In every office, in every building, there’s a manager who’s never there. They’re always double booked for meetings, running from “important thing” to “even more important thing” – and on the rare occasion you see them in the flesh they have a phone to their ear and a line of people waiting outside their door. They’re so hard to get to, sometimes people squeeze their way in for chats on the boss’s way the bathroom, the conference room, or their car.
When I was young I thought the uber-busy manager was a god – If they’re so busy, doesn’t that mean they’re very important? I used to think so, but not anymore. Everyone goes through a phase early in their career where they’re proud of hard work. Circles of young professionals regularly debate with friends over drinks, who has put in crazier hours – “I worked 60 hours last week”, “60? I worked 60 hours in 3 days.” “3 days? I worked 70 hours this morning, before breakfast.” And on it goes. It’s usually dumb pride to focus on the size of things, rather that their quality or, god forbid, finding actual fulfillment in life. To work 70 hours is a statement of work, not of progress. For every idiot working 70 hours there’s a smarter, wiser person who’s doing the same amount of work in 45 because he’s paying more attention to results than the clock. I’d rather be, and rather hire, that employee.
It might take years for the realization to happen, but soon, in every circle of friends, one will ask “Why I am spending 70 hours a week at work when I want a girlfriend, a dog, and maybe even a life?” The ever-busy manager is the one person who never fully asks that question. They’re stuck in the obsession of volume, preferring being busy to being just about anything else. Busy can be a very safe place for a person to hide. Being busy gives a safe excuse for not being accountable to the people who need you the most. Being busy is a failure to prioritize. To call everything important means in reality that nothing is important. It’s likely some people will see you as busy because they are unimportant, but if the people most important to you find you busy, the problem is yours, not theirs.
A good manager discovers that if they are unavailable to the people who work for them, their true value is limited. Most of the literal work that gets done in any organization, whether it’s writing, engineering or selling, can be best done by others who do those tasks all day. It’s making strategy decisions, giving advice, putting out dangerous fires, and paving the way for the team through organization politics that are the tasks only the “the boss” can do best. A manager that’s never there is often also micromanager, as they don’t understand what management is for in the first place.
I had a manager once who insisted on reading his e-mail and typing responses through our 1-on-1s. He’d pretend to give me focus by typing without looking at his screen, but I never saw his soul in his eyes – instead I knew most of his true attention went out into the emails and not towards me. I soon found myself cutting our 1-on-1s as short as possible (and using the time to work on finding another job and a better manager).
Anyone powerful should recognize if they don’t have time for important things then it’s their responsibility to delegate tasks away until they do. So reconsider who you give respect to: the manager that’s never there, or the one that’s always there when you need them.
[revised lightly 12-8-15]