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The 27 Challenges Managers Face

By Bruce Tulgan

(Jossey-Bass, 242 pages, $34)

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Managers see themselves as firefighters, spending their days reacting to threatening events and getting everything running smoothly again before the next spontaneous eruption. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes that's only because we are poor managers. Most of the fires can be prevented by properly practising the fundamentals of management – holding regular check-ins with staff to understand what's happening and keep them on track.

"What's amazing is that so few managers in the real world consistently practise the fundamentals very well. What's even more amazing is that so many managers think they are doing it, when they are not," he writes in The 27 Challenges Managers Face.

Indeed, he claims his research since 1993 shows an undermanagement epidemic, as we opt for administering on autopilot rather than taking a more active, sensible approach. Managers spend their days attending too many mediocre group meetings and wading through a never-ending tide of e-mail. When they touch base with subordinates, they tend to ask puffball questions like "How are you?" or "How are things going?" and end up shooting the breeze rather than digging into the details of work assignments.

Instead, he calls for highly structured, substantive check-ins – perhaps once a day or at least every few days, depending on the situation. Managers need to make expectations clear; track performance and provide continuing, candid feedback; and recognize and reward staff when performance warrants it. Through that rigorous approach, accountability becomes a process, rather than a slogan.

He recommends you set aside an hour a day for your one-on-ones, concentrating on three or four subordinates. In an ideal world, you would talk to every direct report every day, but you will probably have to make choices. Don't reject this conversational approach because you lack the time – this is something you must do, and if it results in fewer fires to beat back, the time can come from eliminating that wasteful exercise. "If you are not able to maintain an on-going one-on-one dialogue with an employee, you are not managing that person," he insists.

Prepare in advance and make sure your subordinates do as well. Follow a regular format for each person, customized to that individual. Always start with top priorities, questions either of you have, and any work in progress. Consider holding the conversations standing up (you may want to hold a clipboard for note taking) to keep the meetings quick and focused. Don't do all the talking. If you manage people who work other shifts, stay late or come in early. Deal with remote employees as rigorously and frequently as in-house staff, using the telephone.

That's the structure. To ensure substance, regularly remind each person of broad performance standards and try to turn the best practices in your operation or industry into standard operating procedures. Develop plans and checklists when possible.

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Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual. Then monitor, measuring and documenting the person's performance in writing. "Follow up, follow up, and provide regular, candid coaching-style feedback," he says.

Ask powerful questions, and listen carefully to the answers. "What do you need from me?" can be a critical probe. Get staff to outline their planned progress: "What is your plan? What steps will you follow? How long will each step take?" Pay close attention to the gaps you sense in the approach.

Since each employee is different, you must customize your approach. He recommends keeping a "People List" of key colleagues, such as your boss, peers, and direct reports. On the spreadsheet, beside each name, note when you held your last conversation with that individual and what it was about. Now grade the conversations for structure and substance. Then, in the next column, answer these questions for each individual: What should I be talking about with this person? When and where? And what is needed to prepare in advance?

"Never stop keeping your People List. You never outgrow the fundamentals. No matter how rigorous and disciplined your routine, no matter how advanced your management skills may become, you can always benefit from asking and answering those questions for yourself every day," he writes.

Such fundamentals will prepare you to handle the 27 challenges he outlines in the book, which range from being a new manager, to managing attitudes, to handling superstar employees.

One-on-ones are the crux, but some of his suggestions will surprise. He argues, for example, that attitudes can and should be managed, starting by separating them from what the employee is feeling and focusing on the outward manifestation of the attitude, observable behaviour.

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With superstars, ask them to design their dream job before they get an offer that takes them away from you; if the dream job is at all feasible, even if it might mean working only four days from a remote cabin, go along, since superstars will still offer supercharged performance. It's an interesting, provocative book that will force you to study and perhaps rethink your own managerial approach.


Is this the year for you to delve into big data? If so, two books might help: Behind Every Good Decision (Amacom, 240 pages, $34.95 by consultant Piyanka Jain and executive Puneet Sharma explores turning data into profitable insights, while The Big Data-Driven Business (Wiley, 214 pages, $36) by Russell Glass and Sean Callahan of LinkedIn shows how to use analytics to win customers and beat competitors.

Or perhaps it's a year to seek agility? Entrepreneur and consultant Taffy Williams explains how smart entrepreneurs adapt in order to succeed in Think Agile (Amacom, 210 pages, $28.95)

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail

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