Early in my management career, I worked at a company where the mantra was, “Everyone needs to be personally productive.” That meant that no matter your location or position in the organizational structure, you were responsible for regularly producing something of tangible value — no one just “managed.”
This was at a newspaper company, so being “personally productive” could mean anything from providing customer service to hopping on a sales call to helping with the printing process.
And for the most part, this system worked really well. This kept the bosses honest about what it really took in time and effort to get a project done, which led to more reasonable deadlines and better understanding between management and employees.
That isn’t to say that every manager loved this approach, however. Leaders in the organization would sometimes get frustrated because it was a lot to ask a full-time manager to also find time for regular production. Of course, since this was integral to the organization’s ethos, there wasn’t an option to simply not comply.
In the long term, this generally meant that aspiring leaders followed one of two paths in the organization. If you were good at finding the balance and could thrive in that structure, then you tended to do well, and you had a lot of opportunity to grow with the organization and have a great experience.
And if you couldn’t make that system work, you often failed and left the organization before too long. I don't think this result necessarily represented a character flaw, as much as it indicated that this was the wrong culture for you to advance.
For that reason, it's important for managers to take stock of what percentage of their time they spend leading versus doing. By leading, I mean managerial tasks like project management and enabling your team to do the work. By doing, I mean completing the vital functions that keep revenue flowing.
At that same company, early on, I found myself doing entirely too much work for the people working under me instead of setting clear expectations and letting them deliver. I would do deep dives into their work, structuring and organizing it and making sure it was up to my standards. And while that may have ensured that the work was of a certain quality, it also left me with very little time to do any managing.
And in retrospect, I can see that that wasn’t helpful for the people I was managing, either. It stifled their ability to directly contribute to the business. Instead of enabling them to do their jobs, I made them perform how I would have, not necessarily make their own contributions.
I thought I’d mastered my impulse to do rather than lead until a recent situation arose at a nonprofit I volunteer with. Not long ago, I took a leadership role in the organization, where I quickly found myself falling into my old habit of doing instead of leading.
As I was getting organized in this new role, I started writing scripts for people defining what each individual role should do and be. I also made notes for every position and committee detailing how these roles should relate to each other, how they should execute their duties, etc.
In short, I was doing instead of leading. Again.
This was a great reminder that as a leader, my responsibility was to focus time on enabling and empowering others rather than instructing them on the minutiae of their day-to-day tasks.
Because ultimately, a talented do-er may not perform a task exactly as their manager would. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that work gets done and done well.
Of course, good leaders do need to make sure that the work gets done. But rather than micromanaging or breathing down your team’s necks, that should look like explaining to struggling team members how their work relates to the broader organizational goals. From there, you can highlight where their work is or isn't working toward those goals and allow them to self-correct.
This doesn’t work all the time, of course, whether the individual just isn’t right for the organization or doesn’t have the right leader. But regardless, giving individuals this opportunity to self-correct is the most valuable use of your and their time.
Because for leaders, the focus needs to be on giving your team the freedom and opportunity to be personally productive. This doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t help out and get your hands dirty from time to time. But at the end of the day, you must ensure that the bulk of your time is spent managing.
Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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