects, and so on. Yes, team meetings have their place. Just don’t fool yourself, the team meeting is a totally different animal from the one-on-one conversation.
How Can You Manage Sixteen or Sixty People Every Day?
Managerial spans of control have gotten wider and wider, and, thus, most managers are responsible for too many people. Without a doubt, this has contributed to the undermanagement epidemic. Faced with managing sixteen, sixty, or even more employees, managers throw their hands up in frustration. They say to me, “How can I possibly talk one-on-one with every single employee, every single day, in just one hour a day?” Instead, they hide in their offices, complete the required management paperwork, and do little else. No wonder there is so much “management by special occasion.”
If you hide in your office you leave a power vacuum on the day-to-day management front. Then you will run into what I call “the ringleader problem.” Ad hoc ringleaders will emerge to fill the vacuum. Often these ringleaders are the squeaky wheels who have good personal relationships with other employees or some brand of charisma. Sometimes they assert their authority and influence in ways that are self-serving and often damaging to the team. They tell people, “Slow down. You’re making me look bad.” Sometimes they form cliques, bully others, and spread rumors. More often they are simply self-deceived mediocre performers who believe they are high performers. They offer guidance, direction, and support to their coworkers, but they often lead people in the wrong direction.
Do You Have a Chain of Command?
Reality check—Do you really have sixteen or sixty people…or whatever number of people…who directly report to you? Or do you have a “chain of command,” that is, employees who are actually managers or supervisors or team leaders who are supposed to be managing some of the other employees in your group?
If you have a chain of command, you must use it effectively. Make a habit of talking to these supervisors or team leaders every day and focus intensely on helping them play the role you need them to play. Teach them how to manage on an ongoing basis, and manage how they manage every step of the way. Just as you are working hard to be a great boss, they need to do the same.
If you don’t have a chain of command, maybe you should establish one. Although it’s best to avoid unnecessary layers of management, if you have sixteen or sixty people, you simply cannot afford to be the only leader on the team. Cultivate and develop high performers who are in your inner circle, who share your priorities and help you keep the team focused on the work at hand. Developing new leaders, even informally, will help you extend your reach. You can use them as temporary project managers and deputize them when you are not available. But don’t give anyone management responsibilities of any kind, formal or informal, unless you are prepared to focus on that leader intensely and personally manage that leader’s management practices very closely.
You Have to Make Choices Every Day
No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your dedicated management time.
One very effective manager in a busy hospital taught me this simple reality about making choices: “I have thirty-two nurses that report directly to me and no chain of command. Twelve of those nurses regularly work different shifts than I do and four work in another facility that is twenty miles away. So I have to make choices every day.” What does she do? ”I concentrate on four or five different nurses each day. Some need more of my time than others. But the meetings are no more than fifteen minutes, and I always have them standing up with my clipboard in hand to make notes. One or two of the nurses I have to meet with every single day, but most of them I speak to only once a week or every other week. At that rate, I talk with everyone pretty frequently. Nobody goes more than two weeks without a stand-up meeting.”
What about the nurses working other shifts? “Sometimes I use telephone or email. Sometimes we leave notes for each other. I also make a point of being on site with those nurses at least some of the time. If a nurse works the shift after me, I go out of my way to stick around for a while at the end of my shift once a week or ask that nurse to come in a bit early so we can talk. If a nurse works the shift before me, I’ll ask her to stick around for a few minutes after her shift or else I will come in a bit early. When my shift is on the other end of the clock entirely, I’ll come in during that nurse’s shift, even if I’m not supposed to be working.”
What about the nurses working in remote locations? “With the four nurses at our other facility, I have a regularly scheduled phone call every week with each one and these calls are not to be missed. Before each call I send an email saying, ‘Here’s exactly what we need to discuss. Please be prepared to discuss A, B, C, and D on our call.’ Then I make the call and have the conversation and then I send a follow-up email saying, ‘This is what we agreed,’ complete with a to-do list. I also make a point of driving out to see them once in a while and when I’m there, we don’t ‘shoot the breeze.’ We use that time to really clarify expectations and reinforce the feedback I’ve been providing.”
Some people need more attention than others. Talking to every person every day is not always possible. You have to choose your targets. Just don’t make the mistake of choosing the same targets over and over again. Spread out your management time. Some employees may need you more than others, but everybody needs you.
