How should managers prioritize tasks, ensure team productivity, and achieve effective time management in leadership?
One of the most challenging parts of being an engineering manager is overseeing and coordinating both your team’s and your own time.
For example, an engineering manager can dedicate a portion of their schedule to helping their team by coding, but if they focus too much on it, they won’t have time to help the team with other issues. They can also convene meetings to organize work, but too many meetings will derail the team’s focus. And these are just their immediate areas of control. Engineering managers will also usually be involved in different cross-functional and higher-level initiatives that will consume their time.
“If the executive lets the flow of events determine what [they do], what [they work] on, and what [they take] seriously, [they] will fritter [themselves] away ‘operating’.”― Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive
In practice, if an engineering manager doesn’t actively organize their time, activities that are of little value will naturally fill their calendar, taking their hours away and compromising their team's effectiveness and ability to deliver high-quality work.
This is also not a challenge that is exclusive to first-level managers, but one that continues to affect leaders throughout their careers, independent of seniority.
The leader’s role
To understand how a manager should spend their time, we must first discuss what a manager is trying to achieve in their role. This can be summarized in two main goals: building an effective team to deliver business results and building a stable environment for a team.
To do that, engineering managers will work mainly across three different areas:
- People: Building a team environment where engineers are fulfilled and growing in their careers.
- Technology: Ensuring a team's technical output and direction are aligned with the overall strategy and needs of the company.
- Process: Fostering effective team practices and habits that will create a productive environment.
Managers should consider their objectives before deciding where to spend their time. Depending on the team’s context, the need will be different.
While that makes sense in theory, there are a few challenges when implementing it in practice.
An engineering manager’s time trials
Having focus time
Engineers need focus time to solve technical problems. Managers also require that same time to outline how to effectively manage their teams.
For example, a manager might need time to analyze their team's quality issues and define a process change to improve it. Without additional capacity (in the form of separately allotted time) for them to find solutions, managers can struggle to address how the team’s performance can be improved, leading to suboptimal results.
Keeping a finger on the pulse
One of the primary goals for a manager is to ensure that things are running smoothly. This includes things from the execution perspective i.e., are we achieving our goals? and also from an interpersonal perspective i.e., is everyone fulfilled at work?
To do that, managers need to develop a method to stay on top of what is happening on the team, the current context, and if they need to act on any issues. While the caricature of this situation is a leader who constantly asks for status updates, the ideal execution is one where leaders keep themselves in the loop with minimal team disruption.
Planning for the unplannable
While everyone loves a predictable schedule, the reality of life is that problems will arise without notice. They could either be technical, like a production incident disrupting everyone's schedule, or they can be people/process related, like an employee resigning from the company.
As team leaders, managers will usually be responsible for more challenging issues that arise, as standard ones tend to be resolved before they have to be escalated upwards. This might require a decent amount of attention, and therefore time, to resolve.
Software development is a team sport, and engineering managers must ensure the team is aligned when executing any initiative. While meetings are the common solution for that, synchronization does not need to happen via synchronous meetings.
Async teams can deliver software successfully, and managers should keep this in mind when coordinating how their team members work together.
Maintaining an effective calendar
The last main challenge for a manager’s time allocation is that the context in which they are working will change, and no calendar setup will last forever.
For instance, a well-oiled process might become ineffective when the team is under pressure, requiring more intervention. Or, perhaps, a manager’s schedule can suddenly be taken up with interviews if they’re looking to hire more engineers.
Managers should be prepared for their deep focus blocks to steadily erode under new initiatives and meeting pressure.
Some solutions to common time-management issues
While company and team contexts certainly vary, here are a few guidelines for how a manager can overcome time-management challenges and build an effective schedule.
Manage time actively
Managers’ schedules need to be monitored actively and reviewed regularly. They must always have their current goals in mind which inform where they spend most of their time.
Managers should review their roles within a specific cadence i.e., every 3-6 months, to evaluate what they are trying to achieve and where they are spending their time.
A practical way to achieve this is by creating a “job description” document for managers to measure all their tasks against. The job description should contain all of the manager’s responsibilities and goals, which would then be monitored against their daily activities and tasks over the course of a few weeks (as their control variable). This way, managers will know what areas are taking up more time or, even, not enough time.
While doing this, managers should keep their time for focused work and slack in mind, creating space for them to act on urgent issues and push strategic initiatives forward. While it's impossible to define a perfect guideline, a good rule of thumb is to keep at least 30% of the calendar free of meetings.
Obtain context through a mix of activities
Getting updates from reports can be a time-consuming endeavor. To avoid it being too costly, managers should use multiple activities and perspectives to understand how their team works. This will not only save time but also provide a more holistic view.
Below are a few options that managers can implement to have better oversight of their team’s affairs.
- Ticket boards with the team's work status (as long as they are kept organized).
- 1:1 and skip level meetings, where leaders can understand any concerns that are affecting their team members.
- Metrics at different levels, providing a data perspective on how the team is working.
- Written updates that can replace meetings and still provide relevant information.
- Minimizing synchronous meetings, but still using them for specific contexts.
There is no simple solution for keeping on top of your team’s performance, but a good way to assess if your method works is to reflect on whether you’ve become aware of issues within the team. If managers are able to pick up on problems while they are still small and easily resolved, it’s a positive sign. However, if a manager only becomes aware of an issue in its later stages, when the situation is already complex, they might want to reinforce the aforementioned tactics.
Invest in high-quality execution to save time
Investing in a productive team will save everyone’s time in the long run, including the manager’s.
For most teams working in a synchronous manner, the optimal state is usually when the team collaborates well via a smaller number of efficient meetings and informal conversations during the execution of work. This allows them to be efficient without requiring constant check-ins. For example, in multiple situations in my career, I have reduced the number of team meetings by increasing the focus on a well-executed daily standup.
Managers should be wary of excessively rejecting meetings, as this will lead to unorganized teams that are unable to deliver a product efficiently. The more a team is misaligned in their execution, the more they will need to realign later, meaning further time lost to ad-hoc conversations and meetings.
Execute meetings well
Nothing is more demotivating and wasteful than a poorly executed meeting. And we have all been there: meetings without anyone leading them, no agenda defined, no decisions made, or outcomes in the conversation. In this case, the loss is doubled, as people have to suspend their tasks to attend a meeting with no benefits. As leaders, managers must ensure that all team meetings are as effective as possible.
Creating a culture of well-run meetings with an assigned facilitator, a defined agenda, and expected outcomes, will save everyone’s time and make reports more confident to decide on a topic without assistance.
Delegate when possible
It is also important to ensure that managers are needed for all activities in which they are involved. Managers should always be asking themselves if they’re the best person to lead on an activity, or even if said activities are necessary at all.
A simple and effective tool for navigating delegation is the skill/will matrix, which helps identify others who could be a good fit for the specific task. However, even if they have handed over a task to someone else, managers should still be accountable for the tasks they delegate and their output quality.
Putting it all together
Time management for managers is hard. This is the case when you start in the role and it will continue to be many years later. However, once learned, this skill will help you become a more effective leader.
Engineering managers should be intentional with their schedule, adapting to their current goals and context, and focusing on the highest leverage activities.
Not every problem must be solved now, but managing time well will allow many to be properly addressed, making teams more efficient in the process.