The Most Important Thing a Manager Does

by abclarke

(1 of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Lies about Management

Last week I asked:

What’s the most important thing a manager does? Sure, a manager has to “get stuff done through a group of people”, that’s a given, but what’s really the most important thing? Is it training your team? It is hiring A+ people? Is it keeping executives informed? Is it growing your employees’ careers? It is protecting your team from the “craziness above”? Is it removing roadblocks for your team? Is it keeping morale high? ….

Depending upon the month of the management-advice fad calendar, each of the above items is the “most important thing” a manager needs to do. You can find books extolling all of them as paramount. And it goes through phases as magazines like Harvard Business Review gush over the need for better communication, or the need for morale-management.

But want to know something… it’s all lies.

The most important thing a manager does is almost never hiring A+ people; it’s almost never keeping executives informed; it’s almost never “protecting the team”.

The most important thing a manager does is the thing I glossed over: figure out the right stuff to do, and then get it done through a group of people.

Keep reading, and I’ll tell you how to do that.

A Tale of Two Managers

Is “figuring out the right stuff to do” the most important thing? It’s easy to prove by comparing two managers.

The first manager, let’s call him Bob, hires A+ people, is amazing at keeping executives informed, and works hard on growing his employees’ careers. His team really feels that Bob has their back, and that he’ll do anything to help them grow. But Bob never really thinks about what his team’s job is supposed to be, and as a result, while they do stuff, they don’t get the right things done.

The second manager, let’s call her Alice, doesn’t particularly shoot for A+ people, doesn’t do a great job informing her management, has poor people skills, micromanages everything, and her people hate working for her. But Alice drives a tough shop, knows what her team is supposed to do, and viciously makes sure it gets done.(1)

What happens in this scenario? Bob is either let go (the good, but rare solution) or left to languish in middle-management (the bad, but usual result). Alice meanwhile is promoted until she is no longer effective at getting the right stuff done, and then is either demoted (the good, but rare situation) or left to languish in senior-management.

Put another way: Executives talk about the need to hire A+ people and keep morale high but reward getting the right stuff done even if done with D people who hate their jobs.

So if you don’t take the time to figure out the right thing to do, or then you don’t make sure you get that thing done, you’re not going to get rewarded.

Why Don’t We Do It?

Therefore the most important thing a manager does is figure out the right stuff to do because if you don’t do that, how can you know you’re doing the right thing (I’ll talk later about how to get the right stuff done). Reading this you probably think “well duh, of course.” Really? If that’s the case, why don’t people do it?

I’ve worked for managers who, while great people, could never tell me what our team did and did not do. They couldn’t tell me why we were a team at all, instead of just part of some other team. I’ve worked for Bobs and I’ve worked for Alices. Sound familiar?

If you’re a manager reading this right now, can you articulate in 10 seconds what your team does? Can you articulate in 10 seconds what your team does not do (I mean the things a reasonable person might assume you do, but you don’t)? If not, the good news is you’re like most middle managers. The bad news is you’re part Alice, part Bob, or part both.

In my first job as a manager, I couldn’t answer what my team was supposed to do. Eventually I did find the time to ask what “the right stuff to do” was, and I came to a startling conclusion: Having a team structured like mine actually got in the way of the company getting the right stuff done. The result: I proposed a different organization to my manager where my team was split up and reorganized to better get the right stuff done(2). And this was far better for me, my old team, my new team, and the company.

So why doesn’t every manager first figure out the right stuff to do? Well, it’s because we’re excited to start, we think we know what we’re changing, and we’re often wrong.

WHO, SARS, and Management

During the SARS epidemic in 2004 my wife attended a lecture given by someone at the World Health Organization (WHO). This particular lecture was about disaster and crisis management. Afterwards J (knowing I like to think about crisis management) asked me for my thoughts on the following scenario:

You are a local government mayor in Indonesia. You have read about SARS in the local paper but there are no cases in Indonesia. Suddenly you get a phone call from a local hospital where the head of the hospital informs you they have a patient who seems to have SARS-like symptoms. What’s the first thing you do?

