Feeling Overwhelmed Managing the Work of Others? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am an attorney in a government office. I was just promoted and have inherited four new direct reports. Although I have trained interns in the past, I am feeling overwhelmed with the fact that I still have my full time job and am now managing people. My first week was essentially all meetings, and I had to go home and work another full day to stay on top of my own work. How on earth do people do this?

It feels like, instead of a promotion, I now have …

Two Jobs


Dear Two Jobs,

You feel like you have two jobs because you do. The days of middle managers who get to just manage and not have a full workload of their own deliverables are long gone. I have never met anyone in your position who didn’t feel overwhelmed pretty much all the time.

My first recommendation is to get used to choosing what is less important so that you can focus on the most critical tasks. It will take a while to get used to this, especially if you are the kind of person who needs to check off everything on their list.

There are a ton of books written specifically for folks in your position—and, as a matter of fact, we have a training program designed exactly for you. So you can add a book or three to your towering pile, or beg your leadership to send you to a class. I recommend both. In the meantime, I will give you my first-time manager survival kit.

Get clear about your key deliverables: Make sure your leader has been clear about what a good job looks like. Ask them to list their top five priorities in order of importance. Don’t try to guess. Research shows that when managers and direct reports are asked separately to make a list of their top five priorities, there is only about 25% agreement. Also, some things just aren’t going to get done. So make sure you are focused on the most critical things.

Arrange for the same clarity in your entire department: Do the “top five” exercise with each of your direct reports. Ask yourself whether each of them knows exactly what is expected of them—what you think is most important. Of course, to do that, you have to decide what is most important. You are going to say “It’s all important,” and I am going to say “Yes—and some things are more important than others.”

Arrange for resources: Once your reports have clarity about each of their goals and tasks, make sure they have what they need to deliver on those tasks.

Be religious about having one-on-ones with each of your people. You can do this weekly or bi-weekly, but you must do it. Make sure each of your direct reports knows this is their time to discuss their agenda. Encourage them to send you an agenda in advance so they are forced to organize their thoughts prior to the meeting. This will set them up to get the most out of their time alone with you.

Be ruthless about eliminating, delegating, and shortening meetings. Examine the meetings you are in. There are two kinds of meetings: the ones you don’t call (which you have very little control over) and the ones you do call. Decide if it is humanly possible to send someone else to the meetings you do not call. Sometimes it can be a way to develop another person on your team: task them with taking excellent notes and reporting back anything you need to know.

Meetings you call, you rule. Make sure there is a crystal clear agenda and focus relentlessly on the outcomes you seek. Keep a list of tangential issues that crop up and don’t let your group get off track. Shorten all meetings: most hour-long meetings can really be done in 40 minutes.

Do not accept tasks someone else can do. You have enough on your plate! If someone else has the competence and skills to do something, give it away.

You are going to feel overwhelmed for awhile, Two Jobs, and that’s okay. You’ll settle in and be fine—just remember that you are in charge now, and that means making hard decisions about where your focus goes and how you invest every precious minute of your time.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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