Why managers are more important than you think

Do you approach things from the bottom up or the top down? Starting with the details and then working up to the big picture? Or taking the big picture view first and then drilling down to the details?

Perhaps you haven’t really thought about it before. You don’t have a strong preference either way. Or perhaps your inclination towards one or the other side is so strong that you have a hard time seeing things from the “other side”. 

In the end, does it even matter which way you prefer?

I say it does, and mostly when it comes to communication and how you relate to others.

The confrontation of opposing views

Last summer, I was witness to an argument. A couple, long married, had come to the conclusion that it was time to refurbish the bathroom. It was long overdue, and now was the time to finally get to it. One of them is a details-first person, the other is big-picture-first person.

The big picture person starts with creating a blueprint sketch over the room and the adjacent rooms. We all sit down at the table and talk about how we want things to be, and this turns into a brainstorm session. There are all kinds of ideas, one of which is to completely move the entry and the door and rearrange the layout of the toilet and sink.

This makes the details-oriented person highly annoyed. How can one even make such a proposal when we haven’t actually walked into the bathroom and taken notes of where the existing pipe outlets are? Why not start with what we have today and assess what is easy to change and what is hard to change?

The big picture person seems to be a bit hurt by this. Why not first think about the most ideal scenario, and then have a look and see if it’s possible?

A classic clash of two perspectives. And I don’t think either of them realised what the true source of the irritations were.

It’s important in leadership

Knowing how your recipients view things are crucial when you are trying to convey a concept or get buy-in for an idea from a group of people. And especially so when you are in a leadership position.

A boss who is explaining an idea from only the big picture view will always get doubts from the details-oriented crowd:

“Have you thought about X, Y and Z? How is this supposed to look in real life? Is it even realistic? Sounds like this isn’t very well thought through.”

On the other hand if you explain something and only convey the details of a proposal, the big picture crowd will have their set of doubts:

“Where are we going with this? Why would we want to do this? What are the motivations and the long term goals of this project? Sounds like this isn’t very well thought through.”

To cater enough for both perspectives will always be a balancing act. The better you know your recipients and how they make their decisions, the easier it will be to make your case and have people understand (and hopefully support) you.

This is equally true whether you are in a leadership position, sales and marketing situation, or simply making a suggestion to a group of friends.

Knowing thyself and your blind spots

Knowing which perspective you gravitate towards naturally is helpful, because then you can become aware of potential blind spots in your communication with others.

Sometimes, you need to practice a bit on the perspective that don’t come naturally to you. This has more benefits than becoming a better communicator. It is also helpful in planning and executing your own work.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the different levels – or horizons – of planning. He uses the analogy of height and air planes: the runway level, 10,000 ft level, 20,000 ft, 30,000 ft, 40,000 ft and 50,000 ft level.

At each level, the horizon moves further and further in the distance and you see farther and farther away into the future. Day to day tasks -> projects and outcomes -> areas of responsibility -> goals and objectives -> vision for the next 3-5 years -> purpose and principles and values.

While I do find the analogy of air plane heights helpful, all the levels can be a bit much to keep in your head. 

Instead I present to you the analogy of the levels of running a company – employee, manager and executive.

Feet down on the ground

The employee is doing the day to day work. In the end, they are the ones stringing the tasks together that provides the core value that the business depends on to get revenue in and survive.

In this setting, the employee level is the details oriented bottom up perspective. Grounded in what is here and now, visible and tangible. Tactics and tasks.

Head up in the clouds

The opposite end of the company are the board and the executives. This is where strategies are discussed, visions and long term plans are formed. Decisions are made on a policy level.

I have been a member of a couple of boards in non-profit organisations. One of the things that was made very clear to me during training was that if decisions regarding day-to-day operations come up in board meetings, there’s something wrong. If a board need to meet more often than monthly, there’s something wrong (and monthly is probably too often as well).

The board level is the big picture view. Thinking about what’s possible, what might be, or could be. Strategy and policy.

What about the middle level then? The managers?

Connecting the head and the feet

The managers are the link, and the glue of communication between the two opposing perspectives. Taking the vision and breaking it down to a practical level and make it possible to execute. Gathering the data and feedback from the field and presenting it to the executives in a way that can be used as a basis for decision making.

Some people seem to think that (middle)managers are only in the way, but their role is more important than you might think. A good manager makes all the difference in the world. A super glue, or lubrication oil. A conduit for ensuring the proper flow of ideas and information.

Communication is oxygen.

But how does this relate to somebody who works alone? A solopreneur or freelancer, who has nobody to report to but themselves?

The personal executive and personal manager

I think these three perspectives are all needed, no matter how big or small your company is. For me, they are shown in different modes of thinking and represented in the different reviews I make during the year.

For my day to day work, I do a daily review for tomorrow’s tasks and a weekly review for my immediate future. This is the place for tactics and tasks. Details and practicality and shifting priorities. Working in the business.

My personal executive mode is mainly in my yearly review and partly in my quarterly review. Assessing where I’m going, if I want to change my course or recalibrate something else. How does what I do fit in to the larger picture? The picture of my vision, and of society at large. Where do I want to go next?

This mode is not so much action oriented as thought based and reflection oriented.

The personal manager mode is where you’re working on the business and not in the business. It’s easy to overlook, especially if you are swamped with work. Making space in your schedule for this makes such a difference though.

For me, this mode is when I do my quarterly reviews and monthly reviews. Harvesting my lessons from past quarter’s actions and projects. Breaking down my vision of where I want to go and creating actionable projects and outcomes from it.

This way, I don’t have to think about where I’m going long term during my weekly review. I can pluck from the monthly breakdown of projects and only worry about how to best execute them. Or prioritise in the moment when unexpected things happen.

And my inner visionary can be let loose, knowing and trusting that I have a way and system to make things concrete and actionable once I land in a decision. (And yes I’m a big picture strategy person, in case you didn’t know already)

Consider your preferences

If you want to create a quarterly and monthly review habit, I suggest you start creating a checklist based on the kind of thinking that comes naturally for you.

Since I am a big picture thinker, I like to start my review by going to my big(ger) vision and then break it down into actionable parts. I’d imagine a details-oriented person would like to start with reflecting on the recent past and gathering lessons and learnings from that. And then form a strategy based on those findings.

This last weekend was one of those where I had both a quarterly, monthly and a weekly review. One after the other. Doing them back to back like this really makes it clear for me on which level each review operates.

Regardless of the hats I’m wearing in my professional life – whether I am a contractual employee, manager or business owner – I will always be both the employee, manager and executive in my own life.

And so are you. You are also the employee, manager and executive of your own life.

When you are all of these different perspectives in one person, you have the benefit of not needing to explain things and having information lost in communication. You know what you have envisioned, you know what you did last month.

The pitfall is that the perspectives can be hard to separate. You start to come up with completely new and amazing potential ideas during each weekly review, turning each one to a strategy session. Or you begin to add action tasks during your strategic planning, derailing your clarity and focus.

Does one mode or the other come more naturally to you? Do you have any blind spots? Perhaps one of the modes require a bit more effort and practice than the other.

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