Even in the easiest circumstances, maintaining an ongoing dialogue with every person requires organization, planning, and rigorous and disciplined follow-through. And how many people work under the easiest of circumstances? More likely, you might be managing around one or more logistical hurdles. Maybe you have too many people to manage, or you are trying to manage people in remote locations or who work a different schedule than you.
Whenever a manager tells me, “I have too many people to manage,” my first reaction is this reality check: Do you have thirteen or thirty people who directly report to you? Or do you have a “chain of command,” that is, employees who are managers, supervisors, or team leaders who are supposed to be managing some of the other employees in your group?
Using your chain of command effectively
If you have a chain of command, you must use it effectively. Make a habit of talking to these supervisors or team leaders daily and focus intensely on helping them play the role you need them to. Teach them how to manage on an ongoing basis, and manage how they manage every step of the way. Just as you work hard to be a strong manager, they must do the same.
If you don’t have a chain of command, maybe you should establish one. There is no magic number for how many direct reports a manager can handle. But indeed, there is a limit. If you have thirty people, you simply cannot afford to be the only leader on the team Cultivate and develop high performers who are in your inner circle, who share your priorities, and who help you keep the team focused on the work at hand. Developing new leaders, even informally, will help you extend your reach: you can use them as temporary project managers and deputize them when unavailable. But don’t give anyone management responsibilities—formal or informal—unless you are prepared to focus on that leader intensely and personally manage that leader’s management practices very closely.
No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you will have to make daily choices about how you will use your dedicated management time. Concentrate on four or five people every day. Some employees will need more time than others. But don’t just talk to the winners and the losers. Talk to everybody in between. Maybe take one employee from the high end, one from the low end, and a third from the middle—- each day. That’s fifteen a week. Thirty every two weeks.
Managing employees in various time zones
What about managing employees who are working on a different schedule from you? Or maybe your employees are working on the other side of the planet in an entirely different time zone. Even if they are just across town, they might work a different schedule from you. What do you do?
These scenarios present the same logistical issues as those working in remote locations. In all of these cases:
- You need to establish with that employee (I’ll call him “Remote”) a protocol for maintaining well-functioning ongoing one-on-one dialogue:
- Keep each other informed about when you’ll be at a central location, such as the organization’s headquarters, so that you can schedule in-person one-on-one time.
- Schedule occasional in-person meetings when it is convenient for you to visit remotely or when it is convenient for Remote to visit you in your location.
- Use zoom/teams, what-have-you, or the old-fashioned way (phone), and emails. But… too often, managers of Remotes slip into management by “interruption” and “call me when you need me.” As a result, their communication becomes increasingly disorganized, incomplete, and random. Until, of course, something goes wrong, and then they find themselves managing by “firefighting.”
- Schedule regular one-on-one telephone calls with Remote and never miss the calls.
Prepare in advance
Prepare in advance of your one-on-ones and ask Remote to prepare too. It is often a good idea to ask Remote to prepare a written recap of highlights and key issues since your last one-on-one call and open questions to discuss during the one-on-one. Also, Remote should send for your review in advance any work-in-progress that will be discussed.
Immediately following each call, ask Remote to send you an email recapping what you both agreed on in your conversation: the actions Remote is expected to take, the steps Remote will follow, and the timeline, as well as the date and time of your next scheduled phone call; and ask Remote to prepare in advance and send any documents for review before the next meeting.
Sometimes when I teach these best practices in my seminars, someone will raise a hand and ask, “My employees work across the hall from me, but a lot of our relationship is conducted by telephone and email nonetheless.” Indeed. Our research shows that conducting face-to-face conversations—whenever possible—- is much better than conducting your management conversations solely by telephone and electronic communication.
Also, electronic communication has a built-in advantage: When you and your team communicate electronically, you create a paper (or electronic) trail. Save those emails, and you’ll have a record of your ongoing dialogue with this direct report. If the emails are organized and thorough, Remote could print them out and use them as checklists or as the bases for crafting work plans, schedules, to-do lists, and other tools to help guide him in his work. For your part, YOU can use that paper trail as part of your ongoing tracking and documentation of this employee’s performance.