How to Be a Highly-Engaged Manager, Even When There Are Too Many People to Manage

No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your dedicated management time.

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 in a significant way. Faced with managing 16, 60, or even more employees, managers throw their hands up in frustration. They hide in their offices, complete the required management paperwork, and do little managing beyond that.

When managers hide in their offices, they leave a power vacuum on the day-to-day management front. Inevitably, 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. 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 despite their good intentions.

A Reality Check

I suggest that managers who feel they are responsible for too many people start by making a reality check: Do you really have 16 or 60 people who directly report to you? Or do you have a chain of command, that is, employees who are actually managers or supervisors who are supposed to be managing some of the other employees in your group?

If you have a chain of command, you must use it effectively. Make a habit of talking to these supervisors or team leaders every day and focus intensely on helping them play the role you need them to play. Teach them how to manage on an ongoing basis and manage how theymanage every step of the way. Just as you are working hard to be a great boss, they need to do the same.

If you don’t have a chain of command, it may make sense to establish one. Although it’s best to avoid unnecessary layers of management, if you truly have 60 people to manage, you cannot afford to be the only leader on that team. Developing new leaders, even informally, will help you extend your reach: You can use them as temporary project managers and deputize them when you are not available.

But the bottom line is that no matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your dedicated management time.

Choose Your Targets

Some people need more attention than others. Talking to every person every day is not always possible. You have to choose your targets. Just don’t make the mistake of choosing the same targets over and over again. Spread out your management time. Some employees may need you more than others, but everybody needs you.

As long as you conduct them on a regular basis, there is no reason to let management conversations become long and convoluted. The goal is to make these one-on-one meetings routine, brief, straight, and simple. Once you’ve gotten into a routine with each person, fifteen minutes should be all you need. Like everything else, it’s a moving target. Over time, you’ll have to gauge how much time you need to spend with each employee one day as opposed to another, depending upon the person and the work that person is doing.

You’ll be surprised at how much you can get done in 15 minutes. Take any employee you have not spoken to in detail for a while. Spend 15 minutes with that person asking probing questions about his or her work. It is almost always the case that you will find some surprises. You will find things that require adjustment. You’ll be darned glad you had that conversation. And you should be in a hurry to have another one, no more than two weeks thereafter.

At 15 minutes per meeting, you should be able to have four meetings a day in an hour. That’s 20 meetings a week, at least. I bet that’s a whole lot more than you’ve been managing lately.

Tips to Make It Work

Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Concentrate on four or five people a day.
  • Make your meetings quick, no more than 15 minutes.
  • Consider holding meetings standing up, with a clipboard in hand, to keep them quick and focused.
  • Don’t let anybody go more than two weeks without a meeting.
  • If you manage people working other shifts, stay late or come in early to meet with them.
  • If you manage people in remote locations, communicate via telephone and e-mail regularly and consistently in between one-on-one meetings.

These tactics may not be convenient. But you are the boss. Inconvenience goes with the territory.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a 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. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website, www.rainmakerthinking.com.

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