What do managers do all day?
This is one of the great, constant mysteries of worklife. According to management expert Peter Drucker, what a manager does all day is set objectives, organize, motivate and communicate, measure, and develop people. The problem is, these tasks are so fuzzy that doing them makes it look like you’re not doing anything.
Your role is to help your team make meaningful progress, which means that your primary concern isn’t about you but the people you manage and how they’re doing. As Michael Lopp, veteran engineering manager, puts it: “Their productivity is your productivity.”
A manager’s job is mystifying because it’s so hard to understand what this transitive type of productivity looks like. You have to redefine what it means to get stuff done and how to measure your manager productivity.
Accepting That You’ll Be the Worst
When Buffer’s Chief Happiness Officer, Carolyn Kopprasch, began managing the growing customer support team, she realized she had to dismantle her whole concept of work. She’d first been a superstar at making Buffer customers happy, so she began her transition with “a lot of street cred.” But she realized that she had to let this hard-earned mastery and reputation go.
To be a great manager, Carolyn had to totally redefine her perceptions of productivity and success.
If she spent a bulk of her time doing support requests, she wouldn’t be doing her job. “I can’t be the leader by being the best at [customer support] anymore,” she explains. “I have to be the leader by being okay with being the worst at this specific role but still being able to be a liaison between them and the rest of the team and focusing more on the vision.”
The particular challenge that unseasoned managers face is that your workday is so different, diverging from not only what you used to do but excelled at. As a manager, you can’t be swooping in to do your team’s work for them or puppeteer them through tasks.
When you let insecurity and anxiety about how your productivity appears to others and reluctance to let go of the kind of tasks that helped you get promoted drive your managerial approach, you’ll fall prey to harmful behavior like micromanagement or disruption. Status updates, repeated check-ins, back-seat driving, and meetings start to even seem logical and masterful because they lend your the appearance of looking like you know what you’re doing.
“You have to battle your own confidence when you change your role,” says Carolyn. “Just changing the way I perceive my own success was the biggest challenge, and that took several months. I’m not successful if I answer 100 emails anymore. I’m successful if my team is happy.”
Be a Coach, Not a Player
In 2006, Google applied its data-driven analytics to its people-side and discovered that great managers make a huge difference. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of Google’s people operations, explains, “[O]ur best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better.”
Google discovered that the most critical rule of great management is to be a good coach. The quality of managers, then, revolves around how well they manage how their team is doing by supporting their progress and helping them grow.
Consider the role of a sports coach. You can’t step in and replace the athlete in the field. You’re not doing a good job if you’re thinking merely like a player or keeping your team in a meeting, preventing them from getting out on the court to practice and play. Being a coach requires managing the wellbeing and development of your people because that’s how you help your team play well.
So Carolyn coaches her team by going beyond work tasks to discuss self-care and mindfulness around personal productivity — whether it’s how you’re sleeping and the issue of hitting an energy wall in the afternoon. “If they don’t feel like they have the space to take care of themselves, then everybody’s work just goes downhill, including mine.”
This management approach is how Carolyn shifted her focus from the happiness of Buffer’s customers to the happiness of her support team. “I had to realize that I won’t have nearly as much output as I used to, which is good because that means that my output is talking to my people and seeing what they need,” she explains. “We probably spend the most time talking about their happiness first, so that they feel like they can do good work.”
“Everybody’s more successful when they’re happy — but especially for customer support people. If you’re not in a good place, or even if you’re just tired, you’re not going to be able to provide the best service. That’s true up and down every line of work.”
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People feel like they don’t have time to think about and act on long-term goals like wellness and learning, which affect their happiness and productivity at work. That’s exactly why your responsibility as a manager to be a good coach can be so crucial — because you have the ability and to guide and develop people around some of these goals.
Rethinking your job as a manager as being a good coach helps resolve the inherent challenge of defining and showing your manager productivity. Understanding that it’s much harder to check off a to-do list when your tasks are to know what’s going on, remove obstacles, and facilitate progress can help battle your fear about looking like you’re not getting any work done.
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