New Managers: You Can Guard Your Time and Still Mentor Your Team


Twenty Million Pages of Knowledge

Last week, I received a question from a Smart Like How reader that gave me reason to codify a rule of thumb that I’ve used for a while to manage my time. He asked:

Now that I have what is for me a large staff (three other full-timers reporting to me), it's taken a while for it to really settle in that serious amounts of my time need to be spent managing their time as well as my own. This seems like an incredibly obvious observation, but until recently [our company] was small and consolidated enough that staff within department could function autonomously and there wasn't much need for a management culture. Any recommendations for how to jump into this?

I dealt with this same question a few years ago when I first had my own direct reports. Gene Healy, author of The Cult of the Presidency, perfectly captured well the unexpected burdens of executive management when he observed that the men who have served as President are utterly exhausted by having to constantly “flex the decision making muscles”. The President of the United States faces this in the extreme, obviously, but it is true of all levels of leadership: the questions your people bring to you are by definition the things they couldn’t solve on their own. There are few quick questions and even fewer quick answers, especially when you manage highly talented people. Every email, every quick pop-in, every oh-by-the-way requires you as a manager to expend precious mental energy. Once you become a manager, you are always accountable in two directions: upward to your bosses for your team’s output, and downward to your direct reports who require feedback and coaching. If you have an office with a door, it can be tempting to keep it closed all day just so you can get some work done before six o’clock in the evening. But that’s not the job.

I’m not exactly the first person to observe that time management gets tougher when you manage people. In fact, when I went to Amazon and typed in a search for books on “time management”, I got 142,718 results. That’s, um, a lot of books. Conservatively, I would say that’s at least twenty million pages of reading. The “Sort by Relevance” button has its work cut out for it:

In a field as saturated as this, it takes a special mix of arrogance and ignorance to even think you might be able to add something of value to the canon of time management literature.

Here goes nothing.

The Spheres of Autonomy

Jokes aside, there are obviously some great works by thoughtful experts on this subject that merit reading for new managers. Rather than try to compete with that, I’d like to share a rule of thumb I use that has worked well for me and then consider what it implies for people just starting their careers. By the way, if this resembles something else you’ve seen I’d love to hear about it.

When I faced the same dilemma as my reader, struggling to remain productive despite numerous pulls on my time from a managing junior colleagues, I came up with what I call the spheres of autonomy. Part of my problem at first was thinking that I needed to be dialed into every single thing my team spent their time on. As I’ve grown up I’ve learned to focus more on the outputs of my work than the inputs, but being a manager made me revert to some bad habits. It also didn’t help that on occasion, my boss would ask me what the people on my team were working on. When I described whatever it was, he would ask, “That’s what they’re working on this minute, for forty hours a week? You’re sure?” I always found that jarring. We had different management styles and personalities, but getting these questions repeatedly made me think I needed to be much more micro-focused than I was. Long story short, I tried doing that but it just wasn’t me. As long as my team was producing great outputs and asking the right questions, I didn’t need to know every little detail. Still, I needed a better response to the “What’s your team working on” question.

The spheres of autonomy concept is as simple as it is broadly applicable. It is simply a framework for prioritizing what to care about as a manager. In my mind, I always pictured the spheres of autonomy for my direct reports in concentric circles, so that’s how I’ve illustrated them here. To begin with, think of the total area inside the very largest circle as representing the entirety of what one of your direct reports spends their time on at work:

Working from the innermost sphere to the outermost, I define each sphere or zone of the graph as follows:

Sphere 1: Total Autonomy – I don’t even need to know the things in this sphere are taking place. Routine emails to clients? Go ahead. You want to log a bug for the developers to investigate? Right on. You want to ask my boss a question? Go on with your bad self.

Sphere 2: Heads-Up – I don’t need to be a bottleneck for these things, but keep me in the loop or copy me on the email so that I’m not surprised down the road. If I have something to add, I’ll let you know.

Sphere 3: Checkpoints – Things are starting to get interesting here, and I’d like regular status on these. Check with me before you make decisions that are going to be impactful or cost real money so that I can help you make the right decision.

Sphere 4: Collaboration – Either I’m directly coaching or tasking you on this, or we are working very closely together on the items in this sphere.

My goal was to have as large a percentage of my team’s activities as possible fall into the first two spheres, so that I could spend the most time working with them on things that really mattered to the business and gave them professional growth opportunities. It’s not that I didn’t care about any of the smaller things, because there are myriad coachable moments to be found in the first two spheres. But prioritizing means making tradeoffs, and I needed to free up my time.

For a more junior person who reports to you, you might only get sixty percent of their activities into the first two spheres, depending on your business. Over time, you ideally want that figure to move closer to eighty percent. When they reach this level, it means they can be productive without you having to hover over them. It also becomes a good measuring stick for their personal and professional development as well as your own. If you are helping your direct reports to develop professionally, they should become more self-sufficient. As a result, the time you spend coaching and mentoring them should be increasingly focus on substantive projects rather than day-to-day blocking and tackling.

Turning the Tables

Normally, I write for people who are just beginning their careers and haven’t yet reached the management ranks. That said, to be a great contributor early in your career it’s essential that you understand your managers’ motivations and how you can help them succeed. Your manager has a vested interest in helping you develop into a productive contributor, but like you they are also just trying to make it through the day sometimes. Every time you lean on them for support and guidance, they burn some mental calories. That’s their job, but that doesn’t excuse you from your responsibility to be judicious with their time. From a self-interest perspective, you want the time they spend coaching you to be on the things that are most valuable to the business and your career anyway.

There are a couple of things you can start doing now to ensure that you use your managers’ time wisely and to your maximum benefit:

  1. Don’t be lazy - Few things you can do are as irritating as asking your manager a question you could easily find the answer to on your own. If you do that, you need this.
  2. Make things interesting – If you want to get the most out of your managerial relationship, then bring them interesting ideas they’ll want to dig into. I’ve written about how to attract good mentorship this way here. 
  3. Proactively provide status – Whatever personality type your manager falls into, it’s a safe bet that he or she doesn’t like surprises. If you know what you’re working on is important to your manager, give him or her unsolicited updates on what’s going on so they don’t have to remember to ask for them.
  4. Be specific – When you seek your manager’s help or guidance on anything, be as specific as you can about the areas in which their guidance will be the most helpful. Isolate the areas of greatest uncertainty for you in your work, and how can help. We all need to seek answers from others from time to time, but you should at least have the questions figured out.