What Should Managers Do All Day Long?

What managers spend their time on is often the source of (frequently cynical) commentary by the people who work for them.  I have found that it is also a source of anxiety for a lot of managers.  They often aren’t quite sure what they should be doing to add the most value.  It becomes even tougher, I’ve found, as you get more senior and have larger organizations to worry about.  You become very detached from the real work that is going on and what you do seems pretty distantly related to anything concrete.

Let’s take an example.  When I was the general manager of a pretty large team (400 people), I had a clear idea what the team needed to do – deliver a high quality next release of the product and grow the business 20% this year.  Great, but since I’m not writing any code or carrying a quota, how do I contribute to those goals?  What do I prioritize Monday afternoon at 3pm to help the team hit its goals?

To keep my sanity, I needed something that was my north star.  I created a document which I called “My Job”, and I reviewed it at least once a week.  It has the activities that I did, not the goals of the team.  For example, the first one is “Inspire” – I want to inspire the people on the team with a vision of where we are headed and why it is important and convince them that it is within reach.  Another is “Drive Rhythms” – for a team at scale, you have to have efficient rhythms to review the state of the business, check in with the engineering team each milestone, manage budgets, etc.

I scheduled an hour every Monday morning to plan the week, and one of the most important things I did was to take the “My Job” page and walk through these four steps:

1.  What’s F-ed up?

For each activity, I asked myself the question, “what’s f-ed up?”  And if I felt ambitious, “how can I move this forward proactively?”  This was an opportunity to dump all the hopes and anxieties buzzing around in my head down on paper.  The key thing was not to hold back – I wanted to get it all out.  And I wanted to make myself think about each activity in case it needed more attention than I was giving it.

2.  What can be done about it?

Next, I went back through the list to figure out what could be done about everything I had written down.  I needed to be in a very different state of mind – to go from a free-flowing brainstorm to focusing on concrete steps I could take.  I’ve found that it can be hard to switch back and forth quickly – once I’m being detailed and practical, the ideas don’t flow as freely.  So that’s why I do the whole second column first, then go back and do the third.  The things in the third column are very straight-forward and doable (“next actions” in Getting Things Done lingo).  These are specific actions I can do right away.

3.  Should I be the one doing it?

One easy trap to fall into (I am highly prone to this) when you are a manager is to over-function .. to jump in and do work that properly ought to be done by the people who work for you.  It’s like the over-protective parent who does everything for their kids, so they never learn how to do things for themselves.  It’s very annoying for the direct report who wants to solve their own problems.  So before I start firing off emails and diving into all those actions, I look them over to make sure that I’m the right person to do them.

4. Am I doing the really important “only I” things?

One of my favorite questions on this front comes from Peter Drucker, who was one of the people who basically invented management theory.  He wrote many useful books (try “The Essential Drucker” if you are interested – it’s a good survey of his ideas across a variety of topics).   And he challenges managers to ask themselves a very important question: “What can I, and only I, do, that, if done well, would have the most impact on the organization?”  This is a great question to ask yourself.  I suspect that every action item you identified is a useful thing to do, and will be of some value for the team.  So the question shouldn’t be “what adds value?”  Most or all of them will, hopefully, if you have a clue.  The question is, “what adds the most value that nobody else can do?”  Make sure you do those, before you fritter away all your time doing random things that aren’t going to have as much impact or that somebody else can do equally well.

Once I’ve gone through this exercise, I really feel like I have a handle on what I am worried about, what I should be worried about, what I could do about it, and what I will do.  This exercise translates high-level goals like “grow the business” into “set up a meeting with Mary to adjust quotas” and turns “ship a high quality release” into “review the latest benchmark numbers on the performance issues with the new version of the database.”   And it (helped) keep me out of the way of the team when they didn’t need me.

Do you have a north star that tells you what your job is?  What tools help you figure it out?


  1. the PDF is really helpful; thanks for posting it!


  1. […] Dreaming big is great, but you have to break down the goal and figure out what it takes to achieve it.  One approach I like: if the person wants to be an X, I get them to write down a description of what the absolutely perfect X would be like.  For example, when I was running a relatively large team, I came up with what I thought a perfect team leader should do .. I wrote about that here. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s