TL;DR: If you want to have a high impact as a manager, consider these activities and strategies: Delegating, connecting people, saying “no” to the right things, teaching, teaching how to teach, giving up control, and encouraging your people to take initiative.
Emails. Incident reports. One-on-ones. Fine-tuning the new development process. Onboarding a newcomer. A request from another department. In the workplace, a lot of things can be calling for your attention at the same time, even more so as a manager or coordinator. It is not always clear what you should focus on first. You cannot — and should not — do everything at once. Or, rather: You cannot do everything. Saying yes to one thing often means saying no to several others.
Since your time, attention, and decision-making capacity are limited, you want to use them in the most impactful way possible. Prioritizing according to leverage can help us do just that. Leverage is an abstract concept and means that you strive to make a disproportionate impact through your actions. Let us bring some concreteness to this abstract concept and look at seven strategies to increase your managerial leverage.
As a manager, you need to be a force multiplier. If you concentrate solely on your own output the way you did when you were an individual contributor, you will hit a hard limit of your leverage pretty soon. For example, assuming you were a developer before you switched to a management role, spending most of your time coding might mean you are not using your time as effectively as you could.
Adopt the mindset that, as a manager, your output is your people’s output, or, as Andy Grove puts it:
“The output of a manager = The output of his organization plus the output of neighboring organizations under his influence”
Furthermore, this output is the result of various managerial activities of varying degrees of leverage:
Managerial Output = L1 * A1 + L2 * A2 + …
In this formula, A1 and A2 are activities, while L1 and L2 are their associated degrees of leverage. Grove concludes: “Clearly the key to high output means being sensitive to the leverage of what you do during the day.”
Delegation is a high-leverage activity, because you multiply your influence. You directly affect the output of your employees, and might even teach somebody in the process. This will make them more efficient for the next task, and the next, and the next. Keep in mind, though, that delegation is not a magic wand that you wave at people and that allows you to forget about the task afterwards. Delegation without monitoring is abdication, meaning you still have to communicate regularly with the person you are delegating to. How often you communicate, and whether it is only to stay in the loop, or to check their results, or to fix their mistakes, depends on their Task Relevant Maturity.
2. Connect people
When you bring the right people together, magic can happen. Consider Sarah, a UX researcher who wants to improve the usability of a key feature on the site. She mentions this to you, and you know that Paul, a UI developer, has been working on a prototype that points in the same direction. You introduce them to each other, and, together, they come up with a great proof-of-concept that is better then what each of them could have created on their own.
As a manager, you are probably connected in a different way to various people across the organization than your employees. You might know more people, have access to more information, and have a bird’s eye view on things going on in various teams or departments. This puts you in a position to connect the dots, to see things that others cannot see, and to use this knowledge to empower people.
Connecting Sarah and Paul took probably less than an hour of your time, but produced a very tangible and valuable result. Therefore, it was clearly a high-leverage activity. Try to always keep your eyes and ears open to what is happening around you, and listen to things people tell you in passing. The first requirement of connecting people is to know what’s going on in the first place. Hold one-on-ones with your people, and listen well. Take part in kitchen discussions, and talk to people about their projects over lunch. The larger and the more active your network is, the more value you can provide to others by forging productive connections between people, and the more leverage you can add to your time.
3. Say “no” to low-value things or time box them
I have shared the advice before that you should considerately turn down meeting invitations when you think you can provide no value, and you can obtain the information disseminated in the meeting from somewhere else. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. You can apply the same principle to all your activities. Check your todo list and make a conscious decision for each item if it is really worth doing. And if you cannot drop a task, then what is the minimum amount of time you can dedicate to it?
In the most thorough article on time management I have encountered so far, Taylor Pearson includes a table that breaks down tasks into $10 per hour, $100 per hour, and up to $10000 per hour. Low-value tasks — $10 or $100 per hour — are rather tedious things like reading email, running errands, preparing boring reports, fixing layout bugs, or attending most meetings. High-value tasks are “tasks at which you show superior skill, energy, passion and desire for never-ending improvement”. Needless to say, Taylor recommends to spend as much time as possible on high-value tasks.
He also suggests a schedule where you move the low-value activities to your low-energy time of the day, e.g., after lunch. Hence: No or little email in the morning when you are still fresh and creative. Rather, schedule these things before or after lunchtime, or towards the end of your day. Moreover, time box them so that they do not eat up more time than they deserve. For example, dedicate only 30 minutes to email twice a day, instead of constantly checking. Try if you can get away with it. If that is too extreme, adapt, but keep track of your time and make a conscious decision about how much time you allocate to it.
