Managerial Leverage: The Practice of Doing The Right Things at the Right Time

“You have the same number of hours in your day as Beyonce.” This message is pinned to a cork board in the office of one of my colleagues. Intended as inspiration, it’s also a stark reminder that as a manager, there’s nothing more precious than time. Budgets fluctuate. People come and go. But we all only have 24 hours in our day, and only we have control over how we spend it.

This resource is perhaps the most challenging for a new manager to manage for a simple fact: there’s always more to do. One’s impulse easily defaults to just doing more. Why not check a few e-mails on the morning commute or snag a few hours of interruption-free time after dinner? The issue is not whether a manager should work 40 hours a week or 80, but rather that we all have a really tough time knowing what to work on right now.

Nobody ever gets off this struggle bus, whether you have a good method for dealing with it or not. For me, it always felt like a prioritization problem, but after several years of leading others, I knew it was more than that. Then I found Andy Grove’s High Output Management. Over the course of chapter three’s thirty-one glorious pages, the former Intel CEO spells out the most helpful concept for understanding how to spend one’s time. Grove calls it managerial leverage. And being an engineer, he sums it up with a nice equation:

“A manager’s output = the output of his or her organization + the output of the neighboring organizations under his influence.”

Do you notice how there’s nothing in their about your work as an individual manager? It’s all about the output of those on your team and those you influence throughout the company.

Put another way, let’s assume that for every piece of work you do, you received a rock relative in size to the work itself. So an email is a grain of sand and a three-month strategic plan is a boulder. A lot of early career managers I’ve worked with think they want the largest total pile of rocks. In that way, five hundred e-mails amounts to something — productivity! That three-month plan is perfect — success! The concept of managerial leverage adds another dimension to the work we all do — measuring success not as the pile of rocks itself, but by the impact of the rocks as they’re thrown into the pond that is your organization. If you simply roll that boulder of a strategic plan into the water (or worse, never even do that), it amounts to little. The ripples of your work and how they raise the waters are what count.

Everything you do has influence on an organization, like ripples in a pond.

With this in mind, Grove extends the managerial leverage equation:

Managerial Output = Output of Organization = L1 x A1 + L2 x A2 + L3 x A3 + . . .

‘A’ represents the activity itself, and ’L’ is its leverage. This concept applies to everyone in an organization, but is especially important for managers, as they have direct impact on the work and output of the people on their team. A manager’s right now should center around work that has the highest leverage for these individuals, and in turn the organization.

This is way easier said than done, so to help identify that type of work, I think it’s helpful to think of leverage as a spectrum, with any activity you undertake at some point at or between three clear markers:

The leverage spectrum

High Leverage: The promised land. Activities with high leverage have a multiplier effect that sets an individual or team up for success over an extended period of time. Grove says that high-leverage activities can be achieved in three ways:

  1. When many people are affected by one manager
  2. When a person’s activity or behavior over a long period of time is affected by a managers’ brief, well-focused set of words or actions
  3. When a large group’s work is affected by an individual supplying a unique, key piece of knowledge or information

If you are a manager, those first two are written especially for you. Your job is about organizing your team to achieve your company’s goals, so your activities should reflect as much. If you’ve ever been part of a project where the outcome amounted to much more than what you expected as a project participant, you’ve seen high leverage at work. Good examples of high-leverage activities include:

  • 1:1s
  • Meetings with clear outcomes and decisions
  • Coaching/training
  • Projects that align with organizational objectives

Low Leverage: I think of low-leverage activities as those where the throughput is one to one, basically where you as a manager do something to do something, either because it’s routine or because some process demands it. This is the domain of things we’re often good at but are probably better off delegating. First-time managers often fall into this trap (and I still struggle with this). Many of us were promoted as an individual contributor to manage other individual contributors in a role we were really good at. We like being good at things, so we naturally hold on to components of the role we excelled in (low leverage), when in fact we should do everything we can to impart our knowledge to create a team of individuals all better at this task than we ever were (high leverage).

