Manager Development

Despite different organizations and different industries, despite different backgrounds and different tenure, I can always find one common thread in any group of managers. Of the hundreds of managers I’ve had the opportunity to coach this past year, all of them would give anything to have more time.

It’s easy to agree that certain skills and capabilities are critical to all people managers. These include an ability to be an effective communicator, to build rapport and form strong relationships, to coach and develop their people, and to follow up on critical projects, tasks, and assignments. It’s really tough to argue against those skills as core and fundamental to achieve success as a manager.

Where the conversation always gets interesting is when we ask the question, “If we know these are critical skills, why don’t we do these consistently?” The answer I hear is always the same. It comes with a bit of exasperation, coupled with a fair amount of exhaustion: “I simply don’t have time.” What these managers are saying, time and time again, is they know it’s important to focus on their people, but they just don’t have time to do it – much less to do it well.

The truth is… I can relate. Looking back on my own career as a people manager, I struggled year after year with that very same issue. For me it was always:

  • Things will get better as soon as we finish this project.
  • As soon as I fill that job, I will have more time to think.
  • My new gadget will keep me organized and on track! (gadget = latest technology meant to improve our lives, which in fact, merely caused me to be constantly connected to work).
  • If I can just get through this year, this month, this week….

Like other managers, I was very much entrenched in my relentless pursuit for more time and to find more efficiency. I relied on technology, which (while fun to use) was really ill-suited to fix my time problem. I relied on my own drive and work ethic, putting in more and more hours each day and spending the majority of the weekend catching up with work. I almost never sat down without my laptop –watching TV, waiting at the doctor’s office, in the car en route to anywhere I didn’t have to drive myself.

This frenzy of work, as I pushed myself to “get it all done,” often meant I was missing the big picture and missing out on the opportunity to do one of the things I found most rewarding… coaching and developing my team, who were young, talented, and full of new ideas.

It all came together for me one day when my manager, whom I respected dearly, handed me a piece of paper that said “I will get everything done that needs to get done and it will be good enough.” Like me, throughout his career, he tried to not only get it all done, but also to achieve nothing less than perfection in the process. He had learned this lesson, this secret, along the way and he wanted to share it with me. I took that message to heart and I carried that piece of paper with me for many, many years as a reminder to not get caught up in the minutiae of it all.

What it took me so long to realize was that I had a choice. I could choose to get caught up in the details, the overwhelming list of never-ending tasks, or I could choose to spend my time differently. It was really up to me to make that choice and to make a difference.

I recently found this quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, which I find to be a great response to the manager’s plight
for more time.

Time is a created thing. To say “I don’t have time” is to say “I don’t want to.”

While I can hear the protests and debate ring out from managers I know and love, the challenge I would issue is that our role as people managers trumps every other responsibility we claim. But it won’t play out that way in reality – unless you make the choice for it to be so. We have such opportunity as people managers to shape the careers of those we lead and to achieve breakthrough results for our organization. But this only happens if we make the choice to spend our time focusing on developing our people.

I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. Certainly, there are a lot of things to conquer that will allow you to consistently live this choice. For example, you need to be a master delegator, which is far more than simply offloading the occasional administrative task. You’ll need to be selective about what projects you lead and/or participate in – always asking yourself questions like, “Is this best use of my time?” and “How does my contribution here help achieve our strategic goals?” You may also have to retrain yourself and others about how you communicate and come up with a plan to clearly define decision rights for your team. If you, and others, know where you need to be consulted vs. informed vs. when they can run with things, you’ll find yourself in a lot fewer meetings and answering a lot fewer emails.

This shift requires you to change your behavior, which is never an easy thing to do. It takes skill, discipline, and a thick skin to stay out of the pull of exerting our functional knowledge in tasks and projects that can otherwise be delegated. Above all, it takes courage – courage to recognize that you have a choice in how you spend your time, and courage to claim that time to step up and be a truly great people manager.

March 6, 2012


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