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The Effective Manager

Effective managers get the best return from all available resources including their own time and talent. They challenge themselves to justify priorities in hard business terms. They question why they should do a particular task now or whether it should be delegated. Less effective managers spend more time doing than managing.

In his book, Managing, Henry Mintzberg suggests that everything managers do is managing because it's all part of the role. He spent a day with each of 29 managers across widely different industries and levels. The bewildering variety of activities he observed made it difficult for him to generalize much about management.

But suppose you are a cook at a remote mining camp where you spend less than 20% of your time cooking. You also wash dishes, clean your kitchen and the dining area, order supplies and repair equipment. Now surely you wouldn't confuse these other duties with cooking just because they are part of your role.

Or, suppose you are a B2B sales agent. You spend only a portion of your time selling. You travel between client locations and back to your office where you face a mountain of paperwork. Again you wouldn't call all of your activities selling.

So, the question is: What is so different about the role of manager that we would want to call everything a manager does managing? Why not say that managers engage in a mixture of doing and managing?

Suppose you are the managing partner in a law firm. The lawyers working for you are competent so you don't need to manage them much. You can devote most of your time to your own legal caseload. You can work this way because your team does not produce a joint output.

Unfortunately, managers whose teams do produce integrated outputs also want the luxury of operating as if they were managing partners in a law firm. Business managers engage in higher level doing such as making strategic decisions, negotiating with suppliers, forming partnerships, making acquisitions but this is still doing, not managing.

The Manager as Doer

Why managers spend so much time doing:

  • Doing is more fun than managing (boys like to play with toys).
  • Facilitating, nurturing, supporting and developing do not feel like real work.
  • Doing things, scoring goals, is the core of their identity, why they got promoted.
  • Management responsibility generates a strong feeling of ownership.
  • Ruthless accountability discourages mistakes (get it right first time).
  • Authority confers the right to call the shots.
  • Needing to get things done right to keep the boss happy.
  • Thinking creatively or strategically is harder work than concrete forms of doing.
  • A bias for action encourages doing, so managers feel like they are achieving.
  • Lean and mean demands that everyone do more.
  • Doing is faster; there is little time to facilitate.

Managers like to negotiate big deals, liaise with customers and explore new markets. They complain about being too busy but they create their own problem by expecting everything to pass through them. Organizations collude by expecting managers to have the answers, to be decisive, so they need to know as much as possible to decide confidently.

Part of the problem is that management is viewed as a decision-making role rather than a facilitative one. If management is like investment, sound decisions need to be made to allocate resources wisely, but the best return can only be achieved by facilitating, coaching, acting as a catalyst and developing people.

Getting Mental Work Done

Getting work done through others in the industrial era meant delegation, but in a knowledge driven age, we must also account for mental work:

  • solving complex problems with many variables to consider, some unknown.
  • making delicate decisions, such as whether to squeeze a customer for profit or take less to preserve an important relationship.
  • thinking creatively to develop new products or processes.

Mental work can be achieved through others by asking engaging questions such as: "What do you think?" Surely managers are doing when they generate their own solutions and managing when they draw them out of others.

Benefits of an engaging work style include:

  • better solutions.
  • development of staff by stimulating them to think more broadly.
  • wider ownership of decisions.
  • greater employee engagement in determining direction.

While managers spend a lot of time doing, they are effective  only if they can show that time spent doing is the best use of all available resources. It's not that they should only manage and never do anything, not even think for themselves. There is no formula to decide how much time should be devoted to facilitating the work of others versus doing things.

Improving Managerial Effectiveness

Because managers have authority, we view management as a decision making role. Of course, managers make key decisions, but when they manage knowledge workers they should do more facilitating than deciding. As catalysts, they bring the right people together for complex projects, including outsiders. They liaise between functions to foster collaboration. Effective managers operate as catalysts, enablers, developers and coaches to help others make decisions instead of making them all themselves.

Indeed, managers could spend a whole day mainly asking provocative questions to ensure that others make the best decisions. Of course, they also have to manage themselves which clearly calls for making decisions as only they can decide how best to use their own time. 

Effectiveness can't be determined solely by output. Success also depends on the actions of competitors, collaboration of key stakeholders, market forces, the economy and other factors. Of course, we would doubt the effectiveness of a manager who never achieved any targets. Still, results are not enough to assess whether a manager is effective.

To improve their effectiveness, managers should regularly review how they are allocating their time and all other resources at their disposal. This is what they would do to manage their financial investments after all.

They need to be challenged to justify their allocations of resources in hard business terms. However much they can justify doing things, they could improve their effectiveness by spending more time engaging, facilitating, coaching, developing and operating as catalysts.

Managers who manage themselves effectively think strategically about their own time and talent with questions such as:

  • How can I best add value today or in this situation?
  • What are my core strengths and how can I leverage them here and now?
  • What priorities demand my closest attention at this moment?
  • What other resources can I bring to bear on these issues?
  • What can I do to develop my resources to generate a better return?

To avoid the manufacturing mindset, they don't make their self-management decisions in isolation. That's a recipe for poor investment because some priorities managers think are important may not be critical to their key internal customers or other stakeholders. Being strategic means focusing on what is most important, where the most value can be obtained.

Managers must grill their bosses and other stakeholders regularly so they can constantly realign their priorities in line with what matters most to the people they need to support. This is a key to good time management, another scarce resource that effective managers manage well.

This article was published in Management Issues, April 14, 2010.  

See alsoTwenty First Century Management, Mintzberg on Management and Leadership and Management Reinvented.

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