Low leverage also emerges when one has trouble owning their time. Remember, this is your most precious resource. There’s always more to do, so if your to-do list is responsive to the whims of others, there is a good chance you’ll take on what’s in your inbox rather than what’s truly most important for the organization.

Low-leverage activities could include:

  • Solving problems for your team (rather than having them own the problem and its solution)
  • Work that isn’t clearly aligned with company or department goals
  • Working in a silo without the necessary input from colleagues
  • Checking and responding to emails as they come in

Negative Leverage: Yes, leverage can be to the detriment of your team and organization’s output. This can be through a visible, tangible action, such as arriving unprepared to a meeting and wasting the time of others, but in practice I find negative leverage most often emerges due do temperament and mood, poor messaging, or lack of clarity. Examples include:

  • Losing your cool with an employee to the detriment of their near-term productivity
  • Meetings without clear decisions or next steps
  • Failing to follow up on commitments made by members of your team

Your goal as a manager is to move your work up this spectrum into high-leverage territory. You can do this in a few ways. If you find yourself doing a lot of low-leverage work, my first recommendation is to determine if you should be doing it, and if not, you should try to delegate it. A lot of low-leverage activities are the product of our own habits, such as checking and responding to emails as they come in. These are good to identify, and I recommend working with your manager on strategies to overcome. And if low-leverage activity just happens to be work you must do, you should explore what is causing it to be low leverage and how you can improve it.

CASE IN POINT
Prior to my role as the head of marketing for Guerrero Howe, I was an editor for several of our magazines, so I brought to marketing a strong writing and editing capability. I was the final check on our communications, which meant I proofed everything once it had been mocked up by my design and communications team. What I found myself doing was simply reacting to messaging issues or typos or design the day before the deadline. At that point, all I could do was fix them and try to address what went wrong, but my feedback lacked context and was reactive, not proactive, i.e. super low-leverage. I was stymied on how I could help the team get in front of such issues, to coach them up, to share the bar I expected with them in a clear way — that is, until I realized the problem was that my standards for our work were in my head, not theirs. So we worked as a team to develop a scorecard that captured the best ideas that we all had on what our communications should be. No typos was an obvious one, but “A clear takeaway, not just a CTA” spoke to the value we felt all communications should provide.
Our team had to evaluate all communications against this scorecard before bringing the work to me, and I filled out the same scorecard as I signed off. If there were any discrepancies, we now had an ability to have an objective discussion about it. The team could also proactively use the scorecard to identify areas they needed help with and flag them in advance of my review so I could provide directed feedback. Within a few months of implementing, my team was producing above the bar in my head, so I was able to delegate final authority on communications for several channels to members of my team. Thus the scorecard supplanted a low-leverage proofing process with a high-leverage training tool.

When he introduces managerial leverage, Grove shares a day in his life to demonstrate how he strives for high-leverage activities. Such a time audit was helpful for me as a way to start identifying the leverage of my activities. A pen and paper work great for this task, but I’ve also created a spreadsheet if you want to get fancy.

This time audit tool helps track the leverage of everything they do. Feel free to download a copy to identify whether your activities as a manager have high, low, or negative leverage.

The simple act of reflecting on how you spend your time is often revealing. Logging a week or two of your activities should prove sufficient to see patterns emerge. What are those activities that have the highest leverage for your organization? How can you focus more on those? What can you clear off your plate or move up the spectrum? Does your own manager agree?

Remember, there’s always more that can be done. “The art of management lies in the capacity to select from the many activities of seemingly comparable significance the one or two or three that provide leverage well beyond the others and concentrate on them,” Grove writes.

As managers, we owe it to ourselves, our teams, and our companies to choose wisely and to turn our work into waves.


About Sean Conner
I’m an editor turned marketer at Guerrero Howe. As a marketer, I’m passionate about bringing the voice of the customer into entrepreneurial organizations, and as a manager, I’m passionate about helping others develop as leaders. You can connect with me on Twitter @seanconned.

About Unexpected Leadership 
Unexpected Leadership was created to share applicable insights, frameworks, and tools to help new and early career managers navigate their path to leadership. If you have a topic you’d like to hear more about or to get in touch, send an email to unexpectedleadership@gmail.com.

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