460742205In seeking to understand managerial effectiveness, our research started with the question: “Why do your best managers return home every evening feeling bad about what they didn’t get done instead of feeling satisfied with what they accomplished during the day?”

This question has bothered me for some time, beginning when I was a manager and continuing in my current role as a consultant. The truth is, despite valiant efforts spent making sure processes are in place and organizational design and systems are right, there is still a tremendous amount of churn in organizations, and managers simply aren’t clear on what it is they need to focus on, and what they need to do their work.

Identifying The Problem

Why, after so much attention, is this the case? Part of the problem is human nature, and the fact that we tend to be overly optimistic in terms of what we can realistically accomplish in a certain time frame. How many times on a Saturday morning have you said you were going to spend a few hours cleaning the garage so you could spend the afternoon at leisure, only to find yourself waist-deep in boxes at 2:00 pm, and you still haven’t had lunch?

Another part of the issue has to do with learning how we, as managers, can do a better job of identifying exactly what it is we need to do, or rather, where we need to focus our efforts. Realizing we’re not likely to get everything done, how do we set realistic goals and create strategies that help us focus on only those objectives that are most important?

For many managers, the tendency is to focus on small, one- or two-minute jobs throughout the day. In almost every case, however, these seemingly brief tasks can consume the entire day and it’s all too easy to let the flow of the day drive you – instead of you driving it.

The Research

So what is really going on inside organizations that make it so difficult for managers to be effective in their jobs? Hoping to understand and, more importantly, identify those dynamics that are in place to help managers be more effective in their work, I partnered on a research project with Professor Swee Goh from the University of Ottawa. What we found was astounding!

First, we discovered several issues around accountability. Surprisingly, the management sciences literature has no commonly accepted definition for the term “accountability”. Further, we couldn’t identify any research quantifying managers’ perceptions about their level of effectiveness. We wanted to understand this, and also identify the main drivers, measures and factors that influence effectiveness. By the end of 2013, we had refined our survey, identified the factors and completed our research.

The Results

We asked managers to report what percentage of their time was spent doing work that they were hired to do. We then asked what percentage of work could be delegated to a qualified administrative support staff. In total, they self-reported that 45 percent of their time was spent in these ineffective ways. In other words, they reported spending almost half their day doing things that could be done (we would say should) by others. That means some of their time was spent doing work that could be delegated to a support staff, and some of their time was spent doing work they weren’t hired to do, such as:

  • reading emails they shouldn’t have to read,
  • attending meetings they shouldn’t have to attend,
  • engaging in conflict with coworkers from other departments,
  • and so on.

To validate this finding, we also asked our sample of managers a second question: “What percentage of their work time do they spend on the value-added work that only they, in their position, can do?” Interestingly, the numbers are exactly the same, reinforcing the idea that managers spend only 55 percent of their time doing what it is they were hired to do.