There are lots of options. You could quarantine the hospital. You could quarantine the town. You could inform the local military to be on guard. You could immediately get on Television and Radio and warn people. You could…

And every one of those things is the wrong first thing to do(3). The right thing, according to the WHO, is to do the following:

  1. Sit back, breathe deeply, and think. Figure out how much time you have until you must act.
  2. Then, take time to listen to as many people as you can reasonably listen to within available time (which is always longer than it first appears).
  3. Then, sit back, breathe deeply, and think again.
  4. Then act!

Why is that? Because if you don’t think, your first step will likely make the situation worse, not better. But if you pause to think, you’ve done something rare in a crisis and started the path to recovery.

Your First Steps as a New Manager

I’m not saying that managing the SARS crisis is the same level of complexity as become a manager for the first time, but the first steps you take should be the same. In order to figure out the right stuff to do, you should do 4 things:

1) Think: Write down what you think your job is. Write down what you think your job isn’t. Write down what you think the first things you need to do are. Then stop and…

2) Listen: Talk to your new team, your boss, your bosses’ peers, your peers, etc. about what they think your job is. What do they think your job isn’t? It’ll be different than what you thought, and different than what you interviewed for (it always is). Don’t argue about it with them, just get their input and tell them you’ll get back to them soon with your plan.

3) Think: Now, go back to your list in step 1, think about all the feedback, and revise what you think your job is and the first things you’ll do. Don’t necessarily follow every instruction that people gave you — independently come to your own conclusions about what you should do – but do let their feedback influence your plans. Every time I do it I’m amazed. I always find the first things I thought I needed to do, are never the first things I actually need to do.

4) Act: And then act. The steps you just wrote down should tell you how to get the right stuff done. And sometimes, yes, it involves hiring A+ people, increasing morale, improving executive communication, but sometimes it doesn’t. Only do those things if it helps get the right stuff done. By first thinking about the right stuff to do, you make sure you focus on the ends, and not the means, and you’re free to choose whether this job actually requires.

The Truth about the Lies

If you’re a manager dealing with knowledge workers with inherently undefined jobs, in reality the things I dismissed above such as growing employees’ careers and hiring A+ people are means that often help you achieve your ends. But let me stress that by far the most important thing as a new manager you need to is, “figure out what you need to do”. Then, pick or don’t pick your means as necessary.

So, that said, the rest of this series will concentrate on a set of means that I find are very flexible for getting the right stuff done. They are the rules of Naked Management and are useful when:

  1. You have teams of highly skilled knowledge workers who
  2. You need to be effective over multiple projects not just a single project, and
  3. You expect will need to be resilient to constant change and chaos from the market and from other management shifts

If you’re a manager of a team like that then may I recommend Running Naked Teams!

(which I’ll continue next week…)

– Art

I’m running the NYC Marathon on November 4th for Team Continuum. Click here to donate.

(1) Some people will claim my examples of Bob and Alice are facetious because in reality it’s incredibly unlikely that Alice will be successful by shitting on her people. Wrong. It depends entirely on what “the right stuff to do is”. For example, if Alice and Bob’s job is “night shift manager at a fast food restaurant”, where high-turnover rates are the norm, and many aspects of the job are independently measured (and so don’t rely as much on the manager self reporting), then Alice will be quite successful at that job. And Bob will waste lots of energy trying to grow the careers of people who likely are going to quit in 40 day anyway. It depends on what “the right stuff to do” is.

(2) My team did get the stuff assigned to us done, mostly through good people, and a lot of micro managing. But the fact was we were getting stuff done in a completely different way than other client-facing groups in the company, and this was causing a lot of pain in every other part of the organization that had to do things in a centralized way. And this “pain” was showing up as tension on the floor, longer ship times, buggier launches, and projects going over budget.

(3) My guess was quarantine the hospital. Wrong. If you want to know why, e-mail me and I’ll tell you because I’m too lazy to write it in a footnote that no one reads. J
click here.