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Managing the Monkeys

Posted on:July 15, 2023 at 10:37 AM

My good friend Paweł Polewicz recently recommended that I read the HBR classic, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?. I never actually read this piece even though many people recommended this to me. I did read it this time and I wanted to share some thoughts on it below.

I feel that all my life I have been practicing what this article preaches. I’m not sure how it happened, but these principles are simply in my blood. I started my career as a manager quite early (I was probably 27) and quickly realized that delegation, empowerment, and management through constraints (i.e., processes, systems, checklists, etc.) will get you much further with a much better return on your invested time. I never managed by direction or by active supervision. Almost everyone I worked with told me that I provide a very specific mix of autonomy, trust, and discipline, and almost everyone also told me that they appreciated it a lot.

Monkey office

I once joked that the main goal of a good manager is to build a system where he can go on vacation any day, and nobody will notice his absence. I openly shared this view with others. Many times, I had conversations like: “You didn’t need to consult with me on this, you could have made the decision yourself.” or “Next time, first ask X, I don’t need to know about it” or “I don’t know what the solution is, and I don’t want to participate in this discussion - but I’m sure you will find it”. Combined with my approach to productivity and time management, this built a belief in people that I am available for significant situations, but they can solve most issues themselves.

Delegating and building a sense of respect and trust is hard work. I learned a lot about this during my 15+ year journey as a manager and people leader.

Over time, I also realized that instead of this transactional, monkey-like relationship, you can build a deep coaching/mentoring relationship where you talk to people about important things, not about the monkeys they currently have on their shoulder. I think this gave me the most satisfaction in my last management positions. I will probably keep many of these relationships forever.


All images created with Midjourney.