The Forest from the Trees
Jesse was the Executive Vice President of Engineering for a multinational construction firm. He found himself, like his peers, tirelessly working 14-hour-long days, with the first ten hours spent racing in and out of meetings firing off e-mails at any spare opportunity, and the last four hours reviewing work packages to direct changes to be made in the morning.
The company was extremely risking adverse and applied a high level of centralized control which translated to a company culture of working late. This became the informal metric for success in individual contributors and if a person wanted to be promoted, they needed to be recognized by being in the office after hours. While the organization recruited from the top engineering schools across the country, Jesse constantly complained about having an incompetent staff that couldn’t put together work packages without his insights. While Jesse was naturally unapproachable, that trait was magnified by his consistent state of motion and visible impatience. At times his engineers would make a game of how to avoid his wrath of feedback. Jesse found that he was at a point where he could no longer take a vacation and that his department was stuck in a repeating rut.
The warning signs came slowly as the department’s morale continued to decline and the levels of sarcasm rose. Then with the economy improving, an avalanche of attrition occurred where engineers fled at their first opportunity. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the power support system failed, and operations shut down. After three weeks of no productivity, Jesse had lost his job with the problem left unfixed. The company searched throughout the ranks of who was left to take over but found that the remaining engineers had never developed a capability to run a team let alone a large organization and the talent well was dry.
Status Symbol of Busyness
Busyness is now the American status symbol for importance. It is trained early in kids that by not being busy that they are being lazy, idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. This busyness translates into the workplace where performance is judged by the accomplishment of tasks and leaving the impression of constantly working. The typical manager received their first promotion largely due to their productivity as an individual performer. As individual contributors, they accomplished a great deal and were constantly busy, they were rewarded for those behaviors with promotions which leads them to the false premise that busyness is the equivalent of effectiveness.
This premise of busyness helps stack the odds against new managers in being able to become sound leaders as they face the new challenge of distractions. Instead of managing a handful of projects, they are now managing a team of individuals that multiply the number of project, actions, and issues to be resolved. The new manager finds themselves reacting to all these notifications further taking away from meaningful focus. This bombardment of cognitive overload is then paired with the new responsibility of attending meetings ad nauseam which reduces the new manager to a multitasking halfwit who is trying to do too much and in turn accomplishes nothing of import. This pattern is then normalized and inevitably leads to an overstressed, unavailable manager that doesn’t have time to lead their team.
As a failsafe, the organization puts in place the performance management system which forces the manager and team to reflect. This can be an enlightening moment to start fresh and pave a new way to work. New strategies are identified, and goals established only to have them disregarded until the following year. Organizations struggle with defining value in their actions which leads to an inability to prioritize their work. When everything is a priority the organization defaults to the simple solution of letting the events de jour dictate their day. The focus remains on putting out fires instead of letting the house burn down and rebuilding anew.
The normalizing of crisis and rewarding of busyness over productiveness celebrates the firefighter. While research points that a busy manager is less likely to treat employees fairly the organization are also more likely to reward the crisis manager instead of the employees that execute their work in a manner that doesn’t start a fire. This cultural norm not only deflates the top performers but also it quickly leads to burnout of the continuous crisis responders.
When the manager spends all their time responding to the issue of the day, they never can find time to mentor or coach their team. This being in a constant state of busyness leaves the impression of those around them that they are unapproachable for the team doesn’t want to be rude and interrupt. Then inevitably when problems occur, the easiest and quickest solution is for the manager to solve the problem themselves instead of coaching the problem owner through the resolution process. This leads to the creation of an incompetent workforce.
The busy manager is the manager who never has time for lunch. They grab a few bites at their desk or on the go, but they never sit down and have a meal during work hours. It can be a badge of honor to be that busy and it can also be the end of their professional network. Coffee and lunches have been a staple of networking in work society. Along with conferences, these are the rare opportunities to connect with professionals outside of work silos that help cross-pollinate the idea generation process by connecting unrelated ideas. Networking, conferences, and formal training have been an effective means to develop and grow oneself while also learning and applying industry best practices. It is an insurance policy against organizational stagnation and inhibiting growth, but the busy manager deprioritizes these activities in lieu of busy work believed to be more time-sensitive.
The busy manager has the wrong priorities and finds themselves overcommitted to the wrong tasks. Their focus remains on the work and ignores their key priority of focusing on the people. They create a cycle of activity that doesn’t give them a chance to reflect on what is of most importance. This leads to poor strategic development, that disables their ability to adequately prioritize their work, forcing managers to chase red herrings and perpetuate the cycle of overload.
If you find that you have fallen into the trap becoming a busy manager, fear not for you are not alone. The beautiful aspect of work is that there is plenty of it providing a lifetime to improve. The hard part of this growth is that it involves behavior change and that becomes incredibly more difficult with age. Multiple psychologists recommend establishing rituals and routines to shape positive behaviors. This starts by designing the ideal year, month, week, and day. By engineering, the plan of action and how to respond to issues helps to ensure that you are dictating the actions of the day instead of them being decided for you. This will also bring clarity of thought when an issue does arise. Lastly, this will provide insight into where a person can spend their time on the highest value areas and make judgments based on priorities instead of quick reactions.
Albert Einstein is attributed with the saying “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” This is the strongest advice that new leaders can grasp onto. The question each manager should ask themselves at the start of each day is “What is the most important thing I can accomplish today?” When that is determined, the rest of the day is scheduled around and after that key priority. Inevitably issues and items will arise, but there will now be a priority data point to decide off. This puts the leader in the position to be always working on the highest value task.
Where a manager can focus on running daily operations, a leader must focus on long term development. In the beginning, this is a significant time investment that will have a long-term payoff in terms of time availability. The payoff is not immediate where this is no different from putting $1,000 into a 401K, that fund will not have grown into a retirement overnight just as your team will take time to mature as well. Once that team ripens though, your role as a leader will shift from a breakneck pace to one of calm reflection. Practically, this begins with reducing the number of meetings that you attend and increasing the amount of one on one coaching sessions you conduct with the team. The goal is to raise the competency level of each team member to where they can successfully take ownership of their portion of the workload. A simple catalyst to this approach is taking the top five projects that are under your cognizance. Then your top priority is to coach and transfers the responsibility of these five projects to your top five team members. This forces experiential learning on their part while changing your instincts from immediate action taking to using present tense situations as a growth opportunity for your team.
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