Often when coaching managers, I’m asked about prioritization and focus. For newer managers, it can be difficult to understand all the aspects of your new role. Where do you put your time? What skills should you focus on developing? How do you ensure that you aren’t overreaching with your designers or engineers or product managers? For more seasoned managers, it’s more about prioritizing all the different parts of your role. How do you strike a balance between leading and managing? How do you decide between doing tasks that improve your particular discipline vs tasks that impact cross-functional product teams or business strategies?
A few years ago, while I was managing managers at BuzzFeed, I came up with a list of four areas for which each of them was ultimately responsible:
Your Direct Reports
You’re responsible for managing the careers of your team members, and ensuring that they have what they need to be successful in their roles. If you find your team members are blocked, help unblock them. If they need mentorship, it’s up to you to help them find the right help. In general, you should advocate for them and help them.
If you’re a design manager, for instance, part of your job is to be a caretaker and advocate for the discipline of design. This includes the rituals specific to your discipline (design critiques within design, for example, or post-mortems in engineering), as well as general operational things like recruiting, on-boarding and career tracks.
Do your teams understand the company’s business objectives? Are they working together effectively to meet those objectives? Is their strategy sound? Your role is to help identify and troubleshoot teams that are off-track, as well as highlight and encourage teams that are performing at a high level. You should also be knowledgeable about each of your team’s product areas and goals, so that you can confidently advise them and other leaders.
If you’re new to management, it’s likely that you’ll be told this isn’t your job. While it’s certainly true that a lot of new managers accidentally over-index on work quality (since it’s their comfort-zone), the solution should not be to completely divorce yourself from the work. Anyone managing a team is still ultimately accountable for what winds up being produced and its impact. While you should trust your team and give folks room to find their own solutions and develop their skills, you are ultimately one of the curators of what goes out into the world and need to be comfortable giving feedback and guiding projects toward successful outcomes.
Ok, great, but now what?
Assuming you agree with this list, the next exercise I do with people is to identify which of these they are currently indexing heavily on. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for a manager (new or otherwise) to find themselves heavily-focused on only one or two of these generally. For new managers, you may find yourself more drawn to Your Direct Reports and Work Quality. For seasoned managers, managing multiple teams or even other managers, you may find that you spend most of your time thinking about The Business and Your Discipline. Being honest about where you tend to put your energy can help you start to see both blind spots and development areas to focus on. For instance, if you’re that new manager, the odds are that you’re focusing on the people and work because it’s the most comfortable thing for you to do. But in order to become a more well-rounded leader, you need to spend a lot of time digging in on where the business is going and how each of your teams’ work helps drive that vision. Additionally, say you’re a Design Manager and hope to become a Director, VP or Head of Design someday, it’s important for you to develop skills and instincts relevant to running the entire discipline. Working with other Design Managers and developing rituals and documentation for the team can help you grow a lot!
For more seasoned managers, it’s easy to get sucked into higher-order work related to how the business and your discipline are functioning. But it’s also important to not turn a blind eye toward people-development and the work your org is producing. How are your managers doing? How are their teams feeling? This list can be a good reminder to do some skip levels, or take a fresh look at your managers’ goals and priorities.
It’s a balancing act
The truth is that the priority-order of these management pillars changes constantly. One day, you may find yourself prioritizing a team member, advocating for their point of view to management. The next week you might find yourself on the other side, helping someone you manage understand why their point of view about a project, while valid, doesn’t align with the current business objectives. The best managers I’ve known are constantly prioritizing different pillars, seamlessly transitioning between advocating for excellent code-quality in one meeting to pressing for more ambitious goal-setting in another. They don’t view these things as inconsistencies, so much as they see that each situation requires a different prioritization of their concerns.
Take a moment and think about which of the pillars you’re currently indexing on heavily. Are you making the right trade-offs? How can you start to pay more attention to the parts of your job you aren’t currently focused on? In what ways can you begin to strike a balance between each of these to become a more effective leader for your team?
Would love to hear what you think in the comments!