Three Counter-Intuitive Steps to Becoming a More Effective Manager10 min read

Become a More Effective Manager – Three Counter-Intuitive Steps

In the world of planning and strategy, there is a truism that too much planning, too much detail, too much analysis, leads to inaction, to a loss of opportunity. Along the same line of observation, in the world of learning to becoming a more effective manager, there can be too much study, too much thinking, too much integration of the many many skills and aptitudes required to become more effective. In both strategy and management skills action is almost always preferable to another round of study. Action bumps you up against the real world and provides the real basis for improving skills and results.

But, that still leaves us with the nagging question as a manager, especially for rookie managers and supervisors, how do I get started?

Based on many years of personal work as a manager and many years coaching managers, here are three steps you can take that will get you into action and guarantee striking results. These results will come in your personal effectiveness and in of the results of the organization you manage.  Remember,  by results, I am referring to the three meanings Drucker defined: (1) direct business results (usually measured in $s); (2) improved organizational culture (values); and (3) development of people. ((see Chapter 2 – What Can I Contribute? in his book The Effective Executive))

1. Stop Answering Questions

If most managers could listen to themselves, the proverbial fly on the wall, for just a few hours, they would discover that they are chronically enabling dependency all around them and undermining whatever formal delegation systems are in place. How is this happening? Just listen and you will hear a stream of questions coming at them followed by answers in response. You are enabling the following the reflexive pattern: ask the expert and be rewarded with answers. Ask the boss, get an answer, and be safe from responsibility for the answers.

If you want to get people to take responsibility and be involved in the business, you can’t go on answering all these questions. They will just go on asking whether they need to or not. And, you are spending an enormous amount of your time, your most valuable resource, to answering all of these questions.

What should a manager do to break this pattern?

Simply announce to the troops, “If you want to ask me a question, you have to have at least three possible answers thought through before I will consider your question. If you are having trouble coming up with answers, ask others to help you. Group thinking is always the best thinking.”

Shortly I will go into a few further refinements to make this a really effective policy. For the moment though, think of how simple it would be to put this new policy into action. The really tough step is entirely in the mind and habits of you the manager. You have to get up every morning and look yourself in the mirror and say, “My job as manager is to create an environment in which everyone can participate fully and will take responsibility. To help this along, I will help people by not answering their questions. And I will examine and fix why it is that they can not answer most of the questions that arise in their day-to-day work.”

One of the reasons managers answer so many questions from their staff and others in the company is that they fear that if they don’t, then really important issues and opportunities may be addressed incorrectly or sub optimally.

A key to getting out of the round of endless questions while still being involved in important ones, is to set some boundaries, some limits.

This might sound like this: “I want you to develop three solutions before you come to ask me a question. Ask your colleagues for help if you get stuck. But, in the case of the following critical customer, Immense Big Machines, Inc., I want to be informed of any issues involving delay or cost overruns in Project XZY.”

With the right boundaries set around your new rule, you can still be assured of being involved where you need to be.

Once you put this policy into action you are likely to see that many of your reports’ questions arise because they lack information and decision making tools. Glance down to Step 3 It’s Your Fault – Take Responsibility below and you will see that you have to take action to get these tools into place to enable your report to work effectively.

Finally, to make your staff and others in the company comfortable about taking responsibility for solving problems and answering their own questions, you need to have environment in which mistakes are expected and dealt with positively. Remember, if you are not making mistakes, you are doubtless doing very little and learning not at all. Mistakes need to be analyzed and the lessons learned. Perhaps the only rule about mistakes is that they should not be repeated.

As a bit of personal history, I implemented this step myself out of self-preservation in the midst of merging four sales departments into one. For the first couple of days some Regional Managers were frightened to death that they would make mistakes. These folks had worked for years before I came on the scene for managers who acted like your worst image of tank commanders. Other Regional Managers were delighted immediately. All of them made mistakes. The company was not adversely effected and within a few weeks almost all found their legs, helped work out the decision algorithms we needed, and I had much more time available to address all of the other issues revealed by this merger. One final note though, one manager never became comfortable making her own decisions. No amount of work on my part and her compatriots convinced her that she really should and could make decisions. Within two months she moved on, of her own accord, to a staff position in another business unit where she would not be confronted with the stream of business decisions about pricing and production priorities that every Regional Manager faced.

