You’re the Chief “Unblocking” Officer

“It’s like herding cats.”

That’s how a friend recently described being a manager. 

Jerry Colonna (aka the CEO Whisperer) has his own pithy take on what makes management tricky: 

We’re just bags of chemicals. 

Yup. And as a manager we need to get these bags of chemicals to “click.”

Now don’t get me wrong. Management is a tremendous honor. To me, it’s akin to being a parent. People are entrusting their careers (and by extension, their lives) to you. It saddens me when RadReaders have to work for shitty managers.

My own career has spanned 3 seasons of management.

In my late 20s I managed a team of research analysts at a large Fortune 500 company (BlackRock).

quit at 35, became a solopreneur and went on to rebel against all things Corporate America

Including management. 

I wanted to go where the wind wanted to take me. No obstacles, responsibilities and one-on-ones.

Then this January, I re-emerged and began my next chapter as the CEO of a fully-remote company. And it’s been a true joy and honor (hand on my heart, I had missed it during all my years alone). But it’s been demanding.

While I definitely haven’t been herding cats, I typically feel like Air Traffic Control

This led me to an uncomfortable realization about my ability to focus and do Deep Work

With each new direct report comes more Slack messages, meetings and metrics. (Not to mention, making available when the inevitable personal challenge arises). 

And these responsibilities grow exponentially.

This has wrecked havoc for my ability to focus and decimated my ability to do Deep Work. 

It’s a waterfall of $10K Work

A manager’s primary objective is to drive the performance of their team. This can take many forms, like setting clear goals, coaching, communicating norms and providing psychological safety. And these activities will all fall into one of four quadrants of $10K Work:

A manager’s $10 Tasks (low skill, low leverage) could include:

  • Updating the performance review metrics
  • Scheduling 1:1s
  • Updating policies

Then there’s the manager’s $100 Tasks (low skill, high leverage):

The $1,000 work category is pretty straightforward. Most managers these days are “player coaches.” In addition to management, they have to do their job.

A marketing manager might need to craft and execute marketing strategies.

A product manager is also creating wire frames and conducting user research.

And in my old role at BlackRock, I managed Research Analysts yet also did research myself.

That’s the essence of $1,000 work – performing your unique skill.

Whch leads to an obvious question:

What is a manager’s $10K Work?

You have one job: Be the unblocker

Being a player-coach manager is challenging because you have to do your own job while enabling your team to do theirs. Which creates an inevitable tension that ultimately leads to attention fragmentation.

Thankfully there’s a simple rule of thumb to follow. Since your direct reports drive your collective output, your role is to maximize their highest value (i.e. their $10K) work. Let’s take the following two direct reports:

A manager should consider dropping all of their work if they can unblock their direct reports highest-value work. Yes, usually the thing that you are doing has a higher task value, but since you have multiple direct reports, their high-value tasks will scale to offset the current task you’re not doing.

In How to Prioritize (When Everything is a Priority), I referenced Brandon Chu’s concept of understanding dependencies. Chu writes:

If you’re optimizing for the company’s ROI above your product’s— which you should be — you’ll now need to assess the cumulative ROI of not just your project, but the dependent projects that you unblock in order to make the correct prioritization decision for your team.

He illustrates this concept with a powerful visual:

Source: Ruthless Prioritization by Brandon Chu

So in my new role as a manager, I’m constantly scanning my direct reports’ work looking for one thing: $10K Work that requires unblocking. Clearly that’s not my only responsibility, but in that moment – it maximizes our team’s output. Now there’s a big assumption baked into this. It assumes that direct reports can identify their own $10K Work.

Thankfully, we’ve got a course and consulting biz for that 😉

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