Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The "Working" Manager

Sitting in a business meeting yesterday I made a startling revelation.

I sat there with a group of individuals like myself, manager or project manager types, discussing the investigation and possible procurement of a type of support equipment. As I sat there listening to the ebb and flow of conversation as I was not really impacted by this, I realized that the senior individual in the room, a director-level position, was seemingly the one to whom the meeting was addressed even though it was not initially their problem. By a series of questions from this person others expressed what they knew, and by the end of the meeting this individual had organized an action plan - for which they themselves had no action items.

As I walked back across the business campus mulling this over in mind, I suddenly saw this meeting repeated again and again in my mind: a group of individuals who does the work is brought together, a senior or executive management member reviews the situation, asks a few questions, and offers some comment, and everyone walks away with the individuals having more work and the management members having made the decision.

This is not to suggest that senior/executive managers do not work hard - I know that they do! - but to grapple with the concept of where that line occurs in a career.

In all of my management positions I have been told it's a "working manager" position, the idea apparently being that managers need to "work" as well as "manage" and "make decisions." What I've come to find over time is that this concept of a working manager "works" only sometimes depending on the industry - and almost never in terms of advancement in house.

If the essence of management is learning to make and execute decisions - and by execute at that level, I mean "ensure that it is executed" - then the working manager is always in a bind. They cannot truly focus on executing decisions as they have a quota of work which they're always expected to produce as well as "manage" the work under them. What this creates is a situation that most will never rise to the level of decision maker because they will never have reached that quota of work as well as have made the decisions to manage that they are to have made. Even delegation only goes so far in this case, as one does not want to appear that one is not "working".

How can this be changed to an advantage? I think part of the groundwork has to be laid up front coming into the position by clarifying that "working manager" means that while some work will be done, the management and decision side is equally important both to the company and a future career at it. The next part is probably learning to get better both at managing the tasks and resources at hand. A small group of anyone cannot do everything, so both expectations and output need to be managed accordingly.

Finally, one simply has to start making decisions and seeing that they are executed by yourself or those around you. The only way to learn is to do it, sometimes sanctioned or not.

Decision makers decide. Working managers work. I know where I'd like to be.

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