Most executives have risen through the ranks from middle management. The work environment and time allocation for executives are quite different from those of middle managers.
Time is impartial and the same for everyone. However, with the same amount of time, different allocation methods can lead to different outcomes.
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One simple criterion for assessing whether someone has successfully transitioned from middle management to an executive role is to look at their time allocation. If a person grows from middle management to an executive but fails to make appropriate adjustments in time allocation, sticking to the habits of their middle management role, they may struggle to create the value expected of an executive and ultimately falter in their executive position.
During the transition from middle management to executive roles, individuals often fall into four major time allocation traps. These are referred to as “traps” because people frequently become deeply entrenched in them without even realizing it. This lack of awareness reflects some “unconscious assumptions.”
Trap 1: Getting Trapped in “Internal Management,” Insufficient Time Allocated to “External Affairs”
The title “executive” or “high-level manager” can be misleading and may give the impression that the transition from middle management to executive roles involves only quantitative changes, such as differences in business scale, budget, or team size. In reality, executives should be “high-level leaders,” and the shift from middle managers to high-level leaders entails not just quantitative but also qualitative changes.
The primary work context for middle managers often leans toward “internal management.” For example, they link the strategic objectives set by senior leadership to key tasks and initiatives within their managed teams, handle personnel assignments, delineate internal roles and responsibilities, assist subordinates in performance planning, and conduct regular checks, assessments, reviews, feedback sessions, and coaching, among other tasks. “Internal management” occupies a significant portion of a middle manager’s time allocation.
As individuals progress from middle management to executive roles, they should retain some involvement in “internal management” but avoid getting trapped in it. Many crucial “external affairs” require the attention of executives. These include proactively engaging with customers, external partners, fellow executives in the industry, industry associations, and government authorities to gather critical information, assess and resolve major conflicts, understanding competitive analysis, market trends, and user feedback, and making timely strategic and tactical adjustments based on these insights, and managing public relations and brand requirements by networking, socializing, and representing the company to attract external resources.
These “external affairs” may not be as rule-based, clear-cut, structured, or predictable as “internal management,” but they constitute high-value contributions for executives. “Internal management” is akin to “building a ship,” but the purpose of building a ship is not to leave it docked in the harbor; “external affairs” involve sensing the winds, gauging the currents, identifying hidden reefs, and helping the ship navigate the challenges of strong winds and rough seas.
Trap 2: Enamored with “Self-Managed Teams,” Insufficient Time Allocated to the “Executive Team”
Executives typically possess strong individual capabilities and often come with their tactical systems. They can stand alone, and there is a greater focus on independence rather than interdependence when they work. Executives are usually quite busy with business trips, inspections, external affairs, etc., and their opportunities to meet with each other may be limited. Meetings within executive teams are often intense and filled with tension, with spirited debates being commonplace. If you use the standards of middle management teams to evaluate executive teams, you’ll find that executive teams are the least team-like among teams.
In sharp contrast, within the self-managed teams of executives, members rely on and support each other, frequently interact, and have higher expectations of harmony. Therefore, executive’s self-managed teams more closely resemble an actual “team.” Executives can allocate resources within their self-managed teams; other team members report to the executive, who easily gains a sense of control. Consequently, the self-managed team becomes an executive’s private domain, and executives can become enamored with their “self-managed teams.”
The question of which is the executive’s “first team” between the “self-managed team” and the “executive team” is a serious one. Undoubtedly, the “executive team” should be the executive’s “first team.” Executives should first be members of the “executive team” and then leaders of their “self-managed teams.” When executives think about issues, they should consider the company as a whole before looking at the specific details.
To treat the “executive team” as the first team, executives need to proactively increase their time investment in the “executive team.” For example, they can prepare proposals for agenda topics before attending executive meetings to facilitate high-quality discussions. During executive meetings, they can actively participate in discussions on significant business decisions rather than staying disengaged. Within the executive team, executives can confidently raise concerns and provide input on major issues without fearing the consequences. In their day-to-day work, executives can consciously establish deep working relationships with other executives, ensuring the smooth flow of critical information and being ready to exchange opinions on significant matters, among other actions.
