Good managers plan well ahead

Teaching people to stop living day by day and getting them to think well ahead is one of the biggest challenges when training managers.

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During the process of training junior staff up through the ranks into management we often run into problems getting our trainees to look and think ahead. It has taken me a while to understand why this is such an issue but I think I’ve had some sort of minor breakthrough in my thinking.

Ordinary staff come to work each day, do their thing and leave without a care in the world; they work from shift to shift. If you promote them to supervisor and are training them, you have to get them to think and plan over a different time period. They usually have to consider about a month ahead in order to deal with responsibilities such as cyclical stock ordering and staff rostering.

This then introduces the need to maintain a diary or electronic organiser so they can effectively keep themselves on track over this longer time period. You may be surprised to find that this is easier said than done. Taking a step back, this means developing the self-discipline to maintain activities that are an investment in the future, as distinct to the instant gratification activities they are predominantly used to.

Over the 35 years I have been training managers and supervisors, I have forced many people to get a diary or organiser and taught them how to use them.  This generally starts off well and subsequent spot checks reveal pages full of follow-up notes, performance appraisal notes, to do items and appointments.

Six months later, usually after some preventable disaster or upheaval we may spot check the diary situation again only to find a collection of blank pages and imaginative excuses. This happens often enough to suggest that it is almost normal behaviour. Interestingly, I have discovered that people with certain subject choices at school are better than others in maintaining the routine of staying organised.

Some years ago I noticed that job applicants who were strong at maths/science at school were generally easier to train to use routine management systems and more likely to keep those disciplines going after direct supervision diminished — but they were often fairly average customer service workers. On the other hand, applicants from a strong humanities background at school made better service workers, but were not comfortable with strict systems, preferring to have the autonomy to ‘wing it’ as they saw fit.

Of course these are generalised observations because people are not black and white, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to satisfy me that there is some connection. If you want to see a rejection of systemisation, go beyond the humanities student and try teaching a strongly artistic person to stick to the rules and you will experience frustration in its infinite richness. Certain types of brains suit certain activities.

Moving back to the process of developing supervisors up into management, you face the problem of teaching a person who has been concerned with a few weeks into the future, to now extend their thinking and planning out to 6 – 12 months ahead. From experience, I don’t think you can do this without some disciplined system of planning and time management. Managers who try to organise by the seat of their pants invariably end up with a continuous series of crises to deal with.

The best managers tend to use a yearly planner of some sort, which they consult weekly and look forward about four months. As things that need to be dealt with move into that four month block they are transferred into a diary or organiser for action, with plenty of time allowed for those unexpected delays which seem to inevitably occur.

At the start of each day a well-trained manager will prepare a ‘to do’ list allocating a priority to each item on the list. Low priority issues are delegated to subordinates, while the manager concentrates on issues that are important to the development and smooth running of the business as a whole, rather than the routine day-to-day running of the business, which should be handled by the supervisory staff.

An important part of this organisation and planning is the recognition that in order to move ahead you have to be prepared to let go of things and hand them down. The worst kind of managers ‘micro-manage’ everything and don’t develop a training and development plan for their people. A training and development plan achieves the dual benefit of keeping staff motivated and interested, while decreasing the workload on the manager.

I’ve always maintained that you don’t have to be especially intelligent to make a good leader; you just have to be self-disciplined. If you are not self-disciplined the pyramid under you will adopt your behavior and you’ll end-up with dysfunction.

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