Want to spend less time managing people? Spend more time leading them

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

07-Aug-2014 10:55:00

managing_people_-_is_there_a_queueThe insight that changed a year

"When am I supposed to do my real job? I spend all day dealing with other people's crap!"

Recently I was facilitating a leadership development program for a group of mid-level managers in a large Australian company. In the room we had people with nearly ten year's experience - and we had others who were very new to the role.

These comments were made just before morning tea on the first day of the program - and there were rumblings of agreement from the rest of the group. We were due to spend a day together each month for close to a year. This was going to be interesting!

Rather than give them the obvious answer, I decided this was an important discussion that would set a foundation for the whole program so I threw some questions to the group:

  • Who else finds that they spend a lot of their day dealing with these 'people issues'? Every participant in the program said this applied to them.
  • What do we mean by 'other people's crap?' According to the participants, it was getting people to work together properly (sort out their problems, stop bickering, collaborate, etc) and getting each of the individuals to do their job properly (show some initiative, be accountable, come to work motivated to do their job, meet their commitments, do the job properly the first time, etc)
  • So how much time do you spend on this stuff? The consensus was that it took between 30-50% of their average work day

One participant had been sitting quietly listening, making the occasional contribution but I could also see him carefully reflecting. Then he said the thing that I was waiting for someone to say - the thing that changed the course of not only that discussion but of the whole leadership development program.

That stuff is our job - not an interruption to it

This sounds so simple - but it is a fundamental shift in thinking. When this participant made that observation, he changed the dynamic in the room - and opened the minds of his fellow participants to a whole range of approaches they hadn't previously used

Managing people effectively depends on seeing those people and all of their issues as central to our jobs and not as the obstacle that stops us doing the work we should be doing.

Whenever we talk about the difference between managing and leading it comes down to this point - you manage things, you lead people (this is a variation on a quote from Rear Admiral Grace Hopper). If you are responsible for supervising at least one person, you need to be both: leader and manager.

managing_people_versus_leading_peopleWhy is this shift in thinking so critical?

Because it determines what you do next. Managers who see 'people issues' as something that stops them focusing on their real jobs are unlikely to be proactive. They will tend to respond to things when they have to - they will wait until team members are not performing or until there is a lack of cohesion before acting. When these things do occur, they may be so busy doing the task that they don't notice the 'people issues' occurring. Even when they do notice, they may try to let things 'run their own course' in the hope they will be resolved without the need for intervention. By the time these managers do get involved, productivity and morale has often been compromised and the issues are harder to deal with.

Managers who see managing people issues as central to their role tend to be more proactive. They do things that ensure each team member is fully engaged, committed and motivated and they work to bring the team together and build the skills needed for collaboration, interpersonal communication, etc.

Where do you stand? Do you see managing people as central or an interruption? And does that translate to action. If you claim the people side of the job is essential but you only deal with it reactively, are you perhaps paying lip service to it?

The more I lead the less management I need

As with so many things, this proactive approach is ultimately more time efficient than being reactive - and it inevitably produces superior results. The challenge for busy managers is finding ways to invest time - with so many competing priorities, just-in-time management approaches are an increasing trend. That can work with tasks and projects but it doesn't work with people - just-in-time solutions with people tend to be band aid measures.

Want a weekly update with free  resources and our best articles?  Subscribe here Something we have seen consistently in the last twenty years is that the more time you spend leading people, the less time you will need to spend managing them. Leading people equips them with the skills and attitudes to keep themselves motivated, to engage them in a positive organisational climate, to work collaboratively in a team, to be accountable for their actions and performance. Too often, managing people is dealing with the fallout of not equipping people in these ways.

In the words of one of my longest standing clients, the more I lead, the less management I need

How do managers actually spend their time?

