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Get in the Habit of Management

The two people you need to manage every day.

You are working on a big project for your boss. You have been barricaded in your office for days trying to finish it. But that's nothing new. Your employees know you are always super busy. You've been managing this team - 16 people now - for several years. They know how to do their jobs, so you pretty much leave them alone unless something comes up.

Unfortunately, something always does. Today, a crisis forces you to come whirling out of your office, determined to solve it quickly so you can get back to your "real work." But solving the problem consumes most of your day. By the time you finally get back to your office, you are way behind schedule.

If this sounds like you, you are not alone. Most managers are so busy with their own "real work" that they think of their management work mostly as an extra burden. They avoid daily managing the way a lot of people avoid daily exercise. They manage only when they absolutely have to. As a result, they and their employees get out of shape, and unexpected problems crop up on a regular basis. When problems get out of control, these managers can no longer avoid their responsibility and spring into action. By that point, however, they have a very difficult task on their hands: they are trying to run ten miles when they are completely out of shape.

I call this phenomenon - managing only when it can no longer be avoided - "management by special occasion." Most of these "special occasions" are big problems that need solving, but there are other special occasions too: assigning a new project to an employee, communicating a change from on high to the team, or recognizing a huge success. In the absence of some "special occasion," though, most managers simply don't manage.

The only alternative to management by special occasion is getting in the habit of managing every day.

The First Person You Need to Manage Every Day Is Yourself


If you were in poor physical shape, would you go for a ten-mile run? No. First, you might start training by taking a walk every day. After a few weeks, you might walk a little faster and longer and begin gaining some muscle tone. Over time, you start to jog, and eventually you become strong enough to run ten miles.

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Effective managing is a lot like being in good physical shape: the hard part is getting in the habit of doing it every day no matter what obstacles come up. So stop letting yourself off the hook. Stay in touch with your true priorities. Make yourself do it every day, as if your health depended on it.

Start by setting aside one hour every day as your sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, do not fight fires. Use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average. That one hour every day is just for staying in shape - just for taking a walk.

  • What if you don't have much experience? You have to start somewhere.
  • What if you don't enjoy managing people in a hands-on manner? Do it anyway.
  • What if you don't think that you are skilled at managing? Practice, practice, practice until you become good at it.
  • What if it makes you uncomfortable? Live with the discomfort; the more you manage people, the more comfortable you will become.
Taking those first steps toward effective managing takes discipline and guts. New behaviors, no matter how good they are, often don't feel comfortable until they become habits. It is likely that you will feel the loss of your old comfortable habits, of your former role in the workplace, and of your current relationships with your employees. The transition period will be difficult and painful. But if you do it right, it is good pain. Like exercise pain, it makes you stronger. After you've built more effective management habits, you'll still have to deal with unexpected problems, but they won't be the kinds of problems that could have been avoided. And you'll still have to face plenty of difficult challenges when managing your employees - the occasional ten-mile run. But you'll be in such good shape that you'll be able to handle it effectively with confidence and skill.

Yes, it will be difficult, but it works: guts, discipline, and one hour a day.

The Second Person You Need to Manage Every Day Is Everyone Else

In an ideal world, you would talk with every single person who calls you his boss - reviewing his work and setting him up for success - every single day. You would take that management walk every day with every person.

Some managers favor team meetings instead of daily one-on-one talks, but team meetings are no substitute. When you meet with an employee, and look her in the eye, talk about expectations, ask for an account of her performance, review her work results, or provide feedback, there's no place to hide. In a team meeting, however, it's easy to hide - for both the manager and the employees. Managers often feel more comfortable sharing difficult news or providing feedback to the whole team than talking directly to one person.

The problem is, the difficult news or feedback is often aimed at only one or two people. So the rest of the team is confused and insulted. Meanwhile, the very people you are trying to "manage" in that team setting might not even realize that you are talking to them! Managers tell me all the time about that team meeting in which they meant to shine a bright light on Ms. Blue, the employee who has been coming in late and taking too many long breaks. They announce at the meeting, "We have to stop coming in late. And we have to stop taking so many long breaks. Remember, you get two ten-minute breaks - and ten minutes means ten minutes." Most of their employees are sitting there, puzzled: "What is he talking about? I come in early every day, and I hardly ever take breaks." But the one employee the manager is really talking to is looking at her watch thinking, "Come on already.  Wrap it up. I've got to take my break."

It's also a whole lot harder to tune in to each employee in a team meeting and focus on that person's work in a way that will be meaningful and helpful. Often, team meetings feel pro forma and include lots of discussion about things that most of the people in the room don't need to know and don't care about. Meanwhile, details critical to one employee or another are inevitably omitted. Sometimes the best things to come out of a team meeting are the spontaneous one-on-one huddles that typically follow the meeting, because the meeting has made it clear that they are necessary.

Team meetings do have a place in good management, of course. Team meetings are ideal when you need to share information that is relevant to the whole team. And they are often necessary when many people are working interdependently and might benefit from listening to what others are doing, what issues are coming up in their projects, and so on. Yes, team meetings have their place. Just don't fool yourself: the team meeting is a totally different animal from the one-on-one conversation.

Is It Really So Important to Manage Every Single Day?

Managerial spans of control have gotten wider and wider, and, thus, most managers are responsible for too many people. Without a doubt, this has contributed to the undermanagement epidemic. Faced with managing sixteen, sixty, or even more employees, managers throw their hands up in frustration. They say, "How can I possibly talk one-on-one with every single employee, every single day, in just one hour a day?!" Instead, they hide in their offices, complete the required management paperwork, and do little "managing" beyond that. No wonder there is so much "management by special occasion."

If you hide in your office you leave a power vacuum on the day-to-day management front. Then you will run into what I call the "the ringleader problem." Ad hoc ringleaders will emerge to fill the vacuum. Often these ringleaders are the squeaky wheels who have good personal relationships with other employees or some brand of charisma. Sometimes they assert their authority and influence in ways that are self-serving and often damaging to the team. They tell people, "Slow down. You're making me look bad." Sometimes they form cliques, bully others, and spread rumors. More often they are simply self-deceived mediocre performers who believe they are high performers. They offer guidance, direction, and support to their coworkers, but they often lead people in the wrong direction.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It's Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.

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