Trap 3: Obsession with “Tactical Implementation,” Insufficient Time Allocated to “Strategic Management”
Executives who have grown from middle management often have experienced sufficient challenges and possess strong professional capabilities or expertise in certain areas during their middle management careers. “Tactical implementation” can bring middle managers a strong sense of satisfaction and job security.
However, as executives transition from middle management to top management, the requirements for their capabilities change. In addition to the professional skills required in middle management, executives also need “strategic management” capabilities. Developing executive-level “strategic management” skills is not something that can be achieved overnight. Therefore, during the transition from middle management to executive roles, executives may continue to rely on their old “tactical implementation” skills because they are not yet proficient in using the new “strategic management” skills.
In terms of time allocation, executives may be eager to engage in tactical execution alongside their subordinates, enjoying the thrill of “tactical implementation” together. They may not consciously set aside time to step back from the details, look at the big picture, and contemplate strategic directions and path choices.
In such cases, executives are essentially “masking their strategic laziness with tactical diligence,” and to put it bluntly, they are neglecting their duties. Furthermore, when executives compete with their subordinates unconsciously in “tactical implementation,” the ultimate outcome is not “having strong subordinates” but rather “no grass grows under a large tree,” as high-caliber talent is unlikely to stay in such an environment.
Trap 4: Obsession with “Endless Struggle,” Insufficient Time Allocated to “Recovery and Rejuvenation”
When transitioning from middle management to executive roles, individuals often feel overwhelmed by a flood of information, an ever-growing to-do list, continuous meetings, and escalating conflicts. During their time as middle managers, seeking help from superiors when encountering such challenges is considered normal and expected. However, when they become executives, they may frequently find themselves without an obvious source of assistance, leaving them with no way out.
Executives may hesitate to reveal their temporary sense of inadequacy. They fear that if they seek help from the CEO, the CEO may think they are incapable of handling the role. If they consult with other executives, those colleagues might view them as unfit for the position. If their subordinates find out, it might undermine their authority and make them appear weak.
As a result, many newly appointed executives resort to a simple yet seemingly effective approach: working harder and investing more time. They go from the previous 9-9-6 schedule to a 24/7 approach. They abandon the idea of work-life balance and accept that life is work, and work is life. They let go of the illusion of “getting fully prepared before taking on the role” and plunge into their roles, putting their body and mind to the test.
Many new executives find, after a year or so in their roles, that their health indicators are deteriorating, and some even experience mild depression. What was supposed to be a marathon has turned into a series of sprints, with one sprint following another. This constant “endless struggle” creates an illusion that success is determined by physical and mental stamina.
In reality, executives need time to detach from their daily work. The duration of this detachment is not the key; the quality of detachment is crucial. This period of detachment can significantly contribute to recovery and rejuvenation.
There are various methods of detachment. For instance, after completing a segment of work, you can give yourself a mental cue. Imagine there is a drawer where you put all your unfinished tasks, lock it, and tell yourself that you will come back to it later. Once detached, you can use your free time in your own way—spend time with family, have dinner with friends, engage in sports, or simply relax. If you feel the need to make it productive, read a book, take online courses, or participate in offline training. The world is evolving rapidly, and you need to keep learning to recover and rejuvenate, even in your high-level position.
These are the four common traps executives may fall into when it comes to time allocation during their transition from middle management to executive roles. Time allocation reflects the differences in working styles between executives and middle managers. For instance, executives pay more attention to external factors, while middle managers tend to focus on internal management. Executives emphasize the big picture, while middle managers concentrate on the details. Executives prioritize strategy, whereas middle managers prioritize tactics.
You may argue that these insights are straightforward and common knowledge. However, if you genuinely observe how executives allocate their time, you will be surprised to find that these supposed common-sense principles often remain theoretical and are not always put into practice.
I wish those who have already fallen into the above traps a swift return to the right path and hope that those who are unknowingly approaching these traps will proceed with caution. In the words of Charlie Chaplin, “Time is a great author that will give you the perfect answer.”
Your perfect answer will be determined by how you allocate your time!