According to this study by McKinsey & Co, only 9% of managers are 'very satisfied' with the way they spend their time. They surveyed nearly 1500 people at the level of general manager and above with a broad spread of countries and organisational type and size. A couple of key numbers from that study are that these 'very satisfied' managers spend:

  • 18% of their time managing and motivating people - which sounds like a relatively proactive approach
  • 16% of their time dealing with short term and unexpected issues - presumably these aren't all people related but it would be a fair assumption that many are
  • Only 24% of their time alone 
  • 39% of their time is spent with employees (15% one-on-one with direct reports, 12% in groups with direct reports and 12% with other employees)

I believe the key number is that they spend over a quarter (27%) of their time with their direct reports either individually or in groups. Remember that this is based on the 9% who were very satisfied that their time was being spent in ways that were likely to produce sustainable results.

Strategies for leading people at our inconvenience

That old saying 'do it at your convenience' just doesn't apply to leading people. With so much else to do there is never a convenient time

However, when things do go wrong that never seems to be at a convenient time either. It's a bit like the wiper blades in your car - you only ever realise (or remember) that they need replacing when it is raining and you need them. Managing people is much the same - we only really discover some of the issues when the pressure comes on and we can least afford for things to go wrong. Leading people (instead of just managing them) is like regularly replacing those wiper blades so that you can be confident they are ready when the rain arrives!

This is all about leading people at your inconvenience. You don't do it because you have time right now, you do it because it will save you time later (and because it will increase productivity and morale in the meantime)

These are some strategies we have seen used by excellent leaders we have worked with over the years.

  • managing_people_-_a_coffee_a_day'A coffee a day' - this manager makes a point of sitting down with one team member over a cup of coffee every day. It takes her 15-20 minutes and she makes sure she spends most of the time listening. Her two objectives are to hear what is going on for that person (at work or at home) and to give them a chance to ask any burning questions. Sure - this stuff could happen in the everyday flow of work - but the reality is that it doesn't. Because this is focused individual time, she generally walks away with a better understanding of that team member. Even if she doesn't learn anything new, she builds rapport which makes ongoing performance management and general communication much more effective. She has established a baseline of trust - things can be discussed over that cup of coffee with no repercussions, no criticism and she has practised not being defensive about what she hears
  • 'A morning with Mike' - this sales manager spends one totally dedicated morning every week with a member of his sales team. He lets the sales person take complete responsibility for setting the agenda for the morning - but there is an expectation that it will be spent productively. On a typical 'morning with Mike' they visit a client or two, work on some specific challenges that the sales person is having and do some planning or evaluate progress. The morning always finishes with lunch (not a long boozy one) to make sure they can just chat for a while. Once again, this works because Mike has built trust - the sales people aren't worried about visiting clients because he doesn't use that as a basis for criticising them. Mike has, however, developed excellent skills in coaching - in asking and guiding rather than just telling and instructing
  • managing_people_takes_timeFruit anyone? This general manager was working in an organisation undergoing significant change including staffing cuts. With a team of around 170 people he knew that the climate of uncertainty was going to create a lot of people issues. Every Friday afternoon he had a caterer deliver platters of fruit to his office. He would then walk around the building with the platters visiting each person and each area. At first they thought he was a bit odd but after persevering for a month or two they soon came to realise that he was genuinely interested in what was happening in their world. He focused on listening to their perspectives - he didn't get defensive and he recognised that sometimes the most important thing was that they felt genuinely heard. When something was raised that could be changed he took notes and followed through - which built his credibility. When something couldn't be changed he was honest - which built his credibility further.

There are dozens of variations on these but do you notice the common themes? These managers invest time even though they have email piling up and a 'To-Do' list that is out of control - and they make their time focused and concentrated. They don't get distracted by checking email or answering their phone. They get up from their desk, leave their office and go out to where their people are comfortable.

Of course, these sorts of initiatives won't work if they are the only time the leader focuses on their people - they need to be accompanied by a broader mindset in which leading people is central to the role.

Your own growth as a leader

We know leaders are busy juggling multiple priorities - which is why we have created these free and inspiring leadership posters - download them and display where they will be a constant reminder of great leadership habits.
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