By: Ed Muzio
If you’ve recently been hired as a manager, you know the dirty secret: Management positions come with surprisingly little guidance. Whether you were promoted internally or brought in from outside, you were probably expected to hit the ground running, toward only the vaguest of goals.
Many of the problems new managers experience stem from that secret. They are faced with an ill-defined job and equally intense pressure from above and below. Plus, as the pivot points in the information revolution, they are barraged with queries about the work of their groups.
It’s easy to see why capable, well-meaning managers resort to micromanagement, detachment, grandstanding, or sheer block-headedness in an effort to find some sort of stability for themselves and their employees.
How can you avoid these pitfalls? The following six steps will help you define your purpose as manager:
1. Define your own job clearly.
If you’re a new manager, this is your first and most important step. You need a memorable, meaningful definition, something that you can figuratively (or literally) write across your bathroom mirror so that you see it every morning.
I suggest “engender useful output.” Your primary responsibility as a manager is to maximize the likelihood that your employees will be productive; your task is to create an environment in which employee output is clearly defined and realistically achievable. If you’re not doing that, then it doesn’t matter what data you’re gathering, which employees you’re monitoring, or whose ear you’re bending. You may be busy, you may be stressed, and you may look managerial, but you’re not doing your job.
2. Define your group’s output.
To engender output you must first define it. This task is easier said than done. Today’s workplace changes quickly, and managers at all levels are expected to turn the work of their groups on a dime. Your own manager may not be terribly clear on long range company plans, so neither of you may fully understand how the work of your group will change in the next quarter, month, or even week.
Uncertainty about the future is not an excuse for lack of productivity in the present. If your plan is to wait around until everything is known before doing anything, you might as well lock the doors and go home for good! Things will change again and again, and only by delivering on current plans will you and your company learn what works, and what changes to make next. Besides, the definition of your group’s required output is the definition of YOUR required output as manager. Defining it is one part good management practice and one part career survival.
3. Seek momentary clarity rather than permanent answers.
Speak with your leaders about what your group can reasonably produce right now and then agree to task your group with producing it right now. Make it clear that unless you hear otherwise, until the next scheduled check-in you will follow the current plan. Then, verbally summarize the output you are committing to engender in about 90 seconds. During follow-on discussions with your management, use that mini-commercial as a way to gently remind them what you are working on, so that they can edit your understanding if needed.
When changes, do come, don’t fight them. Welcome the new information, openly revise your understanding of what you need to produce, and clearly explain the time and resources you need to accomplish the change. If you can’t turn the boat in an hour, say so. It’s far better to be up front when something isn’t possible than to agree to it under duress but fail to deliver.
4. Become an expert in defining and communicating expectations.
Of course, your definition is only half the story. To engender output from your group, you need to convert from the commitment you made as manager into what each of your employees must do individually.
Contrary to popular opinion, this doesn’t mean telling your employees what to do. It means teaching them to discuss what they are doing themselves – to create their own 90 second mini-commercials -- and then working with them on a shared understanding of what’s needed. You haven’t successfully taught an employee his or her expected output until you hear that person say it to you spontaneously, in a way that matches your own understanding. Then you know its happening.
This also means your employees must be in the habit of speaking openly about what they are doing. To get honesty, avoid using discussions about current objectives as pop quizzes! When you need to adjust an employee’s understanding of his or her work, frame your conversation as being about expectations for the future and defining how to succeed. Don’t let it degrade into how the employee should already know these things. Remember: When your employees don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s at least as likely to be your fault as theirs.
5. Keep talking about output.
A VSO, or verbalized summary objective statement, is a kind of mini-commercial in which you state the output you’re trying to deliver at the moment. It should take about 90 seconds, and should list about 5-7 output goals that together cover about 80% of what you are working on. It’s yours to change, adjust, and modify whenever you see fit. It’s also yours to use as your introduction whenever you’re talking to people in or about your workplace. Use VSO’s with your management and teach your employees to use them with you.
Why? Your VSO trains people as to what to expect -- and not expect -- from you. It provides an avenue for a manager to edit an employee’s understanding of the job, and a basis for you to accept or decline requests for additional work. As time goes by, and you deliver on your VSO, you also increase your credibility within the organization as people see that you are following through on your commitments.
6. Keep at it.
Management is like exercise: it’s often difficult, you’re never done and it requires self-discipline.
Get in the habit of having conversations with superiors about the output needed from your group and discussions with your employees about their individual contributions to that output. Then remind yourself that your job is to maximize the chances that your employees will produce. This won’t make management easy, but it’s the first step in making you better at it.
Edward G. Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics, is the author of the award winning books Make Work Great: Supercharge Your Team, Reinvent the Culture, and Gain Influence One Person at a Time and Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want. An expert in workplace improvement and its relationship to individual enjoyment, Muzio has been featured on Fox Business Network, CBS, and other national media. For more information visit Make Work Great and follow the author on Facebook.