What should a manager’s work priorities be?

Work priorities

Work priorities are a fairly important topic that seem to almost never get really discussed, knowing as we do how poor the priority management process is at most companies. (In one study, 7 in 10 employees were found to be working on tasks of essentially no value.) And I think we all know what happens when work priorities are in the toilet: now every manager can define their project as “utterly urgent.” It usually works, because, well, no one knows what the actual priorities are! This all ultimately leads to people with 12 things on their desk all being called “urgent,” which leads to employee churn and burn at many companies.

If you’ve ever seen studies where “95% of the company can’t identify the strategy of the company,” well, that all comes from this problem with work priorities. No one knows the priorities, it seems, and different levels construe them differently. To the top levels it’s growth, revenue, and nothing else. To the middle it’s pleasing the top levels and personnel/execution/logistics issues. And at the bottom levels, it’s about task work, being seen as competent, and learning and getting noticed. Because the vocab and goals are so different at each tier, it’s really hard for priorities to come into focus at most orgs. You’ve probably seen this too.

But it all begs a question: what should a manager’s work priorities be?

TaskRabbit CEO on work priorities

Good interview here with the TaskRabbit CEO (first black female CEO in Silicon Valley) and this part pops on what she views as her role:

We’re hiring for leadership, and I want to know: Is that person going to be a strong person in my organization? Can they be thoughtful, can they take an idea and run with it and figure out how to make something happen? Are they good at leading others and managing? As a manager, my No. 1 job is to hire the best people and develop them. It’s really about the team and the people you build around you.

Remember all those stories about Larry Page approving Google hires even as the CEO/co-founder? This is similar.

So what should work priorities be?

Simplest breakdown:

  • Developing people (at least before automation gets to scale)
  • Communicating ideas and deliverables
  • Being able for discussions/feedback opportunities/challenges
  • Stepping back and being a “thought partner” as opposed to micro-managing
  • Making sure goals/KPIs are achieved while ensuring the whole team understands why, what, and how

To me, that’s the baseline. Companies are still made up of people — might not be in 100 years — so while we’ve got that in play, let’s develop people. Too often the focus in companies is all spreadsheets and numbers. I get it because (a) that stuff matters to investors and your ability to pay people and (b) it’s easier to control than human beings, who are emotionally messy.


But as we add more and more people to organizations (which is happening in some non-tech sectors), and oftentimes add them with unclear job role/context, shouldn’t a manager’s top work priorities involve developing those people and giving them context for how everything fits together?

Is this rocket science?

No. But unfortunately companies aren’t structured according to any kind of logic oftentimes. They’re usually an excuse for people to make money while claiming they’re doing something else — “reinventing organizational health for a global workforce!” — and assign their own level of priority to tasks in order to feel more relevant. So no, oftentimes it has nothing to do with anything logical or “Hey, this might make sense.” It’s often a large exercise in self-worth.

If we gave up some measure of control about work (not easy for many), we’d probably have clearer managerial work priorities. But that can only happen at the micro level (individual managers getting better at all this), so I wouldn’t necessarily think the work priorities issue is goin to improve anytime soon.

Your take on work priorities and how to make them better-articulated or executed-upon?

Ted Bauer

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