This article is part of a series on managing managers.
Life as an IC, or as a manager of ICs, usually follows a predictable cadence. Perhaps you plan your time and your activities around fixed periods such as sprints. Or perhaps it’s quite the opposite and you work in a self-directed manner: planning, building and shipping continually as you go.
Either way, you find and sustain a rhythm for yourself and your team, and you all move together and rest together in predictable intervals. Days, weeks and months have familiar and comforting peaks and troughs.
However, when you begin to manage managers, this begins to go out of the window. You could now find yourself with multiple teams reporting to you that are working at different cadences and iteration lengths, meaning that instead of riding steadily along on one vessel, you’re instead scratching your head looking at the map as a whole fleet plots different courses across it.
This operational distance from sitting in a higher place in the org chart can make it harder to know how to plan your time, and to know what you should be focussing on at any given moment. You don’t have a team now – instead you have a peer group of other managers of managers – and that’s not the same as a cohesive squad that works closely and collaboratively daily on a shared and regimented schedule.
So what should you do in order to restore some comfort and control to your role?
A method that has worked for me is to frequently map the activities that I have to do into buckets that represent four different intervals: daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly.
There are a few reasons that I do this:
- I’m a visual person, and this format helps me think about this activity easier.
- Some of the activities will be loops that recur all year (e.g. doing 1:1s) but some will be one-offs. Separating and labeling them helps me understand the balance between the two.
- It helps me reason better about what should require my daily effort and what ideally should need less attention with time.
- It helps me identify when I am overloading my daily and weekly activities with short-term busywork that I should be either delegating, automating, or simply not doing, by fixing the underlying cause.
- It helps me remind myself that I’m not forgetting about the tasks that I am doing monthly or quarterly, freeing my mind up to think about the present moment.
- It allows me to regularly audit whether important activities, such as strategic thinking, planning, and so on are getting my regular attention, or whether they are becoming less frequent in priority. If the latter is true, then why?
That’s great and all, but what does it look like?
Here’s an example of how those buckets and labels could look like for a manager of managers:
Note the clear distinction made between activities that are recurring, such as trying to achieve inbox zero daily, and those that are one-offs, such as working on the hosting strategy and writing performance reviews. Now, there isn’t anything inherently bad about having lots of one-off activities – if they’re all strategically important, then that’s awesome, you’re using your own time well. But sometimes they’re not, and that’s worth reflecting on.
Labeling your activities in each bucket acts as an indicator as to how your time is split between the four managerial activities, or even how you are managing to automate and delegate versus performing repetitive work yourself. Only you know what the right balance is, but assessing the quality and impact of your one-offs against each other should offer some insight.
So what should be the ideal activities in each of the buckets? It depends on you, but here’s how I tend to think about it.
- Daily activities typically split into two categories: the usual communication and scheduling of time (e.g. email, chat, calendar) and, assuming that nothing is on fire, progress on one or two impactful strategic or operational one-offs. Examples of the latter could be writing performance reviews, reviewing architecture proposals and code, working on the hosting strategy, or writing up documentation; all of these are high leverage activities.
- Weekly activities are typically always smaller-scale meetings and reporting. I do 1:1 meetings weekly and each requires preparation and generates actions. I also attend a weekly Engineering VPs meeting which requires the same. Additionally, I write a digest to my manager at the end of every week highlighting key pieces of information and summaries that I think would benefit them for knowing.
- Monthly activities are usually reserved for wider-scale meetings and reporting. For example, I hold skip-level meetings with a monthly cadence, and we report broadly on progress in the department to the rest of the company also once a month. Sometimes there are monthly one-offs, such as getting feedback on important long-term initiatives such as migrations or re-architectures.
- Quarterly activities are fewer in number for myself personally, but we do collectively spend time reviewing the latest measurements against our OKRs and then considering whether we are still on the right track, or whether adjustments to our higher-level direction are required.
Keeping it balanced
At the time of writing this article, I feel like I have a good balance of activities in the different buckets. Most importantly, looking back over the last month, I’ve almost always been able to make daily progress against one impactful strategic item, which is usually my indicator as to whether my workload is balanced correctly.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have too many pieces of busywork or one-offs in your daily and weekly slots, then you need to think about how you can either:
- Delegate it to someone else.
- Automate it so that it requires less of your active input.
- Forget about it if it really isn’t an impactful activity.
The solution may come via your direct reports or by writing scripts or or software, and you’re the only one that knows exactly what you should do, but trust your gut.
Try it yourself
So, give it a go. Why not:
- Map out how you’re spending your time into daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly buckets. (You may want to add a fortnightly bucket if you do lots of work on that cadence.)
- Identify which of the tasks are repeated and which are one-offs.
- Are all of your one-offs strategically important or are they busywork?
- Is there anything that you can delegate to others or automate?
- Is there anything that you can remove completely?
I’d love to know how you get on.