2. Seize Your Time – Don’t Manage It

In recent work with managers on time management, we have taken a new tack on this old problem of time.  We have encouraged managers to simply seize a block of time during the week and get to work on the really important things they feel they need to do to improve their contribution to their company.

It works like this. Look at the next week’s calendar and mark off one, or better, two hours on some day where there is nothing now scheduled or their are meetings or tasks that really can be skipped. Send an email around to everyone who reports to you announcing this time as your Private Work session. Tell them that you will be working on an important initiative and that barring a fire, you are not to be disturbed until the session is over.

When the hour arrives put a sign on your door or at the entrance to your cubicle, “Private Work Session – Do Not Disturb“. Turn off your email, instant messaging, cell phone, Blackberry, or any other communication device that can interrupt. Sit down at your desk or work table and get to work on that project that you have not gotten to because of all the other “important” tasks in your day-to-day work life.

Managers who have taken the step to seize their own time have found that they make real progress on their projects and the company does not grind to a halt.  They become daring and schedule two or three hours for the next week. Seizing personal work time also energizes their efforts to really learn how to manage their time. They already can see that they can make real progress working on the future of the company instead of constantly balled up in the day-to-day activties of the company. It is a demonstration of the power of spending significant time working on your company instead of just in it.

3. It’s Your Fault, Take Responsibility

Attracting, selecting, training, mentoring, and pruning human resources are among the most important tasks a manager confronts. Almost everyone agrees that, at every level of organizations, managers need to be devoting a significant portion of their time addressing the people needs of the firm, business unit, or department. Without the right people in the right positions, no strategy, no matter how clever, can succeed.

To be truly successful in meeting these responsibilities, a manager must embrace an all important management rule: “If an employee is working below expected or required performance it is always the manager’s fault.”

Read that through again. The manager is always responsible for sub-par work by any employee in their work group.

The first place to look for the source of poor performance is the manager. After all, the manager hired or selected the person. The manager defines the work, provides tools, training, and all other resources required for the job.  The manager is responsible for the success of every person they supervise.

An important effect of this rule is that it prevents you from entering the whinny land of thinking, or worse, saying:  “Why doesn’t Joseph pay more attention to detail?” “Mirabelle keeps making the same errors over and over in these quotes.” “Walt just doesn’t get the big picture of where this project is going and he is heading down the wrong track, for the umpteenth time.”

Embrace your responsibilities and powers to make your personnel successful.

  • Make sure that you really have well thought out and planned jobs.
  • Are job definitions focused on results?
  • Are the task definitions actionable?
  • Do the skills listed actually match up with the results you want to achieve?
  • Have you provided the training required?
  • Do your personnel understand where the company is going strategically and is it clear how the results of their jobs connect with these strategies?
  • Have you acted promptly to provide feedback and take corrective action to support performance?
  • Do you have a company culture that embraces, supports, and demands full participation by everyone?

Selection and promoting personnel are management tasks with a high error factor. Every manager needs to acknowledge that their judgments in selection and promotion of personnel are not perfect, not even close to perfect, . So, faced with a weak performance from a new hire or newly promoted person, managers must ask the question early, “Did I make a mistake here?” If you come to that conclusion you need to act promptly to correct the error.

The central point is that you selected your personnel, you set the conditions and environment of their work, your provide the tools and training, you set the expectations, the results required. If you are not getting top performance from your personnel, look to the basics, look to your own responsibilities as a manager first. After all, if you are really holding yourself accountable for these responsibilities, you will achieve equal or better performance from everyone in your organization.

The Three Steps Taken Together

These three disruptive steps will make you a more effective manager. Stop Answering Questions reveals where you need to improve training, data resources, and decision making algorithms. This step also firmly embraces and puts into action the third step, It’s Your Fault, Take Responsibility. It is a certainty that implementing the first step will librate those who report to you to perform better and by cascading the third step down the chain of command your reports will apply the first step to those who report to them with equally robust and invigorating results. Meanwhile, you will have implemented the second step, Seize Your Time – Don’t Manage It. This will lead to some significant achievements on your part. You will be able to work on forward looking projects that will move your group ahead. After a bit, you will be able to recommend that your reports apply all three rules to their own work.