Above, I mentioned the need to be a multiplier. Standing in front of a number of people and teaching them something is a prime example of a multiplication effect, and is probably one of the highest-leverage activities you can do. It might take up some time if you prepare high-quality material, but the payoff can be huge:
- If your class increases your people’s efficiency by 1%, and there are ten participants who work about 18,000 hours per year, then your preparation time will result in 180 extra hours of work the company gains only in the next year. In the years after that, the teaching effect is still there — provided your people do not forget everything you said —, so the payoff might be even larger.
- If you can hold the same class to different people over and over again, your preparation time becomes smaller and smaller the second and third times, which makes your leverage still higher.
- Teaching builds trust between the teacher and the students, and fosters strong relationships. People will feel invested in, which is something that especially millenials value highly. Your employee retention rate will improve or continue to be good.
As a manager, the skill set and the potential skill gap of your people is your responsibility. This does not mean you have to do all the teaching yourself. Probably, you can’t. This is where the next strategy to increase your managerial leverage comes in.
5. Teach how to teach
Probably, a lot of people around you have something to teach. Sometimes, they might not even know it. A lot of people in Tech suffer from the Impostor’s Syndrome and think they are not good enough, when in reality they might be delivering first-class results every day.
Make them aware of this. As a manager, you hopefully have an overview of who is good at what, so you can ask and encourage the right people to teach their colleagues. Set the stage for them. In case they are afraid of “stealing” time from the organization, help them set aside time to prepare, and make sure they take it. Make them see how teaching is one of the most valuable things they can do for the organization. Help them prepare, and serve as a sounding board to validate their approach to teaching.
By the way: Since there is such a lot of excellent teaching material out there, a teacher can mainly serve as a curator who picks appropriate videos or exercises. This might save time compared to creating material yourself.
6. Give up control
In the traditional sense, a manager is considered a “supervisor”. In workplaces where “supervision” is the main idea of management, supervisors control the workers and make sure nobody does something they are not authorized to do. However, this model does not translate to workplaces of the modern knowledge industry: Highly qualified employees enjoy a high degree of freedom and don’t need to be “supervised” closely. Access control and rights management functions in organizational information systems ensure they do not see data they should not see — without a human having to stand behind them and watch over their shoulder.
Still, as a manager, sometimes you green-light certain things, or act as a gatekeeper. Maybe it has always been that way, and never been questioned by anyone. Or, playing a controlling role was necessary at some point, but is no longer, because an employee has accumulated enough skill and experience to perform the task on her own. Whatever the reason may be: When you find yourself answering “yes” every time you are asked for a certain permission, it might be time to stop playing that gatekeeper role. Tell your people they should use their own judgement, and stop asking you for permission.
There is a double win in giving up control like this. First, it frees up some of your time and decision capacity, so you can devote more energy to more valuable tasks. Second, it empowers your people, shows that you trust them, and helps them grow. Now that the hurdle of getting approval from you is gone, they might use their new freedom and develop real initiative. They might experiment with bold ideas that they did not dare to pitch to you previously, and some of them might have a big impact. In that case, your managerial leverage comes from leveraging your people’s talent, drive, and initiative. Little investment on your side, potentially huge impact for the organization.
Of course, there is a fine line between too little and too much control. Trust is fundamentally important when you give up some of it. After all, as a manager, you are still ultimately responsible for the results, even if you do not control your people’s work.
In a lot of organizations, people are pretty busy, and try to work as fast as they can. The problem is that an environment like this can prevent innovation. People might have good ideas, but they do not dare to try them out, because trying things out does not usually generate output, or get you a lot of credit. They might feel like they are stealing time from the organization. Maybe they have not thought enough about the idea yet, but since they know they will not get the time to test the idea in practice anyway, they do not even bother to refine it.
In situations like this, some encouragement by their manager might be all they need. If an employee knows that somebody else supports their idea, and has their back when they make time to work on it, she is much more likely to get started. If you think an idea is worth pursuing, show your support clearly to your employee, and encourage her to go on.
How do you find out about such early-stage ideas? Again, a one-on-one is a great opportunity for throwing ideas back and forth. Informal chats around the coffee machine or over lunch are also excellent.
Just as with giving up control (point 6 above), encouraging people taps into your employees’ creative talent and drive, and can cause them to massively increase their output — which is why encouragement is definitely a high-leverage thing.
Regardless of your role: If you want to have an impact, you have to spend as much of your time as possible on high-leverage activities. As a manager, this becomes even more important, since your actions affect an entire team or sub-organization. We have looked at delegation, connecting people, reducing time spent on low-value activities, teaching, encouraging your people to teach, giving up the right amount of control, and encouraging people to pursue their own ideas.
Using these strategies, you can make a disproportionate impact with the time you have — impact that will motivate the people around you, drive engagement, and help them grow. If you agree, disagree, or have other strategies for achieving high leverage, I would love to hear from you in the comments section below.
This blog post took me around 4.5h to write.