“A Day in the Life of a Manager” as written by John P. Kotter

Sometimes business just feels like a rat race. And of course there are different ways to cope with the situation. All in all for me effectiveness is of great importance when beeing stuck in the business hamster running wheel. And recently a great text from Change Grandmaster John P. Kotter came to my mind… The text is called What Effective General Managers Really Do – Description of a typical Day in the Life of an Executive”. I would like to share the synopsis with you, here.

John P. Kotter starts like this: Here is a description of a typical day in the life of a successful executive, in this case the president of an investment management firm.

  • 7:35 a.m. Michael Richardson arrives at work after a short commute, unpacks his briefcase, gets some coffee, and begins a to-do list for the day.
  • 7:40 Jerry Bradshaw arrives at his office, which is right next to Richardson’s. One of Bradshaw’s duties is to act as an assistant to Richardson.
  • 7:45 Bradshaw and Richardson converse about a number of topics. Richardson shows Bradshaw some pictures he recently took at his summer home.
  • 8:00 They talk about a schedule and priorities for the day. In the process, they touch on a dozen different subjects relating to customers and employees.
  • 8:20 Frank Wilson, another subordinate, drops in. He asks a few questions about a personnel problem and then joins in the ongoing discussion, which is straightforward, rapid, and occasionally punctuated with humour.
  • 8:30 Fred Holly, the chair of the firm and Richardson’s boss, stops in and joins in the conversation. He asks about an appointment scheduled for 11 o’clock and brings up a few other topics as well.
  • 8:40 Richardson leaves to get more coffee. Bradshaw, Holly, and Wilson continue their conversation.
  • 8:42 Richardson comes back. A subordinate of a subordinate stops in and says hello. The others leave.
  • 8:43 Bradshaw drops off a report, hands Richardson instructions that go with it, and leaves.
  • 8:45 Joan Swanson, Richardson’s secretary, arrives. They discuss her new apartment and arrangements for a meeting later in the morning.
  • 8:49 Richardson gets a phone call from a subordinate who is returning a call from the day before. They talk primarily about the subject of the report Richardson just received.
  • 8:55 He leaves his office and goes to a regular morning meeting that one of his subordinates runs. About 30 people attend. Richardson reads during the meeting.
  • 9:09 The meeting ends. Richardson stops one of the people there and talks to him briefly.
  • 9:15 He walks over to the office of one of his subordinates, who is corporate counsel. Richardson’s boss, Holly, is there, too. They discuss a phone call the lawyer just received. The three talk about possible responses to the problem. As before, the exchange is quick and includes some humour.
  • 9:30 Richardson goes back to his office for a meeting with the vice chair of another company (a potential customer and supplier). One other person, a liaison to that company and a subordinate’s subordinate, also attends. The discussion is cordial and covers many topics, from the company’s products to U.S. foreign relations.
  • 9:50 The visitor and the subordinate’s subordinate leave. He opens the adjoining door to Bradshaw’s office and asks a question.
  • 9:52 Swanson comes in with five items of business.
  • 9:55 Bradshaw drops in, asks a question about a customer, and then leaves.
  • 9:58 Wilson and one of his people arrive. He gives Richardson a memo and then the three talk about an important legal problem. Wilson doesn’t like a decision that Richardson has tentatively made and urges him to reconsider. The discussion goes back and forth for 20 minutes until they agree on the next action and schedule it for 9 o’clock the next day.
  • 10:35 They leave. Richardson looks over papers on his desk and then picks one up and calls Holly’s secretary regarding the minutes of the last board meeting. He asks her to make a few corrections.
  • 10:41 Swanson comes in with a card for a friend who is sick. Richardson writes a note to go with the card.
  • 10:50 He gets a brief phone call, then goes back to the papers on his desk.
  • 11:03 His boss stops in. Before Richardson and Holly can begin to talk, Richardson gets another call. After the call, he tells Swanson that someone didn’t get a letter he sent and asks her to send another.
  • 11:05 Holly brings up a couple of issues, and then Bradshaw comes in. The three start talking about Jerry Phillips, whose work has become a problem. Bradshaw leads the conversation, telling the others what he has done during the last few days regarding the problem. Richardson and Holly ask questions. After a while, Richardson begins to take notes. The exchange, as before, is rapid and straightforward. They try to define the problem, and they outline possible next steps. Richardson lets the discussion roam away from and back to the topic again and again. Finally, they agree on the next step.
  • Noon Richardson orders lunch for himself and Bradshaw. Bradshaw comes in and goes over a dozen items. Wilson stops by to say that he has already followed up on their earlier conversation.
  • 12:10 A staff person stops by with some calculations Richardson had requested. He thanks her and they have a brief, amicable conversation.
  • 12:20 Lunch arrives. Richardson and Bradshaw eat in the conference room. Over lunch, they pursue business and nonbusiness subjects, laughing often at each other’s humour. They end the lunch talking about a potential major customer.
  • 1:15 Back in Richardson’s office, they continue the discussion about the customer. Bradshaw gets a pad, and they go over in detail a presentation to the customer. Bradshaw leaves.
  • 1:40 Working at his desk, Richardson looks over a new marketing brochure.
  • 1:50 Bradshaw comes in again; he and Richardson go over another dozen details regarding the presentation to the potential customer. Bradshaw leaves.
  • 1:55 Jerry Thomas, another of Richardson’s subordinates, comes in. He has scheduled for the afternoon some key performance appraisals, which he and Richardson will hold in Richardson’s office. They talk briefly about how they will handle each appraisal.
  • 2:00 Fred Jacobs (a subordinate of Thomas) joins them. Thomas runs the meeting. He goes over Jacobs’s bonus for the year and the reason for it. Then the three of them talk about Jacobs’s role in the upcoming year. They generally agree, and Jacobs leaves.
  • 2:30 Jane Kimble comes in. The appraisal follows the same format. Richardson asks a lot of questions and praises Kimble at times. The meeting ends on a friendly note of agreement.
  • 3:00 George Houston comes in; the appraisal format is repeated.
  • 3:30 When Houston leaves, Richardson and Thomas talk briefly about how well they have accomplished their objectives in the meetings. Then they talk briefly about some of Thomas’s other subordinates. Thomas leaves.
  • 3:45 Richardson gets a short phone call. Swanson and Bradshaw come in with a list of requests.
  • 3:50 Richardson receives a call from Jerry Phillips. He gets his notes from the 11 o’clock meeting about Phillips. They go back and forth on the phone talking about lost business, unhappy subordinates, who did what to whom, and what should be done now. It is a long, circular, and sometimes emotional conversation. By the end, Phillips is agreeing with Richardson on the next step and thanking him.
  • 4:55 Bradshaw, Wilson, and Holly all step in. Each is following up on different issues that were discussed earlier in the day. Richardson briefly tells them of his conversation with Phillips. Bradshaw and Holly leave.
  • 5:10 Richardson and Wilson have a light conversation about three or four items.
  • 5:20 Jerry Thomas stops in. He describes a new personnel problem, and the three of them discuss it. More and more humour enters the conversation. They agree on an action to take.
  • 5:30 Richardson begins to pack his briefcase. Five people briefly stop by, one or two at a time.
  • 5:45 He leaves the office.

