What Does a Manager Do?

On Tuesday evening, after our DCOS event, we were sat around talking. I said that the problem with good management is that we don’t recognise it when we see it. I then argued that CS must be well managed, since it was doing exactly what a company should be doing, namely, serving the needs of the people who work and invested in it; serving the needs of its customers; and finally, serving the needs of society.

The problem, and the reason for our drunken discussion, is that CS seems like a relaxed company to work at. This leads people to think that this place is self-managing and therefore effortless. This is not the case and actually is never the case; a smooth looking company is like a smooth running circus act: it is the product of a lot of practice and hell of a lot of management and, actually, a large amount of ‘good’ stress.

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Right, that was Tuesday. On Wednesday I spoke to a new colleague, who will join us on August the 1st. He came with us to see Terminator Genisys. Here we all are:

 

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My new colleague and I spoke about his role. This got me thinking about what it actually means to be a manager. I wondered, do I even have a definition of what a manager should do? Later, when I got home I went upstairs and took a look at Mintzberg’s ‘The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact’. He offers a definition that I quite like. The effective manager:

  1. Develops a systematic way to share information.
  2. Knows how to step back and build a mental model, which he will do with input from his colleagues.
  3. Knows how to turn obligations into advantages and needs into obligations.

Let me take each of these in turn.

Develop a Systematic Way to Share Information
A manager makes his own life easier by allowing those around him to make their own decisions. The only way people can do this is if they have decent information. The way I share information is with the whiteboard, lots of drinks, mainly coffee, and the odd walk through the canals. Because I am often in the office in Amsterdam, I can share information easily. Recently, however, as we have started to do more work in London and Denmark, it became obvious that my system of sharing information needed to be extended. The CEO of the London office, Daniel, suggested a weekly meeting, which we now do on Thursdays. I do the same with my team in Copenhagen.

It’s worth noting that the system of sharing information develops, it does not ‘grow’ itself. There is no magic involved, only hard work and experimentation.

Building a Mental Model
The manager’s job is basically to be interrupted. Once interrupted, the manager has to deal with interruptions as quickly as possible. In the short term, the manager deals with problems using their energy and creativity. In the long run, they build capabilities into their organisations so that systematic interruptions are dealt with by the organisation.

However, the manager can only effectively deal with interruptions if they have an overview of their own world. This is what I mean by ‘mental model’. The only way to build a mental model is to gather information and then give your head time to process it. Since interruptions are what a manager is meant to deal with, thinking you can think about stuff in the office is an exercise in wishful thinking. Instead, the manager must create a set of habits that gives them a chance to build their mental model up.

The way I build my model is pretty simple. I wake early, so I can think about stuff in peace. I don’t have email on my phone, which means my brain is free to process information when I am on the train or cycling home. I also spend weeks away from the office, with my email switched off. Knowing that the temptation to check my email is too much, I get my partner to change my password. She gives me the new password when I return from my retreat. I also read when I can, usually in the morning and when I am travelling. And finally, I take courses, usually a couple per year. The courses themselves become a sort of obligation that I can’t get out of. Speaking of which…


Obligations
Managers have always got things they must do, obligations they must fulfil. Key customers only want to speak to me. It’s the same for key partners. I am the one expected to give birthday speeches. Etc.. The smart manager learns how to do a sort of mental jujitsu and change these obligations into opportunities. The guys and girls here joke that every time I leave the office I come back with a new deal, or a new lead. I once came back with a Mary Poppins poster. This is not a magical ability, it’s just my job.

The other thing about obligations is that most managers always fulfil them. Knowing this, the manager can do another sort of mental jujitsu; he can change his needs into obligations. I said earlier that hoping to find time to reflect during office hours is an exercise in wishful thinking. Yet, managers know they must reflect (and keep fit, and be with their kids, and call their mums). The way to do this is to make reflecting an obligation you can’t get out of. A good manager makes time for reflecting – he certainly doesn’t bemoan how busy he is.

In Summary
The manager does (at least) three things. He or she creates a systematic way to share information and, importantly, updates that system as things change. The manager steps back routinely in order to create an overarching mental model of their business and its context. This is essential for rapid decision making, which is in turn essential for success. Finally, the manager learns how to change obligations into opportunities and needs into obligations.

Written down like this, I think the role of manager sounds hard, which is good, because it is. It’s not something that should be undertaken lightly. A manager is responsible for the well-being of their organisation, which is the same as saying that a manager is responsible for the mental well-being of each and every person in that organisation. One should understand this before they put their hand up for the job… i.e. one should be very careful for what they wish for!

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Jamie Dobson

Jamie specializes in innovation and technical strategy. As the CEO of Container Solutions, he is primarily responsible for the direction of the company and the well being of the team. He occasionally works with clients on tricky strategic problems, teaching executives how to ‘win’ with technology.

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