As long as you conduct them on a regular basis, there is no reason to let management conversations become long and convoluted. The goal is to make these one-on-one meetings routine, brief, straight, and simple. Once you’ve gotten into a routine with each person, fifteen minutes should be all you need. Like everything else, it’s a moving target. Over time, you’ll have to gauge how much time you need to spend with each employee one day as opposed to another, depending upon the person and the work that person is doing.
What if things are not going well with a particular employee? Consider meeting with this person every day for a while. Don’t make the mistake of spending hours on tearful inquisitions, indictments, or confessions. Keep these meetings short and consistent. There’s a strong chance that things are not working out with an employee because he is not getting enough guidance, direction, and support. Once you spend more time with this person, you are likely to see 99 percent of performance problems disappear as if they were never there in the first place.
What about high performers? Do you really need to spend fifteen minutes every day or even every week with an employee when things are going very well? Maybe you need to meet with that person only every other week. But if you don’t spend at least that much time with an employee, then you don’t actually know whether things are going well with that person. All you really know is that no problems have come up on your radar screen. So when you think things are going well with an employee, spend those fifteen minutes verifying that things are indeed going as well as you think they are. If in fact they are, then you still need to work with that employee to help make things go even better, to offer her enough positive feedback, to provide the development she needs, and to ensure she is happy so she doesn’t think about leaving. High performers need to be managed, too!
You’ll be surprised at how much you can get done in fifteen minutes. Take any employee you have not spoken to in detail for a while. Spend fifteen minutes with that person asking probing questions about his work. It is almost always the case that you will find some surprises. You will find things that require adjustment. You’ll be darned glad you had that conversation. And you should be in a hurry to have another one, no more than two weeks thereafter.
At fifteen minutes per meeting, you should be able to have four meetings a day in an hour. That’s twenty meetings a week, at least. I bet that’s a whole lot more than you’ve been managing lately. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Concentrate on four or five people a day.
Make your meetings quick, no more than fifteen minutes.
Consider holding meetings standing up, with a clipboard in hand (to keep them quick and focused).
Don’t let anybody go more than two weeks without a meeting.
If you manage people working other shifts, stay late or come in early to meet with them.
If you manage people in remote locations, communicate via telephone and email regularly and consistently in between one-on-one meetings.
These tactics may not be convenient. I’m sorry, but you are the boss. Inconvenience goes with the territory.
What Should You Talk About?
The fundamental activity of managing is communication. Talk about the work when things are going right, wrong, or average. Maintain an ongoing dialogue with every employee: “Here’s what I need from you. What do you need from me?”
You’ll have to use your growing knowledge of each person, her tasks and responsibilities, and the overall situation to guide you during each conversation. For each person and on each day, you’ll have to decide what to focus on and what to say. The more you do it, the stronger and more informed your judgments will be about what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure.
Check in regularly to ensure that there are no obstacles in the employee’s way that will prevent her from getting lots of work done very well, very fast, all day long. You should ask yourself, “Are there problems that haven’t been spotted yet? Problems that need to be solved? Resources that need to be obtained? Are there any instructions or goals that are not clear? Has anything happened since we last talked that I should know about?”
Answer employees’ questions as they come up. Get input from your employees throughout the process. Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and, yes, even inspiration once in a while.
Get in the Habit of Managing Every Day
I know you are busy. I know your time is limited. You don’t have enough time. So you don’t have time not to manage.
Dedicate the time to manage every day—at the beginning of the day or at some other time that works for you. Make it a rigorous habit. It’s just like exercise. Put in that hour every day. Take that walk every day. It will start to pay off almost immediately. You’ll start getting in shape. Things will go better.
Yes, you may have weak moments, weak days, weak weeks, even weak months. As hard as you try, you will sometimes drop the ball. Your employees will notice. And it will be really hard to start managing again after being disengaged for some period of time. After all, you are human.
So what do you do when you slip back into your old undermanagement habits? First, try to bounce back sooner rather than later. One mistake managers make is they feel so guilty and sheepish after going through a rough patch that they remain disengaged much longer than they should. If you’ve been disengaged, have fallen out of your hands-on routine, or are off schedule, the only thing to do is to get back on schedule and into your routine as fast as possible. It’s okay to acknowledge your failure in your discussions with your employees. Promise to do better.
Get back to work and do better.