New Managers: moving from 1 report to 5 reports effectively

You were a management understudy and had a report (or 2) to test your management abilities. Now your manager thinks you are now ready to be a manager and you now have 5 reports. Congratulations!

Once celebrations are over, you start thinking: is this going to be any different than before? Do my strategies for managing my 1 report extend to managing these 4? And you start getting some doubts. Are there some reasons to worry?

In a previous post about industry newbie as manager, I pointed to perils of getting promoted to management position too early in the career. This is a very real problem and newbie managers should guard against this by spending enough time to master these skills and getting good at dealing with ambiguities and achieving results through others. Having 1 or 2 reports to start a management career is a good way to start practicing these.

In another post about management challenges, I discussed major aspects of management that become critical when you have too many reports (my example had 9 reports). All those are very valid for managers having any number of reports, and if you are a new manager, you will do good to review them.

However, when you move from 1 report to 4-5 reports, there is a big pitfall that you will do well to avoid. This is the art of time management.

When you have 1-2 reports, you spend lots of time with your reports since you need to learn more about managing them, and they need more time from you (because most likely, they are junior employees and require lots of hand holding). However, this doesn’t scale to 5 reports. They will suck more than 100% of your time if you try to have the same approach to managing.

Here are a few objectives to aim for in order to be good at managing your time as a manager:

  • Interactions between team members shouldn’t require you for decisions and resolutions all the time
  • Use 1-1s effectively so that they don’t become too long
  • Reports should be able to independently make prioritization decisions in most of the cases
  • You should be able to manage by exception, management by knowing everything doesn’t scale once you have more than 2 reports.

Given these goals, here are some solutions I have found to work:

  • Set ground rules for interactions – this defines your working style. This allows the team to understand which issues to bring to you for discussion and which ones they don’t need to
  • Be very clear about goals and priorities for the team – this helps the team members to make decisions that are aligned with your goals and priorities without requiring you in all their meetings, and without having you overturn their decisions
  • Clarify decision-making process – I can’t stress this enough. If this is not made clear and demonstrated in practice, the manager can be overwhelmed by so many decisions that require their attention. Manager needs to tell the team how the decisions will be made, when will it require the manager, what data should be provided to back the decision, who can make which decisions, etc.
  • Use team meetings effectively – Team meetings are great ways to demonstrate your goals, priorities, working style and decision making process in action. So use it judiciously and effectively. Have clear agenda, provide opportunities to the team members to bring in issues as well as solutions, and provide an open environment for deep discussions and speedy resolutions.

A note about ‘managing by exception vs. managing by knowing everything’: Most new managers are micro-managers, since their technical smartness has got them this promotion and they need to be in the know of everything (and provide guidance every step of the way) in order to feel good about their own contribution. They will read every email, make every decision that needs to be made by their reports, will want to know every status change in their reports’ projects, etc. This clearly doesn’t scale from a time management perspective. This is what I call ‘managing by knowing everything’. A way to manage in a scalable way is what I call ‘managing by exception’: if you set right goals, priorities, ground rules, and processes in place, team members should be independent in their work, and they will ask you for help (and that is the point when you manage). Here is a geeky way of stating this distinction between these 2 styles: When a process has to respond to a sub-process result, it has 2 options: it can keep polling the sub-process frequently, or you can set notifications that get triggered by the sub-process when it is ready for your intervention. Trigger is always a preferred option (unless in some very specific scenarios when busy-wait may be better)

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