On being a productive boss

In some business fields, as you gain more responsibilities and influence, your job stops following a fixed pattern of processes and tasks and starts to focus on more abstract deliverables, such as strategy, team management motivation, new ideas, change, innovation, etc. What they don’t tell you about this shift is that it requires that you adapt your way of measuring results as well.

For the first half of my career in advertising, I worked as a designer and art director, and as such, my deliverables were very clear: communication ideas, designs, presentations, etc. It was easy to know when one was done and it was time to move on to the next. Task after task I knew how much work each had taken and I could challenge myself to do more, work faster, and get better results.
When I was put in charge of a team, I started dealing with other people’s tasks. Managing their schedules and due dates became another KPI for me. Check.
Then I was put in charge of a new department in the agency and while I loved the challenge and wanted to do my best to excel at it, there were very few clear guidelines to do it so I had to design processes, think strategically about what we could accomplish and how and manage execution from a blank page.
I did my best and came up with some good ideas in the process but never really got out of my old “task management” approach and probably missed some opportunities.
Looking back a few years later I see some of the pitfalls I inadvertently fell into. Here they are:

Not letting go of tasks your team should be doing. Maybe they are swamped. Maybe you can do it faster. Or maybe they just do things in their own way and that drives you crazy. Stop.
A colleague once told me that he frequently had to roll up his sleeves and take on urgent tasks because of these reasons and that not doing it meant the objectives of the department he ran could be compromised. His commitment to the company and its results kept him from looking the other way.
The problem was that he was actually doing exactly that. By parachuting into every emergency and taking on operative work he was not able to see that the problem he had to fix was the frequency with which these emergencies occurred and the causes behind them. Unaware of that problem, no permanent solution could be implemented.

Instead > Focus on understanding the context in which all tasks your team is responsible for are executed and fix the problems in it.

Not taking time to work on the real deliverables. A power point presentation is not a strategy, no matter how many slides you squeeze into it or how many animations and graphs you use. They can be part of the process but not the deliverable itself, because strategy is not an object. It’s not a file you can email later. It’s an idea or the sum of many and the idea itself can only be understood, not printed, attached or sent.
It’s easy to feel more productive when we’re typing text into a slide or filling up our calendar with meetings but that leaves no time to work on what really matters.
The process of coming up with new ideas requires information, inspiration, and the time to process both. Don’t be afraid to give yourself time for your brain to digest all that.

Instead > Make time for these three things during the process of developing a strategy and make sure they are recurrent tasks in you calendar: questioning, distraction, and contemplation.

Expecting deliverables to be clear-cut. Your new responsibilities will probably engage with some big concepts like innovation, new business, increase revenue opportunities, company culture, brand equity, etc. You’ll be responsible for one or many of these but chances are you won’t get a list of things to do after that. It’s your job to figure out how to be the most productive at it.
This can lead to two situations: 1) you feel responsible and you try to do your part but the lack of parameters can frustrate you; or 2) since you’re not given a specific task you fail to deliver more than what you are used to doing and sooner or later, the value of your contributions are questioned. But you are not a junior associate anymore so feeling upset or that you’re being treated unfairly is a waste of time.

Instead > Focus on understanding the problem and the logic behind the processes. Even if your organization doesn’t have a clear idea of how to do all those things, they must have a purpose. Make sure it exists and that you understand it, so you can define immediate objectives as well as expected results in the long run.

Whatever your position, remember it’s up to you to define the status of your seniority and that directly affects what you deliver and what you bring to the table.


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