Brief summary

The behaviour Richardson demonstrates throughout his day is consistent with other studies of managerial behaviour but is hard to reconcile, as Henry Mintzberg has pointed out, with traditional notions of what top managers do. Acting that special way is related to two fundamental dilemmas found in most of their jobs. Figuring out what to do despite uncertainty and an enormous amount of potentially relevant information getting things done through a large and diverse group of people despite having little direct control over most of them. Facing these dilemmas the solution for the managers is the following. They create agendas and build networks.  The networks enable the managers to, directly or indirectly, influence people, who help to implement the agendas. On the surface at least, such behaviour seems particularly unmanagerial. It may seem that the managers are wasting their time. Yet their behaviour is possibly the most important and efficient of all. By using their network channels to get things done the managers are able to save costs and are consequently working more efficient than their managerial counterparts who use list and time schedules.

Key Results of Kotter’s own study on managers

1. They spend most of their time with others.
2. They spend time with many people in addition to their direct subordinates and their bosses.
3. The breadth of topics in their discussions is extremely wide.
4. GMs ask a lot of questions.
5. During conversations, GMs rarely seem to make “big” decisions.
6. Their discussions usually contain a fair amount of joking and often concern topics that are not related to work.
7. In more than a few of these encounters, the issue discussed is relatively unimportant to the business or organization.
8. In these encounters, the executives rarely give orders in a traditional sense.
9. Nevertheless, GMs often attempt to influence others.
10. GMs often react to others’ initiatives; much of the typical GM’s day is unplanned.
11. GMs spend most of their time with others in short, disjointed conversations.
12. They work long hours.

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