As an individual contributor, it’s easy to focus. Other than being interrupted by your manager you, for the most part, control your time and what you are focused on at any given moment. Managers don’t have that luxury. Because the job of a manager is to orchestrate the activities, direction and goals of a group of people, they need to be available to those people at all times. Questions, problems, meetings and more, the person in charge has to grease the skids of productivity 24/7.
So, basically, a big part of management is being able to handle being interrupt-driven and then being able to quickly refocus on the tasks the manager is directly responsible for – only to be interrupted again, of course. Not only do managers need to be able to handle this part of their role, to be successful, but they need to excel at it.
As with so many other management failures, task-switching capabilities are often ignored as core skills required for managers being promoted within organizations. When new managers are weak task-switchers, they can quickly become overwhelmed by the barrage of needs, requests and responsibilities of the role. It’s not the manager who suffers the most when this happens, it’s the entire group at first, then ultimately, the whole company.
If you’re a manager just cutting his/her teeth on your first management role, don’t let the constant interruptions discourage you. You may have to put in extra hours while you’re working out how to juggle all the parts of your new role for a while. Sometimes it’s even a good idea to schedule some time when you won’t or can’t be interrupted. Be careful, though, to always promote communication and implicitly reward those who come to you with reasonable questions or information. It’s easy to let your frustration with the difficulty to handle the large number of incoming requests for your time make you snap at people or not give them the attention that they need.
If you’re in the position of promoting someone into a managerial role, consider if they are equipped for the role in general (see my previous post titled, Using a Management Role as a Reward) and specifically, how they will handle the task-switching requirements of the new job. It’s all too common to throw new managers to the wolves. If you think that the person being promoted has a weakness in this area, be sure to at least give them a heads-up and some guidance on how to deal with it. Even better if you consult with them as they run into the problems and coach them while they learn how to be successful task-switchers.